As Eid approached, Owais became increasingly worried. A garment cutter at Denim Clothing Company in Karachi, Pakistan, where he and thousands of others make and supply jeans to fast-fashion brands such as H&M, he was beginning to feel as if the Eid bonus would never come. Like many other garment workers, Owais wanted to buy a ticket home to spend the Eid holidays with his family, but without the bonus he couldn’t afford to cover the cost of the ticket. There were rumors going around that Denim Clothing was laying off workers in other units in order to avoid paying them. It was a squarely illegal move: In March, a mere three months earlier, the provincial government had barred employers from firing anyone during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Fearful that they might not get their bonuses, Owais and other workers at Denim Clothing Unit 1 abandoned their work stations and gathered near the factory gates to protest. Management officials, most likely tipped off by a floor manager, locked the gates of the factory before anyone could make it outside. Hundreds of men and women, trapped against the gates, pushed against each other, some of them shouting, “Bonus do! Bonus do!” or “Give us our bonus!” Owais filmed the protest and uploaded the video to Facebook. Eventually, officials approached the crowd with a piece of paper allegedly promising to pay salaries and bonuses by the next day. Owais and the other workers agreed to stop protesting, and went back to work.

 But the next morning, the commuter vans that usually carried Owais and his colleagues to the factory were nowhere to be seen. Undeterred, Owais joined his co-workers and headed to the factory on foot, only to find that the gates of their unit were locked and their entry cards no longer worked. In the blistering May heat, they stood outside and began to protest. As the chanting swelled through the crowd of hundreds, management officials appeared, along with the Station House Officer. Armed with guns, they fired into the crowd. At least one worker was severely injured, and a car caught on fire.

“I have never seen anything like what I witnessed outside the factory today,” Owais said in a video he also posted to Facebook. “The police just stood there with the management and watched us run for our lives.”

The following day, on May 20, Denim Clothing filed a case against eight hundred of its workers, an effort to quash any further protests. Soon after Eid, seven workers were charged under the national Anti-Terrorism Act and arrested. They were released only after trade unionists intervened on their behalf. Knowing that news of the firing had already reached social media, Denim Clothing agreed to pay the workers their bonuses in a bid to keep the situation from getting further out of hand.

 

*

 

For garment suppliers in Pakistan, the fast-fashion industry has always been governed by one hard rule: orders from overseas must be fulfilled as efficiently as possible. This rule is the reason most garment workers in Pakistan are not permanent employees of the factories where they work. Ninety percent of Pakistan’s garment workers are employed under “the contract system,” which keeps labor cheap and final prices down. It is also a precarious arrangement that ensures they have no claim to social security, sick leave, or medical benefits, and that they are routinely paid less than minimum wage for the work they do. Despite its name, there is no written contract or any other documentation workers might take to labor court, in the “contract system.”

Only a global pandemic revealed the length of the chain of exploitation the industry relies on. As international brands canceled orders and failed to pay suppliers, the system seized, and those at the very bottom of the supply chain absorbed the shock of its sudden arrest. Virtually overnight, contract workers found themselves without work. Home-based workers—who embroider, stitch, crop, and dye garments from their residences—were left waiting for subcontractors to pay for completed orders.

By May, garment workers had rallied together to demand their salaries be paid and their contracts reinstated. Many of these protests took place outside the factories, in remote industrial areas such as Korangi and SITE. Some garment workers posted videos of protests and negotiations with factory managers on social media, hoping to galvanize support for their organizing. These posts, detailing what happens behind the factory gates, have been the only way to glean an accurate picture of how suppliers for international brands have responded to the economic crisis of the pandemic.

Choosing to post this material on social media comes with risk. In Faisalabad, an industrial city in northeast Punjab, Mohammad Hanif was one of 2,500 workers who lost his job after posting about the workers’ protests on Facebook. He was arrested under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, a cybercrime law which regulates and censors online content, for tarnishing the reputation of the mill and uploading “objectionable” content on social media websites. Hanif’s family chose to settle the matter out of court, but the charges underscore the heightened surveillance that workers face in both online and offline spaces.

