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Interview – Pakistani garment workers face repression and no trade union freedom: a conversation with three Pakistani workers’ representatives

By 26 September 2023No Comments6 min read

For years now, Pakistan’s garment and textile workers have been facing one disaster after another. They were hit hard by the pandemic and the subsequent cancellation of orders, which resulted in no work and thus no income. This summer the country was hit by massive floods which destroyed much of the cotton crop. These disasters directly affected many workers.

At the Clean Clothes Campaign office in Amsterdam, we spoke to three workers’ representatives from Pakistan about their experiences in the Pakistani garment and textile industry and the problems and obstacles they face in their work, such as the suppression of workers’ and trade union freedoms.

Laws to protect garment workers exist only on paper: practice tells a different story   

Nasir Mansoor of the National Trade Union Federation Pakistan (NTUF) and Zehra Kahn of the Home-based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) are both trade unionists from Pakistan. According to them, Pakistan has many progressive laws to protect workers’ rights, but their implementation is weak and inadequate.    

This is confirmed by Seemi Mustafa, a former garment worker. Seemi: ‘According to the law, workers are entitled to maternity leave, but in practice, if you are unable to work because you are pregnant, you will be fired. Even if you’re sick for two days and can’t work, for example, you lose your job.’

”Workers in garment factories are forced to work overtime”

Seemi Mustafa

‘Clothing brands tell consumers that they respect labour and human rights and promise to be transparent, but in practice they do the opposite. Their promises exist only on paper. Workers do not have basic rights, they work in harsh conditions and the differences between men and women are huge; gender discrimination is the order of the day. For example, women earn less for the same work’.

Seemi, who worked in a garment factory in Karachi for nine years, talks about the standard overtime that workers put in every day. ‘Workers in garment factories are forced to work overtime. The factory organises transport for workers to and from the factory, but the transport often arrives too early and leaves too late. As a result, the standard working day is longer. There is also little time to go to the toilet, which can quickly put you behind production targets. As a result, you have to work longer hours at the end of the day.’

Legally, the working day lasts eight hours, but for most workers it is normal to work from seven to seven. This overtime is never paid, according to Seemi, Nasir and Zehra.

Vulnerability of factory workers in stark contrast to factory owners   

The position of garment workers in Pakistan is very vulnerable. Nasir and Zehra argue that only 0.5 per cent of workers in the garment and textile sector have a contract. Around 95 per cent have no contract and therefore no black and white agreement. Many of them are paid by a middleman. Nasir: “The fact that work is done through these third party contractors is a problem. It makes the workers’ position more vulnerable.   

Only 0.5 per cent of workers and the textile and garment sector have a contract

In the cotton and clothing industries, factory owners have a lot of influence, Nasir and Zehra say. Zehra: ‘The factory owners are very powerful and have a huge network. As a worker, if you do something they don’t like, you run the risk of being fired and blacklisted. As a result, you won’t be able to find work anywhere.  

The story of a garment worker

Seemi is one such worker who was laid off. “I worked in a big garment factory for nine years and have been unemployed for five months now.’ Labour laws were ignored in the factory where she worked.    

‘When I was still working in the factory, I protested with 200 other workers because the factory did not pay our annual legal ‘bonus”, she said. ‘This bonus is not a privilege but a right, although in many factories it is not paid,’ Nasir stressed. 

”The factory owner’s rules make it impossible for workers to organise”

Nasir Mansoor

S.: ‘After the protest, the management called me and two others to the office. There they were detained for a long time and threatened. After that, I was met outside the factory, threatened and abused by people who work for the factory and walk around during the day to control the workers,’ says Seemi. The harassment continued throughout the year after the protest.

The beatings and threats left Seemi injured and traumatised. She got in touch with Zehra, who helped her file a case against the factory owners. Seemi can no longer find work in the garment and textile industry; everyone knows who she is and that she is an active member of the union.

Suppression of workers’ rights and trade union freedom    

Nasir argues that factory owners do not want unrest in their factories. They do everything they can to silence workers who stand up for their rights. ‘For example, in the factory where Seemi worked, there is a new rule that workers over the age of 30 cannot work in factories. Also, only one person per family is allowed to work in a factory. Both rules were created to make it impossible for workers to organise.’

”When audits take place, the managers force certain workers to say what they want”

Nasir Mansoor

Workers are also affected when audits are carried out in the factories. N. ‘When audits take place, the managers force certain workers to say what they want. So the story told during an audit is not the truth. If workers do not want to cooperate or resist, they are fired and their chances of finding work elsewhere are also lost. The people who attacked Seemi and walk around the factories during the day harassing workers are presented as a “union” during the audit.’

According to Nasir and Zehra, auditors and brands know the real situation in the factories, but never ask their organisations for help. Without the help of the brands, it will continue to be difficult for garment workers to bring about change and secure their rights at work.

garmenfactory clothing factory

About Seemi Mustafa   

Seemi Mustafa worked for 9 years in a garment factory in Karachi, producing for major brands such as H&M. Seemi has first-hand experience of gender-based violence in the workplace and of violent harassment in response to workers, particularly women, raising workplace issues.    

About Nasir Mansoor   

Nasir Mansoor is the General Secretary of the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan (NTUF). He has been actively involved in organising the survivors and families of workers killed in the Ali Enterprises fire in 2012 and is at the forefront of organising textile and garment workers in Pakistan.    

Zehra Khan   

Zehra Khan is the General Secretary of the Home-based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), the first union of home-based workers in Pakistan. The HBWWF works to raise awareness of home-based workers’ issues and campaigns for special labour and social protection laws for them.