Last week, Karachi police allegedly shot hundreds of unarmed garment workers protesting outside a denim factory for global fashion brands.
Nasir Mansoor of the National Federation of Trade Unions, Nasir Mansoor of the National Federation of Trade Unions, Nasir Mansoor, clothing workers such as Abdul Basit, 35, were accused of clubbing by police outside a factory that would have laid off more than 15,000 workers. He said that some workers were dismissed without written notice.
The workers chanted slogans demanding better conditions and better wages when the police arrived. Many closers and job losses and the suspension of the normal vacation bonus, which allows rural migrants to return home before the end of Ramadan Eid holidays, left many protesters in despair.
Basit, 35, who works at the factory where the protests took place, told the Guardian that he has not been paid since March. “We are precarious workers and we can be laid off at any time,” he said.
Like many workers, Basit does not have a direct contract with the factory, which makes him vulnerable. He helps support a family of seven with his salary of 17,500 rupees (£ 89) a month, but that Eid he couldn’t celebrate with them in his hometown Larkana, a six-hour drive away. “The cost of transportation has gone up and I live day to day,” said Basit.
Thousands of garment workers across Pakistan are struggling against forced layoffs and months of unpaid wages, as the worsening economic crisis caused by Covid-19 affects workers’ ability to support their families in the fifth most populous country in the world. The textile and clothing industry is Pakistan’s second largest employer after agriculture. Almost 9% of Pakistan’s GDP – and almost 70% of the country’s exports – come from industry.
“Most textile factory owners are using the coronavirus crisis to fire workers,” said activist Farooq Tariq. “The crisis was already underway, but the pandemic is only accelerating it.”
In March, Prime Minister Imran Khan urged companies not to fire workers during the lockout, noting that millions of workers are at higher risk of starvation than Covid-19. Sindh province has issued guidelines banning the dismissal of workers and creating an emergency fund for workers.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on textiles exports, which are mainly shipped to the United States, China, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Factory production has slowed considerably across the country, with global fashion brands reducing or removing orders. This has precipitated a devastating crisis for Pakistani suppliers, who are passing the impact on to those who are least able to bear it: workers living on low wages, activists say.
Hundreds of garment workers in Lahore are reported to have held a strike last week over unpaid wages at several factories, and activists say factory owners treat workers as consumables. Human Rights Watch censored Pakistan’s garment factories last year for widespread labor violations, including failing to pay minimum wages, imposing unpaid overtime, and failing to provide adequate medical leave or breaks workers.
Mansoor said it had been easy for factories to implement forced layoffs because 85% of workers had no contracts: “Factories simply say to the doorman,” Don’t let this person in “and c ‘so they know they are fired’ he said. Few workers have the resources to prosecute cases before the labor courts.
“They used to commit these violations before, but it was clandestine,” said Tariq. “The violations of labor law were exposed more openly during this crisis.”