In a series of pictures uploaded in March, two hundred workers arrive at Lucky Textile Mill and are told to stamp their thumbprint onto a letter written in English. Most of them think nothing of it until the last stamp has been collected. Then the manager tells them to go home. It is only then they realize they have just signed their own resignation letters: each paper says the signatory can no longer come into work because of a “domestic problem.”

“We have given Lucky ten, twenty years of our lives,” a woman says, her voice hoarse with disbelief as she is filmed outside the factory gate. “But Lucky has given us not even a crumb of respect in return.”

In June, Kassim Garments, a supplier for German brand Tom Tailor, dismissed thirty-five of its workers. When the workers organized a protest, factory guards fired into the crowd. A video of the protest shows injured workers lying on the road as the guards try to break up the crowd. In a picture taken by a worker, a factory guard aims a gun straight at the camera. In another, a protestor indicates the injuries he sustained at the back of his neck, the collar of his shirt soaked with blood. A final video shows two of the injured protestors lying in the back of a rickshaw before they are taken to the hospital.

In July, an anonymous social media account posted videos of workers protesting against the withholding of their salaries. The account claims that the factory is owned by Artistic Garments, which boasts on its website that it works with “all leading brands.” The video is shaky, taken by someone who doesn’t want to be caught by the floor manager. It pans the factory floor, taking in the men and women who are looking at one another and waiting for someone to begin. Someone picks up a metal spool and clangs it against the table. One by one, each worker follows suit.

“We are protesting today against the non-payment of our salaries,” a voice says into the camera.

The sound of the metal hitting the table reverberates throughout the factory. Later, the workers leave their stations and crowd the floor. They try to bargain with the administration, which threatens to call the Rangers, a paramilitary unit deployed in Karachi to maintain the security of the city. Alarmed by the growing number of protesting workers, the administration declares the factory is closed and begins to push everyone out of the gates. The video cuts off.

In a second video, a worker stands outside one of the gates, filming the building and parking lot. “They have gone,” he says, referring to the factory managers. “They would rather leave than face us.”

 

*

 

This exploitation has roots that run deeper than the COVID-19 crisis. In 2012, the Ali Enterprises garments factory in Baldia Town, Karachi was set on fire and two hundred and sixty-four garment workers burned to death. Surviving workers have reported that management officials attempted to save the merchandise before trying to rescue workers trapped inside the burning building. The factory produced garments for Kik Textillien, a German textile brand. Just three weeks before the fire, an Italian inspection company, RINA, confirmed that the factory complied with all the required fire, safety and labor laws. The mother of a boy who died in the fire told reporters that factory managers had told her son to tell any “foreigners [who] come to visit” that his wages were 30 percent higher than what they actually were, or risk losing his job.

The victim’s families waited for more than a year for the factory owners, the auditing company, and the textile brand to be held accountable. Eventually, with the help of the National Trade Union Federation, they formed their own association and managed to bring the Baldia Town incident the international attention it needed to push the case forward. The NTUF—which is affiliated with 123 trade unions in Pakistan and is the most left-leaning out of the twelve national labor federations—organized rallies and press conferences, demanding that the victims’ families receive compensation and a fair trial. After four years of campaigning, an agreement was finally reached in September 2016, and Kik Textillien agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families.

Eight years later, not much has changed. Despite the public outrage following the Baldia Town factory fire, the health and safety conditions in factories remain abysmal. In October of this year,  six workers suffocated to death in a chemical tank at a garment factory in Karachi.

Garment workers protest in factories across the city of Karachi, Pakistan. Image credits: Still from video by @gooby4ever.

Pakistan is a member of the International Labour Organization and has ratified its labor standards, including a convention that protects freedom of association for workers and another that protects the right to organize and to bargain collectively. Pakistan is also among the 189 signatories of the Convention on the Elimination of All Types of Discrimination Against Women, which codifies women’s rights to a workplace free of sexual harassment and governments’ responsibility for ensuring safe working environments for them. Nevertheless, provincial labor laws in Pakistan continuously fall short of these international obligations, and labor inspections in factories are notoriously rare. “The sheer amount of money that textile industrialists make off exports means they also have enough political clout to ensure labor inspections are not carried out with any regularity,” says Nasir Mansoor, the general secretary of the NTUF. 

