July 12, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
In a damning report on the exploitation of garment workers by major global apparel brands, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) revealed that workers in Pakistan had faced the highest ‘wage theft’ – that of 29 per cent in the Asian garment industry during the COVID pandemic.
In its report titled ‘Money Heist: COVID-19 Wage Theft in Global Garment Supply Chains’, the AFWA stated that garment workers in Pakistan also suffered the highest loss of working days in the lockdowns among the six countries documented in the survey.
AFWA, an international campaign and alliance for collective industrial bargaining in the global garment industry, surveyed 2,185 garment workers across 189 factories in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, the report conducted a survey of 605 workers from 50 garment factories, located across three districts – Faisalabad, Lahore, and Karachi.
The report estimated that ‘244,510 garment workers across 50 factories in Pakistan were denied $85.08 million as wages due to order cancellations, non-payment for existing orders, and other irresponsible practices by brands during the pandemic’. The report estimated that wage theft was 23 percent in Sri Lanka, 29 percent in Pakistan, 21 percent in Indonesia, 23 percent in India, six percent in Cambodia and 27 percent in Bangladesh.
Responding to the report, Nasir Mansoor, Deputy General Secretary of National Trade Union Federation Pakistan (NTUF), said the report was an indictment of the global apparel brands who had exploited garment workers by robbing them of their hard-earned wages in the time of global crisis.
At the peak of the crisis, 88% of the respondents were laid off in April, and 67% of the respondents still had no job in May 2020, according to the report. While the trend in layoffs consistently declined after June, around 11% of the workers were still not reemployed at the end of the year. Moreover, 86% of the workers who were terminated did not receive their termination benefits and legal layoff wages. All these workers were initially laid off between March and May and then abruptly terminated between June and July.
Although the intensity of the crisis was felt most in April and May 2020, women workers, who are mostly employed in casual jobs, continued to bear the brunt of it even in early 2021 as most factories did not rehire women workers laid off in 2020, the report stated.
“Before we were laid off in May (2020), we had to work 14 hours a day, but had no contracts or any access to social security benefits,” Amira, a 30-year-old garment worker at Levi’s supplier factory in Faisalabad, told AFWA in the report.
“Moreover, in 2020, the factory refused to pay us Eid bonus, stating that their orders were cancelled. Women workers who had worked for more than a decade in the factory were terminated overnight and were given no severance benefits. For the few who were laid off like me, no financial support was given. I had to sell our refrigerator, mixer and mobile phone to put food on our table. In October, when the factory reopened, only male workers were reemployed. Only in January 2021 did the factory start reemploying women workers,” Amira said.
“However, our overtime pay is half of what we were paid in January 2020, though we work the same hours. We are also constantly threatened with termination and are yelled at for even drinking water during work hours,” she added.
More workers end up below poverty line
The report revealed that the non-payment or partial payment of bonuses and social security contributions constituted another form of wage theft in Pakistan during the pandemic period.
The report stated that around 65% of the workers in the survey did not receive any social security benefits even during the pre-pandemic period. “These numbers significantly increased during the lockdown period, with around 80% of the workers reporting they did not receive SESSI/PESSI contributions and EOBI contributions during April and May,” the report said. However, the payment of social security benefits resumed to almost pre-pandemic levels by December 2020, the report added.
The report stated that there was a sharp decline in wages and household income of Pakistani garment workers due to the Covid-19 crisis, pushing them into severe poverty.
“Eight one percent of the workers surveyed were pushed below the international poverty line of the World Bank (measured at 3.2 USD PPP) between March and May, 2020, “ the report revealed.
“I tried to commit suicide soon after I was laid off in May, as I was four months pregnant and had no money to feed myself or my two other children. The company did not provide any financial support for laid-off workers, even if they were pregnant or had young children to feed at home,” Sadia, a 32-year-old-garment worker in Faisalabad, told the AFWA.
Workers debts doubled
According to the report, Pakistani garment workers went deeper into debt to finance lower levels of consumption during the Covid-19 lockdown period. “71% of the workers borrowed money because of the COVID crisis and there was an average increase in total debt of about 61% in 2020,” the report said.
The average amount borrowed more than doubled (from $54 to $115) during the lockdown period when compared to the pre-COVID period. “64% of the workers borrowed money to meet basic food expenses, while 23% borrowed to pay housing rent,” the report added.
“After I was terminated from the factory without any severance benefits in May, I started working as a daily wage worker for a few days, in another garment factory, which pays around 500 PKR (3 USD) for a 10-hour work shift. I could no longer afford the medicines my father needed for his chronic diseases and I have accrued more than 30,000 PKR (192 USD) as debt since I lost my job. I sold my cow in November to meet daily expenses.” Kabir, a 34-year-old garment worker at an Adidas supplier factory in Faisalabad, told the AFWA.
“75% of the workers reported that they borrowed from neighbours, friends and relatives). Just around 20% relied on formal financial institutions like banks and microfinance institutions, as garment workers informed us, they were not considered “credit-worthy” due to their poverty-level wages,” the report revealed.
Only 21% of workers got meagre govt relief
According to the report, only 44% of garment workers reported that they were able to access some form of relief/support during the COVID crisis. Civil society organisations and trade unions played an important role in supporting workers during the Covid-19 crisis.
Around 41% of the workers received food relief from NGOs while 21% of the workers reported receiving food relief from trade unions, the report said.
“24% of the workers received monetary support from the government. However, most workers received a meagre one-time amount of Rs 1000 to 2000 ($6-12), which could hardly help meet consumption needs for more than two weeks,” the report said.
Rise in child labour
Though garment exports from Pakistan continued to increase and an ambitious Textile and Apparel 2020-25 Policy with a trillion rupees in subsidies for suppliers is on the anvil, the unanticipated decision of the government to stop cotton imports from India has led to a shortage of cotton.
“The condition of garment workers, especially women, continues to remain bleak and is likely to worsen because brands have not taken any significant steps to curb wage theft in their supply chains,” the report noted.
Most women garment workers who have been terminated are now working at extremely poorly paid jobs that roughly provide $2-3 per day, while those who were laid off and rehired are working more hours of unpaid overtime and suffering increased levels of verbal and mental harassment.
Unlike in other garment-producing countries, the report revealed that a significant number of children of garment workers in Pakistan have been forced to drop out of schools and are engaged in menial jobs that pay $1-2 per day. The impact of the COVID crisis is likely to have long-lasting effects on intergenerational poverty and gender disparity in Pakistan, the report concluded.