Alongside wrangling with broader economic challenges, the PTI government has vowed to solve the textile sector’s crisis. Doing so is undoubtedly important, given that textiles are Pakistan’s largest export and the sector provides around 40 per cent of all industrial employment in the country. Yet, the prevalent thinking on the textiles sector remains elite-led and export-driven whereby continuing to neglect the plight of millions of people who toil to produce cotton and finished textile products.
The new chairman of the Taskforce on Textiles recently reiterated the PTI government’s resolve to reduce the cost of production, address their energy needs, help improve productivity, reduce the cost of production, maximise value addition and upgrade the textiles supply chain. Encouraged by these plans, textile mill owners had also announced plans to invest $1 billion in new value-added textile projects to boost exports.
Ideally, whoever plans to reform the textile sector should pay attention to the entire supply chain involved in the production of textiles, not just enabling textile and garment factories to increase production. However, adopting such a comprehensive approach would mean turning attention towards the plight of poor farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural labourers involved in producing raw cotton. It would also mean paying attention to the concerns of the weavers, the dyers, and the makers of garment accessories. Focusing on the textile supply chain in its entirety would in turn require a rethink of how our agrarian sector is organised, and how the informal sector operates in our country.
Reforming the entire supply chain of the textile sector remains a tall order, given that our policymakers and textile mill owners are not even able to address the plight of their own garment workers.
Labour rights abuses in the textile sector are rampant. A recently-released Human Rights Watch report titled ‘No room to bargain: Unfair and abusive labour practices in Pakistan’ highlights varied labour violations in Pakistani garment factories. Many factories do not pay minimum wages and pensions, offer dismal working conditions, show no tolerance for collective bargaining, and continue to disregard laws requiring paid maternity and medical leave.
The government’s labour inspection system remains deeply flawed and it is unable to hold factories accountable. Labour inspectors and other authorities are frequently overstretched or even complicit. In such circumstances, garment workers continue being exploited. Despite the tragic death of many garment workers trapped by a fire at a garment factory in Karachi not so long ago, there is little evidence of fire and safety systems being put into place within the garment sector since then.
Many factories, including those supplying garments to international retailers and brand names, mostly offer extended temporary employment to avoid paying benefits to their workers. Factory managers also prefer hiring workers on short-term contracts to discourage their participation in union activities. Several factories register bogus or “yellow” unions consisting of chosen or non-existent employees to preempt creation of genuine labour organisation.
Garment producers catering to the domestic market often operate out of small unregistered workshops. They often do not pay the statutory minimum wage and hire workers on short-term oral contracts. They even use home-based workers for special orders or on a seasonal basis. Most home-based workers are women whose only point of contact is a contractor who not only pays them meagre wages but do not either tell them the rate they will receive before they begin production.
Entities like the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association and the Pakistan Readymade Garments Manufacturers & Exporters Association must think beyond profit maximisation and pay more heed to the situation of garment workers. Lip-service alone will do nothing. Censure and sanctioning of factories which continue to ignore worker rights would prove to be much more effective. Addressing garment workers concerns would be the first of many steps needed to improve the lives of multitudes of people whose livelihood depends on the textiles sector.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2019.