According to Mansoor, increasingly hostile working conditions have lately pushed workers to organize by themselves. “Ex-army officials are taking up administrative posts in factories, and any worker who steps out of line is dealt with harshly,” he says. Meanwhile, inflation means that even the minimum wage can’t keep up with a worker’s living costs, and most workers usually earn 20 percent less than that. Under these conditions, factories expect the pressures to push workers to organize and go to great lengths to prevent this from happening. “In fact, they will register fake unions to prevent any real worker empowerment within the factory,” Mansoor says. “This is the state of garment workers in the Global South.”

Their state was only made worse by the pandemic. As workers have started to organize in ever greater numbers this year, the NTUF has been supporting protests, appealing to the Sindh Labour Department when workers are beaten or jailed, and distributing food to those who haven’t been paid for the better part of the year. Workers are not just fighting against abusive factories and a government that fails to ensure their protection; they are fighting the industry’s leading brands, and all of the power they represent. Mansoor emphasizes that fast-fashion brands such as H&M are responsible for creating the circumstances that have led to the conditions garment workers now face. Instead of accepting responsibility, brands have shifted the blame onto suppliers. In an interview for the October issue of British Vogue, Helena Helmersson, the new CEO of H&M, highlighted changes the company initiated to ensure greater transparency in its supply chain—and then immediately went on to claim that H&M cannot control how much its suppliers pay their workers because it is the suppliers, not H&M, who employ them.

“The fast-fashion industry has shaped the world we live in today, where the labor hired to make clothes is more expendable than a four-dollar t-shirt. It is responsible for more violence than we can ever imagine,” Mansoor says. “Industrialists have a feudalistic mindset; they treat workers like property. Garment workers desperately need more representation so that factories, the state, and the brands they make clothes for are forced to acknowledge their humanity. They need unions so that they can bargain directly with these institutions.”

It is, he knows, an uphill battle.  “Change takes time,” Mansoor says, “It is not so easy to perceive. Every day those who fight for labor rights work towards change, and a little bit changes every day as we chip away at the system. And then, one day, something will finally happen: a factory will pay workers their salaries after a protest, or workers will successfully establish a union. These victories may seem small, but we need to believe in the strength of what is being built up brick by brick.”

 

*

 

It is an October evening and a faint chill hangs in the air. At a workers’ convention in Sharafi Goth, most of the hall is filled with men, garment workers from the surrounding factories who, like Rukhsana, have come here straight after work. She is grateful to find a few other women and sits with them, slapping away the mosquitos that appear every year at the first sign of winter.

Rukhsana is a checker at one of the factories in Korangi Industrial Area, just a few minutes away from Sharafi Goth. Today she has agreed to give a speech at this convention. She fishes around in her purse for her notes and reviews them as the convention begins. She notes that she is the only woman speaking today. When it is her turn, Rukhsana stands up and makes her way to the stage. She clears her throat a little nervously.

“I have come today to speak on behalf of my sisters. Every day we go to work and work as hard as men—some would say we work even harder—but we are still not paid the same wage. When we tell the supervisors that we need to take a day off or go home early, they start to humiliate us. Every woman deserves to work with dignity and we will fight for our right to dignity.”

Ambreen sits in the crowd, listening to Rukhsana speak. She and her husband have been meaning to attend a workers’ convention for some time now. Today they were lucky that the convention was so close to the factory they work at. Her younger daughter begged her for permission to come along, but Ambreen had first wanted to see what the environment was like at these worker’s gatherings. As Rukhsana thanks the crowd, workers chant and clap together, and Ambreen is glad that she came today. She thinks about how her younger daughter would have chanted and clapped alongside them. Next time, she thinks to herself, I’ll bring her with me.

 

*

 

Eleven years ago, Zehra Akbar Khan, now the general secretary of the national Home-Based Women Workers’ Federation, set off in search of the women who form a strand of the supply chain that has long been invisible to the public eye. She found thousands of women who worked twelve-hour shifts without ever setting foot inside a factory. Instead, the environment of the factory extended itself into their homes, as the contractors who gave them orders paid them a pittance for the work they did. She approached Saira Feroze, a home-based worker who offered her house as a space where workers could come together and speak about the issues they faced.

