A garment worker handles jeans at a factory in Karachi. Image Credit: Bloomberg

ISLAMABAD: Millions of workers in Pakistan’s garment industry face routine abuse from sexual harassment to beatings to being refused toilet breaks, human rights activists said on Wednesday.

Despite a series of reforms following deadly factory fires and protests, many of Pakistan’s 15 million garment workers struggle with poor working conditions and face threats if they try to unionise, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report.

“Pakistan’s government has long neglected its obligations to protect the rights of the country’s garment workers,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams in a statement.

15m

workers in Pakistan's garment industry

The new study shines a spotlight on a sector that faced heavy criticism in 2012 after a fire swept through one factory and killed nearly 300 people.

HRW interviewed more than 140 people, including garment workers, and found that most were forced to work overtime, denied wages, paid and maternity leave, and given short-term, oral contracts.

Pakistan’s top two textile and garment industry associations rejected the allegations and said foreign companies would have stopped sourcing from factories if they were not meeting labour standards.

300

people killed in factory fire in 2012

“Our members cater to some of the top brands in the world and are compliant with both labour and environmental regulations of the country and those followed internationally,” said Hamid Tufail Khan, head of the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association.

On bathroom breaks, Mubashir Naseer Butt, main chief of the Pakistan Readymade Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said: “If they are going to spend an hour there, naturally, that is not on”.

A top labour official in Sindh province, the largest textile hub in Pakistan, said there was no evidence of widespread malpractice.

“If they [workers] were unhappy, they would not be going to work,” Abdul Rashid Solangi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

HRW found factories regularly flouted labour laws, which they said did not meet global standards. It said it had come across cases of child labour and severe discrimination against women, who make up 30 per cent of the workers.

“If a woman worker asks for a bathroom break, the managers mock her and ask if she is ‘having her period’. This is very embarrassing,” said Faiza, a garment worker quoted in the report.

Poor law enforcement, job insecurity and a lack of female inspectors and awareness programmes means that women rarely report cases of sexual harassment, say labour campaigners.

Civil unrest

Some factories do not provide clean drinking water, deduct the salaries of workers who fall sick, sack pregnant women and beat up workers who refuse to do overtime or resign, according to the report.

HRW called on the government to strengthen its labour laws to comply with international standards.

“Non-compliance of labour rights can result into industrial disputes and turn into severe situations of civil and political unrest,” said Ingrid Christensen, Pakistan director of the UN International Labour Organization.

In 2017, protests rocked the country after a leading Pakistani clothing brand, Khaadi, sacked 32 workers for demanding better working conditions.

Such situations could be avoided if workers had better union representation, said Nasir Mansoor, deputy secretary general of the National Trade Union Federation.

Although laws have been revised to make it easier to form unions, factories still obstruct such efforts because they fear it may lead to higher costs, labour activists say.

The garment industry accounts for over half of Pakistan’s export earnings, supplying buyers in the United States, Europe and China.

But as companies come under growing pressure from retail customers to ensure slave-free supply chains, labour experts urged foreign brands to work only with law-abiding factories.

“This would surely involve additional costs to the product but foreign importers are usually willing to compensate,” said Majyd Aziz, president of the Employers’ Federation of Pakistan.