Victory for powerloom workers in Faisalabad, Pakistan, after over two weeks of protests

After more than two weeks of mass strike action, powerloom workers in Faisalabad were able to successfully secure commitments on minimum wage as well as guarantees for social security

August 22, 2022 by Shriya Singh
Powerloom workers Pakistan
(Photo: via Haider Ali Butt/Twitter)

The struggle of thousands of powerloom workers in Pakistan’s Faisalabad concluded successfully on Wednesday, August 17, after more than two weeks of sit-in protests and agitation in the Sadhar and Dandhar industrial estate. Faisalabad is the second largest city in Punjab province and the country’s textile hub. 

For two weeks, several thousand workers and their families participated in a sit-in protest on Jhang road, blocking the route to Faisalabad International Airport, demanding an increase in wages. The workers claimed that the Labor Department in Punjab had failed to implement the new minimum wages set by the provincial government.

After several rounds of negotiations and backtracking by the district administration and the powerloom owners, an agreement was reached  between them and the leaders of the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM), the umbrella body of powerloom workers in Faisalabad. Most of the demands of the nearly 300,000 workers have been met. Some of them include a 15% increase in workers’ wages and assurances of social security, as well as steps to improve the working environment.

The strike began on the call of the LQM on August 1 and progressed intermittently in the last two weeks as the lobby of powerloom industrialists and Chamber of Commerce kept changing their stance. The workers were represented and led by LQM Chairman and Punjab President of the Haqooq-e-Khalq party Baba Latif Ansari, a veteran trade unionist.

The workers at the sit-in site also raised their voice against recent hikes in electricity and power tariff by the Shehbaz Sharif-led government at the center, which has made meeting daily needs of their families more difficult. Inflation in Pakistan hit 37.67% in August.

A key aspect of the Faisalabad workers’ protests was to highlight their poor working conditions and demand action from the Environment Department to implement the necessary regulations. The workers highlighted the use of second-hand polyester, acrylic and woolen clothes as fuel for the boilers by loom owners which has led to asthma and other lung diseases in hundreds of workers and their children.

Struggle for increase in wages

Throughout the two weeks of their struggle, a key demand of the protesting workers was that their wages meet the new rate set by the provincial government.

On June 30, the then Chief Minister of Punjab Hamza Shahbaz (whose swearing-in was subsequently invalidated) announced that the provincial government had raised the minimum wage by Rupees 5,000 to Rs 25,000 (USD 111.5). However, the new wage rate was not implemented anywhere in the province despite announcements.

The long-standing demand for social security cards for workers had earlier received a boost when in November last year, the Punjab Human Resource Minister announced that the provincial government was planning to issue social security cards to 1.1 million registered industrial workers across the province and to additionally register two million workers.

Faisalabad’s textile industry – a colonial history of exploitation

Formerly known as Lyallpur, Faisalabad was called the “Manchester of the South Asian subcontinent” as it is here that the textile industry came to be centered during the colonial rule of the British between late 18th and early 20th century. The powerloom sector comprises informal clusters of small- and medium-sized units and large factories.

Peoples Dispatch spoke to Dr. Ammar Ali Jan,  historian, activist and president of Haqooq-e-Khalq Party(HKP) which has been actively supported the workers at Faisalabad. He highlighted the significant role played by  Labour Qaumi Movement  in organizing and unionizing the workers of Faisalabad’s textile industry during the early 2000s.

“The new labour movement in Punjab which went by the name of LQM came as a breathe of fresh air for the garment workers in the province who had been earlier dispersed across the small powerloom units, he said, adding, “This is the best resistance of the current labor movement, in which workers are declaring that this time the sacrifice for the economy will be made by the elite, not the poor.”

A historian by profession, Dr. Ali Jan’s writings have focused on the labour movement in the non-western world. He has tweeted that not increasing wages in an inflation period is a terrible injustice. “Pakistan’s elites are getting annual benefits of 2700 billion. Instead of reducing these privileges, the public is being burdened with more inflation. The rich are enjoying themselves and the poor are being made scapegoats. Pakistan is becoming a welfare state for the rich and a graveyard for the poor,” he added.

Faisalabad powerlooms have been in the headlines in recent years for poor working conditions, low wages, and for employing child labor. In 2010, a major strike by powerloom workers for minimum wage was crushed in the city. Five leaders of the strike were tried in anti-terror courts and given life sentences. They were released only six years later in 2016. 

Pakistan’s textile industry

Pakistan is the eighth biggest exporter of textile goods in Asia. It is the fourth largest manufacturer and the third-largest consumer of cotton. Textiles comprise 46% of the total manufacturing sector in the country and provide occupation to nearly 40% of the overall workforce. In recent years, the textile sector in Pakistan has witnessed a decline with a bulk of production shifting to Bangladesh where labor laws are weak and “cheap labor” easily available for exploitation.

However, Pakistan’s economy remains heavily dependent on garment manufacturing. Textiles account for more than 60% of the total Garment, Textile and Footwear (GTF) exports.

According to a 2017 research conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the GTF industry in Pakistan is dominated by micro and small enterprises under individual ownership, and powerloom units interestingly operate under the informal ‘non-mill’ sector. Nearly 84% of the GTF workforce is employed in firms with less than six workers. A vast majority of these small firms were operated by an individual owner and were not registered as a private limited company.

A 2010 survey by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) estimated that there are 360,000 power looms in Pakistan. Of these, around 50,000 units are located in Faisalabad after the addition of 30,000 units in November 2020. Faisalabad’s garment sector has an overall 1.3 million workforce, with one million natives and 0.3 million migrants working in the sector.