“Many of us were grateful towards the contractors for giving us work and coming to our houses to give us orders. We used to pity them, saying, ‘Look, they come from so far away in the heat just to give us work,’” says Saira. The other workers snort with laughter at their past naiveté.

Up until two years ago, when the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act extended state protection to these workers, women who sewed zippers onto pockets were paid a paltry PKR 80 (50 cents USD) for a thousand zippers. Many of these women had no idea that the garments they made were being shipped off to other parts of the world.

“It is only when we sat down together and compared rates that we realized we are wasting our pity,” Saira says. “We did our research. Some of us even went to the bazaars and malls where our work is sold. When we realized how little we were getting, we knew that we had to do something.”

They formed the Home-Based Women Workers’ Federation, or HBWWF, a collective dedicated to fighting for the rights of home-based workers. Today, there are nearly four thousand members of the Federation in Sindh province alone. The federation has established several cooperatives for garment and bangle workers in Sindh, through which home-based workers come to meet union representatives who help them bargain for better rates. HBWWF also organizes study circles and provides skills and capacity-based training.

But their biggest victory so far has been organizing the campaign that helped pass the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act, which recognizes home-based workers in Sindh as official laborers. According to the 2018 law, every registered home-based worker is entitled to social, medical, and maternity benefits. The passage of this law is a testament to the power of the Federation.

 “Now we fight with the contractors for a fair rate. When a contractor hears that we are part of the federation, he doesn’t try to haggle too much with us,” says Annie, who does zardozi work, a type of embroidery that requires immense skill and patience.

“I’ve grown up here with these women,” says eighteen-year-old Arooj, one of the youngest members of the Federation. “My mother used to come to the study circles. She would bring me when I was just a child.”

“We made sure she got an early start!” Khalida winks at Arooj, making her laugh. 

None of the women could have predicted the hardship the pandemic would create. “When the lockdown happened, the contractors simply stopped showing up,” Naghma says, shaking her head. “Many home-based workers haven’t even been paid for the orders they completed before the lockdown started.”

“I’ve had to take my children out of school. I couldn’t afford to pay the fees,” says Rani, who has recently had to take up a factory job in order to make ends meet.

Earlier this year, the federation focused on distributing food to as many women as possible while its members sat at home without work. Lately, its members have begun work again—only this time, it is work the state was meant to do. In November, after waiting for two years for the government to implement the 2018 law, the women of the federation have decided to begin the daunting process of registering their thousands-strong membership. Without those registrations, women can’t get the benefits to which the law entitles them. Due to the two-year delay, home-based workers haven’t been able to receive any benefits from the government during the pandemic.

According to many members, the women’s own view of their work poses a big challenge. “Even though we work from morning till night, and many of us have worked since we were very young, nobody thinks of us as workers. This is why, when we encourage women to join our federation, a lot of them say they aren’t doing any valuable work. They say they are just doing this to keep their children in school or to help their husbands out a little,” says Saira. “But if we don’t believe that what we do is important, then how will we fight for our rights?”

For some of the federation’s newest members, the fight for their worth begins at home. “Many husbands or brothers discourage women from joining the federation. They disapprove of our activities and say we are wasting their time. But a lot of our members don’t care if their husbands approve or not; they participate regardless,” says Khalida, who has been a member of the federation since its inception.

Being part of the federation offers a sense of community. “It’s not just about getting more work or better rates. Before, we were isolated. Many of us rarely left our homes. Now we know what we are capable of. We even come to each other with our problems. If someone has a personal issue then we discuss it openly and offer advice. Isn’t that right?”  Khalida grins at the woman sitting next to her, who nods her head in agreement.

“I have been a home-based worker since I was six years old. Never could I have imagined that we can create something like this. Being part of our federation has taught me that by ourselves we are nothing,” says Saira. The rest of the women look at her as she extends her hand and splays her fingers out as far as possible. “But when we come together, we can change everything. We are the world.”

She brings her fingers in towards each other and closes her hand into a fist.

Amna Chaudhry

Amna Chaudhry is a freelance journalist and activist currently based in Karachi, Pakistan. She has an MA in South Asia Studies from SOAS.

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