Battered But Not Broken: The Struggle of Karachi’s Workers

Fawad Hasan describes the horrifying ordeal of workers fighting for their rights

Battered But Not Broken: The Struggle of Karachi’s Workers
"Am I still alive or have they killed me already?” wondered Mohib Azad, barely breathing inside a four-by-four cell operated by law enforcement agencies somewhere in Sindh. His eyes were blindfolded and his legs were experiencing excruciating pain because the abductors made him stand for many days and beat his shins with bamboo sticks every time he gave up and tried to sit down. He didn’t remember when was the last time he was allowed to sleep after being picked up on September 4, 2020.

Lawyer and activist Mohib, associated with Sindh Renaissance Mazdoor Federation, knew that he would be punished like this someday when he started taking up the cases of missing persons in Sindh, mostly industrial workers and farmers of his village. In April and June of 2020, he filed many complaints and applications to the high court and the Supreme Court against powerful industrialists of Karachi and Hyderabad. Time to time, he was threatened that he would have to “pay soon for crossing the line.”

Millions of workers in Karachi toil in factories located in the Korangi Industrial area, producing jeans, shirts and other fast fashion goods for international markets. Their hard work contributes to massive exports from the country. From last July to this March, the value of exports in the textile sector reached up to $11.35bn.

While factories like Artistic Milliners, Denim Clothing Company, and others in Karachi keep building one unit after another through profits, their workers allege that they have to fight for the minimum wage, that too without a bonus, paid leaves, medical insurance and job security, which is in clear violation of International Labour Organization’s conventions that Pakistan has signed and ratified.

According to Sindh Terms of Employment Standing Orders Act 2015, every worker should be given an appointment letter when he is hired. However, Mohib says only a few of the many workers in these factories are given the letter so they cannot prove their employment legally.

“After the Covid-19 crisis in Karachi, various factories manufacturing clothes for international brands such as H&M, Zara, Mango, and Denim fired their workers and refused to clear the amount they were owed. These workers who produce pricy fast fashion products for the West are not recognized as the bona fide employees of the companies. Even for the minimum wage they have to struggle hard and go on strikes at times. Whenever they try to raise their voices against the injustice and non-compliance of labour laws, the factory management threatens them of dire consequences,” Mohib says.

But how do the factory owners get away with violation of labour rights and contain the workers’ rage? “Almost every big factory in Karachi now has a retired captain or colonel as their administrator who often threatens the workers that they will disappear if they go on strike for their just demands. The officials from the labor department are in their pockets too,” he tells The Friday Times.
Millions of workers in Karachi toil in factories located in Korangi Industrial area, producing jeans, shirts and other fast fashion goods for international markets

His abductors made him sit and cover his face by a piece of cloth stinking of phenyl during interrogation. “When I told them that I can’t breathe, they said this is why we have covered your face with it so that you cannot breathe. I was accused of bringing a bad name to the country. They alleged that I wanted to divide the people on ethnic lines but I told them that for me a worker’s ethnicity has nothing to do with it and I’d keep raising my voice for them,” Mohib said.

They told him that his days are numbered. “They said to me ‘hey lawyer, what will happen to you now? Your days are gone.’ And I replied that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I side with the oppressed so that they remember me.”

Mohib was released after 37 days with a clear warning: “We know you have three little daughters. Don’t cross the line again.”

Undeterred and fearless, Mohib is on the ground again to fight for the industrial workers lest they think they are alone.

Mohib was not the only activist who was picked up last year after their federation started taking up the cases of industrial workers. Sarang Joyo, a researcher and activist, was also picked up in August.

Speaking to The Friday Times, Sarang said their labour federation had been working on an awareness campaign to educate the workers about their rights. In February last year, Sindh Renaissance Mazdoor Federation distributed pamphlets in Sindhi and Urdu language mentioning every law and the clauses on the labour rights.

“It works like a mafia. The factories save a lot of money by exploiting their workers and to contain their uprising, they spend huge amounts on local goons and law enforcers are used to pick people up. There is a clear nexus,” Sarang says.

During his detention, Sarang was also questioned why he was raising his voice for workers. “I told them that my father and grandfathers were also workers. And I took it as my duty to side with the oppressed but they kept accusing me of taking money from other countries and blackmailing the industrialists. I told them that they can hang me if they manage to prove these allegations.”

Sarang further said he was not allowed to sleep a wink during his seven-day detention and was continuously tortured physically and mentally. “They would tell me that my wife would be raped, and that my daughter has been killed after severe torture. Before releasing me, they even put a pistol on my hand and said now we are going to kill you in an encounter,” Sarang recounts.

Sarang is still struggling for the industrial workers and said that his federation is currently fighting five cases in labour courts.

In April this year, Yaseen Jhullan, another labour activist with the said organization, was picked up with two other workers. “We had given a call for a protest against the Denim Clothing Company but before we could start it, police took me, Nadeem and Ali Raza into custody. The police accused us of working against Pakistan’s economy and wanting the textile industry to move to either India or Bangladesh. We know very well which elements were behind fabricating these charges against us,” says Yaseen.

Nadeem and Ali Raza were fired from their job without any notice only for demanding their rights and their cases are still pending at the labour courts, Yaseen said.

Sarang and Yaseen are of the opinion that the struggle is long but worth waging. Many workers who barely get the minimum wage also get threatened, tortured and silenced by factory management if they demand their due rights but wouldn’t go public fearing for their life and of their family, they said.

“They will keep picking people up, but we will keep fighting for their rights until every factory owner treats their workers with dignity and adheres to the national and international laws,” said Yaseen.