They also manipulate labor laws to deprive workers of social security, pension benefits
Pakistani garment workers involved in setting up trade unions face violence, intimidation, threats and loss of employment, says the Human Rights Watch in a report it published on Wednesday, January 23.
“I have been arrested, kept in a police lock-up and tortured for calling a strike. Now any worker who is seen talking to a union leader is fired,” said Ghulam Abbas, a trade union leader based in the Hafizabad district of Punjab.
Abbas explained that union leaders have been harassed and intimidated multiple times and the management has used the local police to have fake criminal cases registered against union members and workers.
The union leader made these revelations in No Room to Bargain: Unfair and Abusive Labor Practices in Pakistan, a report by the global human rights organisation that highlights poor working conditions in the country’s garment sector, which employs 4.2 million people, one of the largest by any sector. It identifies serious labor rights violations by factory owners and asserts the plight of garment workers remains off the political agenda of the country’s ruling elite.
Labor rights activists described union-busting by many large factories, the report says. Factory managers often keep workers on short-term contracts to discourage their participation in union activities. Workers also alleged that factory owners manipulate the labor law to create obstacles to register trade unions. Several factories register fake or “yellow” unions consisting of chosen or non-existent employees, making it close to impossible for workers to register real unions.
According to experts, the percentage of factories with independent unions is only around “one to 1.5%.”
The report also states that the use of verbal contracts is alarmingly widespread throughout the garment industry. Not having an employment contract makes it very difficult for workers to demand employment benefits or to enforce the terms of employment. Factories routinely compel the workers to work beyond the legally permissible nine hours and in many case without extra pay.
The lack of employment contracts and registration means that factories routinely deny social security and pension benefits to workers. In some cases, the social security and pension amounts are deducted from salaries and never deposited, resulting in the illegal enrichment of factory owners.
“The Pakistani government should ensure that garment factories stop using union-busting and other strategies to prevent workers from organizing and collectively demanding their rights,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director at the Human Rights Watch. “Domestic and international brands should recognize that respecting worker rights makes for more competitive businesses.”
Pakistan should amend its labor law to comply with international standards including International Labour Organization conventions, the human rights body said. In the interim, rigorous enforcement of the existing law would go a long way in protecting workers’ rights, it added.