Garment workers in Pakistan continue to endure extreme hardship during the pandemic
Khalid Mahmood, the Regional Urgent Appeals Coordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign, based in Lahore, Pakistan and Director of the Labour Education Foundation, sheds light on the effect of the pandemic on garment workers.
Over a year has passed since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis and garment workers are still facing an unrelenting combination of job loss, unpaid wages, unsafe conditions, and harassment at work.
Unfair working practices
Even before the pandemic, wages in the industry were set at poverty levels. Garment workers in Pakistan often earn less than the legal minimum wage (the equivalent of £79 per month for unskilled workers). Women workers are routinely paid less than men for work of equal value or are employed in roles with lower piece rates than male colleagues. These inadequate wages meant that most workers had no savings when the Covid-19 crisis hit.
Only one garment factory out of hundreds in Faisalabad in Pakistan, paid workers their full wages during the 2020 lockdown. Even then, workers relied on support from extended family, friends, and charitable organisations. After lockdown, almost all factories dismissed half of their workers, whilst others only worked on alternative days, earning half their salary. Despite registering with the government’s support programme, many did not get any provisions. Factories justified the job losses, saying they could no longer sustain the full workforce after a reduction of orders from global brands.
Poor working conditions
In addition to unpaid wages and job loss, workers highlighted that, even before the pandemic, occupational health and safety (OSH) measures were non-existent in smaller factories. In large factories, despite the presence of fire extinguishers and emergency exit doors, there was not enough training for workers on safety measures.
During the pandemic, workers have been required to wear masks. However, from our observations, only two factories out of 30 provided masks and sanitizer for workers, meaning that the majority of workers were left out of pocket. The same two factories were the only ones that checked workers’ temperatures and installed sanitation facilities at the gate. These safety measures were a double-edged sword: if workers had a fever, they were sent home without pay.
Verbal abuse and harassment have also increased during the pandemic as job security has eroded. Mass lay-offs, in combination with workers facing extreme financial difficulties during the lockdowns, have resulted in a growing fear of job losses. Workers who are desperate to stay employed are forced to endure poor treatment from supervisors and management.
Abuse against female workers
Women workers report that gender-based harassment is common in almost all the factories. They are vulnerable to harassment from male colleagues and management, as well as unwanted attention on their journeys home, especially at night. Supervisors often use abusive language, and target women workers if they refuse their offers of ‘friendship’.
There is no training to combat harassment and discrimination, and women workers cannot see any solutions. Complaining is seen as counterproductive, as management will often dismiss the complainant along with the perpetrator, saying that she must have done something wrong to invite this kind of behaviour.
Workers should not have to pay for the pandemic, but that is exactly what is happening. Over the last year, workers have suffered huge losses in the form of severance theft and unpaid wages. This has forced them to take out loans and sell household items to cover the costs of food. Whilst workers face destitution, the global brands which profit from their labour continue to profit.
As the situation has deteriorated during the Covid-19 crisis, workers are raising their voices to claim their human rights. The right for workers to join a trade union and have freedom of association is under attack. In many factories there are no effective unions to bargain with employers, and this means that workers have little hope of improving their working conditions.
Taking action for the future
Over 230 trade unions and labour rights organisations are echoing workers’ demands and are calling on brands and employers to commit to a negotiated and legally binding agreement on wages, severance and basic labour rights. Brands and employers have turned their backs on workers during the pandemic, and we must make sure this can never happen again.
To find out more and join the #PayYourWorkers campaign, sign the petition online and visit the Pay Your Workers website.