Main image: Trade unionists call for the abolishment of ‘anti-women laws’ and an increase in the minimum wage at the International Women’s Day rally in Karachi, 2023. Credit HBWWF
A new report has exposed the increasing exploitation of garment workers in Pakistan, revealing details of how factories used by some of the world’s biggest fashion brands are routinely violating minimum wage requirements, enforcing excessive hours, ignoring health and safety concerns and avoiding compensation for injured and killed workers.
The report, by garment worker solidarity group Labour Behind the Label in collaboration with international human rights law firm and foundation Global Rights Compliance, found that the informalisation of worker’s jobs is leading to illegally low pay, mandatory unpaid overtime and the absence of secure contracts.
This announcement comes as Pakistan is experiencing mass inflation with rates hitting 36% in April 2023, the highest rate for nearly five decades. Workers at the bottom of the supply chains are being hit the hardest with an erosion of purchasing power and an exacerbation of already challenging living conditions.
The report reveals that factories have been exploiting workers by employing them in less formal ways to reduce risks and cut costs.
Findings show factories paying over a third of workers surveyed less than the minimum wage, equivalent to £68 a month, while nearly two-thirds of workers weren’t being paid the agreed rate for enforced overtime.
Workers reported that they were being shifted to piece-rate contracts where they are only compensated for what they make, resulting in less earnings and increased hours.
One worker said: ‘There are more workers working on piece rate than before. There used to be 7,000 workers working in our factory, but now only 4,000 are working as salaried workers. The rest have been fired and most of these were rehired on a piece rate… Workers protested outside the factory but to no avail.’
Health and safety violations were found to be endemic at the factories studied, with auditing routinely failing to identify violations and flag risk.
One worker employed in a factory supplying UK and European brands stated: ‘Our workplace is not a very safe place. Due to cotton dust and fumes, workers find it difficult to breathe. Overlock machines are particularly bad in this regard. A worker died, but the doctor was asked that working conditions should not be mentioned as the cause of death. His family was not paid any compensation.’
The shockingly poor health and safety checks risk a repeat of previous tragedies such as the Ali Enterprises disaster, where on 11 September 2012 a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan burned down, killing over 250 workers.
Only weeks before the fire, the building had been certified by a private social auditing firm as compliant with international labour standards.
Fashion brands GAP, adidas, Asda, H&M, M&S, Puma, Levi’s, Primark, Boohoo and Inditex (Zara) were all found to be sourcing from suppliers featured in the report, despite claiming to use social auditing to check standards.
Authors of the report expressed extreme concern that these auditing processes seemed to completely miss the human rights violations exposed by the report, and furthermore brands are doing nothing to remedy the urgent situation.
‘The findings of this report should be an urgent wake-up call to brands, showing gross failings in their due diligence processes to identify human rights and labour rights violations in the making of their products. Social auditing is failing to pick up violations and is clearly not fit for purpose. Brands must act with urgency to reassess their approach to sourcing and engage in discussion on appropriate remedy with the labour movement. If they fail to do so, it is only a matter of time before we see another disaster, in which they would have played a part.’
Head of business and human rights at Global Rights Compliance
Low wages combined with high inflation have resulted in 70% of workers surveyed reporting finding it difficult to cover household expenses such as electricity bills. 21% said they were not sending their children to school because they could no longer afford it.
‘In the face of economic crisis, why should the people at the bottom of supply chains pay the cost? Children are being thrown into poverty and not sent to school because wages at these factories aren’t keeping pace with rising costs. This isn’t just a problem for Pakistan. In Bangladesh too, workers are reporting they cannot afford to buy meat or even eggs in the month, because inflation is outstripping wage growth.
‘Fashion brands make huge profits sourcing clothes from factories across Asia where families are being pushed into extreme poverty. Brands must act to stop this exploitation and ensure the people who make their clothes are paid enough to live with dignity.’
Policy lead for Labour Behind the Label