On a balmy Sunday afternoon, 18-year-old Imran Ali and some of his fellow garment workers assembled outside the iron gates of a denim factory in the southeastern city of Karachi, Pakistan. With placards in hand, their voices became hoarse chanting the slogan “the struggle will continue.” They were protesting against the factory’s alleged refusal to enforce the government’s fixed minimum wage.
Suddenly, two vans arrived on the scene, and three men in plain clothes started ruthlessly beating up the workers with sticks.
“They weren’t police officers. They were civilians. They were thrashing us while the police were letting them, and began forcing us into the vans to take us to the police station,” Imran Ali told VICE World News.
“I raised up my hands to shield myself from the onslaught of beatings. I still have the scars of the wounds on my hands.”
Garment workers in Karachi’s industrial area claim that Denim Clothing Company, a supplier for global fashion brands like H&M, has not been paying them the statutory minimum wage of $144 per month fixed by the provincial government. The demonstration that took place on Oct. 11 called out the factory for alleged inhumane working conditions, routine intimidation, lack of social security, and arbitrary dismissals since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They’ve made life a hell for us. We don’t have bread to eat. They fire people every day. They say, ‘We will kick out whoever we want,’” Derya Khan, who has been working for Denim Clothing Company for 15 years, told VICE World News.
Three months into the pandemic in 2020, 81 percent of Pakistani garment workers were pushed below the poverty line, according to a report by the Asian Floor Wage Alliance. The study found that 244,510 workers across 50 garment factories in Pakistan suffered wage losses totaling $85 million in 2020.
“Our pay is around $86 per month. What can a laborer do with this amount? We have rent and bills. We have to pay for our children’s education and medical expenses. We have hundreds of problems,” Imam Baksh, one of the workers, told VICE World News.
According to a spokesperson for H&M, the company is currently looking into the allegations against their Denim Clothing Company. “We are in contact with the supplier as well as the global trade union IndustriALL. H&M Group requires that all suppliers pay at least minimum wage, and according to both third-party verification and our own assessment, all workers employed at the supplier referred to have been paid legal wages and in accordance with agreements,” the spokesperson told VICE World News.
The Oct 11. incident was not the first time Denim Clothing Company made the headlines. In May of 2020, hundreds of the factory’s workers protested mass layoffs and were allegedly shot at by police. Denim Clothing Company did not respond to VICE World News’ multiple requests for comment.
The Pakistani textile industry is huge. It is the country’s second largest employer, and it supports around 15 million workers. The industry makes up nearly 9 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product, and is responsible for around 70 percent of its exports. About 20 percent of Pakistan’s textile workers produce garments for the international market, according to Human Rights Watch.
International fashion brands that outsource their production to cheap labour markets in Pakistan and other developing countries have been repeatedly accused by critics of raking in ample profits while tolerating abusive labour conditions in what they call a form of “wage theft.”
“Wage theft is a key form of labour exploitation prevalent in local garment factories, and is a central aspect of global fashion supply chains as it enables fashion brands to earn super profits,” Aabida Ali, country coordinator of Asian Floor Wage Alliance, told VICE World News.
The global economic crunch caused by the pandemic has international fashion brands cancelling orders or delaying payments to their suppliers, triggering a domino effect that’s crushing the industry’s already struggling workers.
“Wage theft, especially during the COVID-19 period, is sustained in local garment factories through super-exploitative practices like unpaid and underpaid overtime [compensation], blatant reduction or denial of bonus and social security, layoff and termination of contract workers,” said Aabdia Ali.
Workers who unionize or protest against unfair labour practices are often met with harsh resistance in the form of threats of termination and physical violence from company management and police.
“As soon as they try to form trade unions of any kind or try to bargain for better rights, they often end up losing their job. And they end up not having any recourse to the law,” Taimur Rehman, general secretary of the Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party, a socialist political party, told VICE World News.
“We get threatened that if anyone speaks out for their rights, that ‘We will abduct you.’ They tell us straight to our faces that if we protest, the police will lock us up,” said Khan. “We are only asking for what is ours.”
Imran Ali and the other workers arrested during the protest ended up in jail for six hours, where they received further beatings from police.
“They kept hitting us. There was no one there to stop them. They tortured me and told me that they would file a police complaint against me so that I would be blacklisted from ever working again. They wanted to pressure me to never attend another strike,” said Ali.
The workers said they were released only after they were forced to sign a document stating they would not protest against the company again.
“The management has told workers that if any of them attend another protest, they will be removed from the face of the Earth and no one will ever find out,” Yaseen Jhullal, the chief organizer of the Sindh Renaissance Labour Federation, told VICE World News.
Although the provincial high court recently passed a verdict affirming the government’s decision to fix the minimum wage at $144, workers and labour activists say the decision has not been enforced yet by the factory management.
“The minimum wage has not been implemented in a single factory in Karachi’s industrial area,” said Jhullal.
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