The COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for the textile sector in Pakistan. Since March, nearly half a million textile and garment industry workers have been dismissed in Punjab province alone, as per the Pakistan Workers’ Federation. A study by economists with the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, a think tank of the government’s planning commission, has said that anywhere between 12.3 to 18.53 million workers could be laid off due the impact of the pandemic.
Around 2.2 million workers are involved in the production of garments in Pakistan and as many as 1.8 million in the textiles industry. 200,000 people are employed in the footwear and leather industry, according to the Pakistan Safety Report. International Labour Organization (ILO) numbers indicate that between 2014 to 2015, nearly four million people in Pakistan were engaged in the textile and garment industries.
The sector also accounts for almost half of Pakistani exports and close to 9% of the GDP. However, labor laws and regulations governing the industry have been widely criticized for not adequately protecting the rights of the workers. They are are often denied health insurance, paid sick leaves and other social securities. Workers in the sector have also suffered due to the lack of accountability and adequate legal protection, with the frequent reliance on verbal contracts increasing economic vulnerabilities during times of emergency or natural disasters such as the current pandemic.
In its statement, the Pakistan Workers’ Federation and Women Democratic Front on March 28 also demanded that “women workers, who are often invisible within the system, be accounted for and brought into official lists for wage provision and financial support.”
Recently, the Sindh provincial government issued directives for employers, restricting them from firing workers en masse and asking them to provide salaries. The government also announced measures related to the use of emergency funds.
The Punjab government announced monthly packages of PNR 3,000 (approximately USD 18) for workers. However, workers’ bodies have called the amount “significantly low”. There are demands for urgent measures in other States as well to support affected workers.
As of April 6, Pakistan recorded close to 3, 300 cases and 50 deaths.