Millions face insecurity as lockdowns continue

Millions face insecurity as lockdowns continue
As lockdown continues in Pakistan, approximately 2 million people in Karachi have lost their earnings and are facing serious financial challenges as many industries, offices and markets have remained closed since March 23.

Thousands of daily wagers working in garment factories, hosiery and textile industries have not received their wages for the months of March and April. Owners stopped paying their workers right after the closure of industries was announced. Millions of workers are worried about their survival in this lockdown and are wondering how they will they feed their families in the month of Ramazan.

Zubair Ali, 19, told The Friday Times that he had been working in Artistic Milliners, a garment factory located in Korangi industrial area, in the washing department for the last five months. He was receiving a monthly salary of Rs17,000. He said no safety mechanism was offered to workers in this lockdown. “I came from Larkana and now live in Bilal Colony in a small house on rent. I don’t have anything survive,” he added.

He said he had received a phone call from his boss who asked him to come to the factory and collect the salary. “When I reached, they gave me the salary and collected the factory ID card from me and informed that the factory was now closed and my services were no longer needed,” he said. “At least 300 people have been fired only from my department of the factory,” he said.

He added that his boss told him that the workers would be called again to rejoin after six months or a year. “I am worried because I don’t know how we will survive and feed our families in this time,” he said.

‘Precarious future’

A recent study conducted by Mazdoor Akath, a research-based labour organisation in Lahore, says that textile workers are 45 percent of the total industrial workers in Pakistan and 85 percent of them are in the informal sector. At least over 1 million people have lost their jobs due to lockdown, the report says. This crisis has had a big toll on women workers in this sector, as they were already the most vulnerable in this system.

Mukhtar Azeem and Dur-e-Shehwar, who conducted the study for Mazdoor Akath, say that while ordering the lockdown, the Sindh government had issued a notification to Employers’ Federation of Pakistan under Emergency Relief Ordinance on April 8, asking employers to pay workers their wages for the next three months.

However, the reply of the Employers’ Federation of Pakistan (Sindh) was simple: “businesses run for profits and it is a fundamental right of employers to decide on operating mills and to hire and fire the labour.”

The Ordinance was also out rightly rejected by SITE Association of Industry (SAI). Further, employers proposed that workers should be paid from the Workers Welfare Fund (WWF) and the Sindh Employees Social Security Institution, and not from their own profits.

The study revealed that the federal and the Punjab governments only gave verbal statements to assure “no lay-offs” without any legal backing, unlike Sindh. Industries in the Punjab, in fact, demanded a postponement of the lockdown so that they could complete orders and keep the factories running and the profits flowing despite the dangers posed by the Coronavirus.

Despite the non-essential nature of the textile industry, it has won permission to remain open. Meanwhile, many units have shut down, many workers have been laid off or fired and many have only been paid partially. Businesses are using the opportunity to negotiate new terms with the government and drastically restructure their production lines, leaving the future of workers very precarious, the report said.

“I was working as a machine operator for the last two decades in a denim factory,” said Afsarud Din, 46, in a conversation with The Friday Times. “This factory prepared branded garments for exports and local level garments on a large scale,” he added.

Asfarud Din said over 150 workers were fired by the factory management from its Korangi No. 6 factory. “The management says that they are facing financial crises due to the prolonged lockdown.”

“Capitalists are united and are following uniform policies - such as firing workers on probation and paying with 35 percent deductions. Larger companies have been particularly harsh in their policies whereas smaller groups and brands are more concerned about their labour,” he said.

“It is hard to survive in this difficult situation without any work,” he said. “A welfare organisation providing ration bags every few days is not enough for survival.”

The GSP+ report presented to the European Union (EU) by Pakistan Workers Federation (PWF), Human Rights Watch report on textile workers, National Trade Union Federation (NTUF)’s research on the textile industry in Karachi and Faisalabad, some important reports by Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research (PILER) and a few academic writings, show that the overall situation of working conditions in the textile sector are abysmal.

A report by National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) indicated that over 80 percent of the factories are not registered. Most workers are hired under the contract system without issuing them appointment letters. Almost 75 percent of workers engaged in the textile, garment and hosiery industries are in fact the informal sector of Global Value Chain (GVC).

Workers also face long working hours, lack of toilet facilities and safe drinking water. Women in the garment industry do not have separate canteens and no child care or maternity leaves. There is huge discrimination in wages and promotion policy for female workers. Only four percent workers are unionised and 93 percent are receiving less than the minimum wage fixed by the provincial governments.

Zehra Khan, general secretary of the Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), told The Friday Times that the situation was deteriorating every day. “The federal and provincial governments don’t have any plan for the workers,” she said.

She said many workers had not received their salaries for March and don’t know when or if they would get their April salary. “There is no job security and many factories are open but they are not taking any safety measures,” she said.

Abdul Basit, 35, said that he had been working in the stitching department of Artistic Milliner garment factory for the last five years and was earning Rs17,000 rupees per month. As the lockdown started, the owner ordered all workers to return to work after 15 days. “But now the government has extended the lockdown again,” said.

“I received a call from the factory to collect the salary for March on April 5,” he said. But when he reached the factory, he was given his salary and informed that the unit was being shut down completely.

Basit said this factory has 15 major units and five have been immediate closed for the lockdown. Over 4,000 employees have been fired and no extra salaries were given to employees who lost their jobs, he added.

National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) Secretary General Nasir Mansoor told The Friday Times that over 2 million people had lost their jobs from all industrial zones only in Karachi. “About 0.4 million workers have lost their jobs in Faisalabad. Most of them were working in power looms,” he said.

He added that the Sindh government had not provided rations to workers, daily wagers and industrial workers during this prolonged lockdown. “The provincial government has even failed to implement its announcement to provide salaries to workers,” he said.

The trade union leader said that in Europe, United States, Canada, UK and other developed countries were completely closed due to the pandemic but Pakistani industries were still sending their garments and other products.

“The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has offered lockdown loans on three to five percent markup rate to the private sector for payment of salaries to their workers, but the industrialists seems reluctant to avail this facility,” Nasir said. “Now employees are being fired but the government is not doing anything to save jobs. Workers are on the roads and are protesting for payment of their wages,” he said.

Criticising the Sindh government, Nasir Mansoor said no one was following the provincial government’s SOPs in factories and markets. “Factories’ vehicles are overloaded with workers and no one cares about social distancing,” the trade unionist added. “If the government will not do anything to protect the jobs of industrial workers, daily wagers and people of other sectors, the situation would become more complicated,” Mansoor said.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5