Wednesday September 22, 2021

Stealing from the impoverished

July 19, 2021

We hear too little about the fate of workers who toil in our factories and in other places. This is partially because we have lost the labour unions that once spoke for them to a large extent. In this context, the report by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a collective which campaigns for workers, has come up with important statistics that we should consider carefully and look at their impact on the garment industry in our country, as well as other Asian countries. The report says that Pakistani workers, notably women, have suffered the worst “wage theft” during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to data, 244,510 workers in over 50 factories in Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad were deprived of some $85 million owed to them, on the pretext that the factories were not paid due to cancellation of already placed orders. The laying off of workers without wages resulted in grave hardships, notably for the most vulnerable workers. These lay-offs also led to more exploitation of children in the form of increased child labour increased, and created new difficulties within households.

A key reason for this was the cancellation of orders by international brands, who are crucial clients for the industry. The said survey has covered over 2000 workers in countries including India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and other Asian nations, who worked at some 189 factories. Pakistani workers appeared to have suffered the most wage loss, which the organisation calls ‘wage theft’ because the money was taken away from them illegally. According to the law, workers should be paid for the work they have already completed on the orders already assigned to them.

The lack of collective bargaining in the country makes it difficult for workers to speak up for their rights. And this is especially true of women, who frequently have no platform from which to make their voices heard. They are also traditionally seen as more dispensable by those who run factories and garment industries of various kinds. This has surfaced once again in the new report. The problem is one that can come up again at any time of crisis. Measures need to be put in place to protect workers who suffer as a result of such measures, so that they can be saved from the kind of hardships faced by those who were laid off in 2020 and also by the many, notably women, who were not rehired in 2021. The report sets out findings that must be followed up on, so that action can be taken and such sufferings spared in the future.