Laid off during pandemic

May 3, 2020

As the most vulnerable workers’ jobs are cut, May Day reiterated the same question: How sustainable is a system that doesn’t consider labour rights to be a concern?

A woman working at a brick kiln. — Photo by Rahat Dar

In a dilapidated one-room apartment in Chungi Amarsidhu, a sprawling working-class settlement in the heart of Lahore, sits a despondent man with tired eyes, his vacant gaze fixed on a crack in the wall. When I mention May Day, he breaks both his gaze and silence. “Look around you,” he murmurs dejectedly “This is where I will be, May Day or no May Day.”

Until a month ago, Mohsin was working as a machinery operator for one of the top textile companies in Pakistan. That changed on April 4.

Mohsin clearly remembers the morning he lost his job. He reached his workplace just in time for the first shift but was not allowed to enter by the factory guards. When Mohsin protested, he was told that he, along with 900 other contract workers from his unit, had been fired. There was no prior notice. “I’ve given 13 years of my life to this firm and this is what I get?” asks Mohsin holding up his faded company card.

Jazib, a cotton weaver at another firm nearby, has a similar story to tell: his unit never re-opened after the March 23 holiday. “I’ve been out of work for a month now,” he says. “They didn’t even bother clearing my wages,” he adds.

Over the last month, thousands of young men in Chungi area have been discarded over flimsy pretexts. The fortunate few who have retained their jobs have had their salaries slashed by up to 50 percent.

Even in the dire circumstances, men have it easier. According to 2015-2016 figures, women constitute 42 percent of the textile sector workforce; they are also more vulnerable to exploitation. “It’s easier for factory-owners to lay off female workers,” points out APWA President Dur-e-Shehwar. “I’m in personal contact with dozens of fired women who were harassed by their managers when they demanded pending dues,” she laments.

The textile sector employs 45 percent of all industrial workers in Pakistan, but it is by no means the only sector suffering from mass layoffs. “We cannot even count the number of domestic workers being laid off. There is simply no record of them, no proof of employment, it’s almost as if they are an invisible portion of the workforce,” she says.

The devastation is even more widespread. Despite the lockdown most brick kilns in the Punjab remained operational throughout the first half of April, after which falling demand and rising stacks of unsold bricks forced them to cease production.

Then came the mass layoffs.

“According to our data, in the past ten days alone, more than 300 brick kilns have shut down in the province. I have personally helped 7,000 brick kiln workers apply for the Ehsas programme. Only 34 have received assistance so far, there is a very real possibility that several thousands of our workers will starve”, says Shabbir, the general secretary of the PBMU. According to the Punjab Bhatta Mazdoor Union (PBMU), over 500,000 families in the Punjab depend on brick kilns for a living.

This dismal situation begets a fundamental question: What are the legal and socio-economic underpinnings of a system that allows employers to fire workers en masse with such impunity?

Dr Muhammad Azeem, an activist, labour lawyer and assistant professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), posits that a systemic deterioration of the labour protection regime coupled with the current crisis created the perfect storm.

According to Dr Azeem’s research, 90 percent of all workers in Pakistan are in the informal sector. Factory workers are awarded entry cards or code numbers instead of employment contracts when they are hired. “Since workers do not have legal proof of employment factories can show them the door at whim, without having to worry about legal repercussions”, he says.

Even in the dire circumstances, men have it easier. According to 2015-2016 figures, women constitute 42 percent of the textile sector workforce; they are also more vulnerable to exploitation.

Factories often use ‘contractor agreements’ to disown their workers. Such arrangements typically involve outsourcing a part of the factory to external parties who bring in their own workforce to man the production line. These agreements allow factory owners to conveniently defer workers’ welfare obligations to the contractors. While a recent Supreme Court judgment made owners liable for all workers within factory premise, the law is seldom enforced.

There are several lacunae in the labour law itself. For instance, since service sector workers are not included in the definition of “workmen”, they are simply excluded from the meagre protection offered by the labour law.

With regard to labour laws, enforcement remains the primary challenge. A weak Labour Department, lacking government support, has been all but complacent in the face of this exploitation. The condition of labour courts is similar. These courts lack the will and resources to take on big factory owners. On the off chance a court does provide relief to a worker, its decision is challenged in a higher court and workers are more likely to lose in these lengthy and expensive proceedings.

Successive governments have discouraged inspection of factories by the Labour Department. “Labour inspections were banned from 2002 to 2012. After 2012 the formal ban was replaced by an informal one” he says.

Instead, the government expects self-accountability from production units. Some factories outsource inspection to third-party firms. “Two weeks before a horrendous factory fire erupted at Ali Garments, the factory was declared ‘safe’ by an external auditor, this is how trustworthy these auditors are”, explains Sayed.

The labour law also stipulates that a factory must pay 5 percent of each worker’s salary (for all their workers) to the EOBI fund. Workers can claim this amount after retirement. However, in the absence of government oversight, factories often choose not to register a majority of their workforce with the EOBI. “Tarbela Terminal 4, a state-run enterprise located less than a mile from the EOBI headquarters, has registered only 200 out of its 2,000 workers with the EOBI,” says Azeem.

With the government and the factories failing to care for workers, collective bargaining seems to be their only option. But only 2 percent of Pakistan’s entire workforce is organised. “Private factories have imposed informal bans on unions. Discussing unionization can get workers fired,” says Khalid Mehmood, general secretary of the Labour Education Foundation (LEF). “In the absence of new unions even the existing ones have become complacent and un-democratic”, he adds. “Four decades of rampant privatisation and union-busting have all but destroyed worker’s power in Pakistan,” he notes.

A widely-cited report by the Labour Collective states that 85 percent of textile workers are informal. In this crisis more than 1 million will lose their jobs. The government has responded by giving tax cuts, incentives and bailouts to owners in the hope that some of this money will trickle down. But the ground realities do not support this approach. “Almost 3 percent of the poorest population does not even have CNICs. A bulk of our workforce is undocumented. Any incentives provided by the government will directly land into the accounts of large enterprises,” says Kaiser Bengali, a prominent economist. “The government must directly provide food to these workers by setting up local ration centres in poor neighborhoods” he says. 

A previous version of this article erroneously stated that 80 million textile workers are informal. This has been corrected.


The author is a teacher and a freelance journalist. He tweets at @sheikhhamidria1 and can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus: Laid off during pandemic