Torture behind the scenes of fashion

Published: April 21, 2012

Economists have consistently found that happy workers produce happy results. PHOTO: REUTERS

Last month, one of the biggest textile names in Pakistan hosted a typically grandiose and hugely successful event showcasing its latest line of fashion wear. Cameras flickered to capture celebrities and designers entering and exiting the venue. Glaring lights reflected against colourful backdrops which displayed the names of sponsors and partners. Stone faced models posed elegantly for the glitterati.

In a land 20 kilometres away and some days earlier, 12 of the workers responsible for manufacturing towels sold at its outlet were arrested, detained, tortured and eventually charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

The common factor uniting all 12 workers was that they had recently formed trade unions and had been pressurising the owners of their factory to improve working conditions. The charges framed against them however allege that they were guilty of extortion against their factory owner.

That extortion against one person doesn’t amount to “terrorism” under the Anti-Terrorism Act suggests that the factory owners were either ill-advised or ill-motivated. Even so, the circumstances of the arrests are acutely instructive.

In January of this year, the workers joined hands to form a trade union. Thereafter, once protracted negotiations between the trade union and the factory management failed, the trade union approached the Labour Division of the Sindh Government to intervene.

On March 13, the Labour Division requested the factory owners to attend a meeting before the Labour Directorate on March 21. An FIR was registered against the workers on March 14 and they were bullishly wound up by the paramilitary rangers on March 21.

Presently, six of the workers are still under arrest whereas others union leaders and members have obtained an order from the High Court of Sindh to ensure they are not arrested on similar grounds. Of those that are still languishing behind bars, the Asian Human Rights Commission confirms that when produced in court, they were all badly injured due to torture, with some receiving serious injuries to the hands, legs and eyes.

It should be clarified that these workers are employed by factories that manufacture products for textile retailers and not directly by those we know. This is becoming an increasingly common practice in our industries; and for compelling reasons, some of which are legitimate and others, questionable.

For one, by outsourcing large manufacturing units, owners avoid getting caught up in the uncomfortable web of labour legislation. Many of these companies also engage in vast amount of export. Their bed sheets, towels and clothing are sold across the EU and the United States. Trading with companies in these countries means that they have to meet certain basic labour standards.

For instance, under the WRAP Certification Program, manufacturers must ensure compliance with labour legislation, minimum wage standards, prohibit child and forced labour and allow freedom of association. Similarly, prominent retailers such as Gap, Levis and Walmart require their export partners in Pakistan to ensure similar standards are met. Having a local partner do the manufacturing thus allows exporters to evade these requirements, cut corners and curtail costs.

There are those that will argue that this is astute business sense. It’s difficult to disagree with that, but this is a delicate relationship.

Economists have consistently found that happy workers produce happy results. Until businesses realise this, ugly encounters will continue to lurk in the shadows of glaring lights and stone faced models.

Read more by Furkan here.


Furkan Ali

An Advocate of the High Court and Partner at Ebrahim Hosain.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ercelan PILER

    Thanks for drawing attention to this blatant violation, and our indirect complicity, of constitutional right to association and to international commitments (ILO, UN) to collective bargaining. When will such tragedies end? when consumers withhold their money from vulture capitalistsRecommend

  • Parvez

    Good of you to draw the attention of others to something that is wrong.
    One expects the law to protect the innocent and punish the wrong doer. In reality, in Pakistan, this seldom happens. A highly visible example is that of a woman politician who slapped a common female polling assistant and the law in bending over backwards to help her and not the one who was slapped.
    Our custodians of the law have much to answer for and the system requires serious attention. Recommend

  • Naheed

    What has this got to do ‘Fashion’, the word used in your title?Recommend

  • Salman

    I find it highly hypocritical of you guys to be highlighting the issue but not coming out with the actual name of the textile house, ad money more important than human rights? nice work drawing the fine line.Recommend

  • Furkan

    Thanks for your comments.

    Parvez: The legal system certainly has its failings. But its about time that businesses show some sense of equality and responsibility on their own as well.

    Salman: To the best of my knowledge, this isn’t about ad money but more about defamation issues.Recommend

  • Usman Shahid

    Thanks for bringing this issue infront as well. Mostly people ignore these issues in Pakistan. We will celebrate labour day but will never think anything for them, You will get less comments as more people will like to watch rather read the other fashion blogs :)

    Thumbs up for you.Recommend

  • Zoon

    His use of the word fashion has to do with your association with the word itself. And the writer has an excellent point. If we partake in something we must justify every process involved or at least acknowledge what we are doing is wrong. Turning a blind eye towards these issues only aggravates them @Naheed: Recommend

  • The Truth

    It is common case in Pakistan, All we need is solid leadership that’s all..Recommend

  • Karachi Feminist

    thanks,furqan great article and good stance! a disparity and an issue we should be talking about till people hear it.Recommend