Over the years, women in Pakistan’s once thriving textile industry have played a crucial role supplying Europe and the US with items from denim to towels. But since the pandemic, 7 million workers have been laid off due to low exports and the country’s grave economic crisis. In my city, Faisalabad, hundreds of thousands of the 1.3 million textile workers – half of whom are women – have lost their jobs and the jobs of a huge number are on the brink.
For Faisalabad’s female textile workers the biggest worry is that these jobs will be lost for ever. That is worse than their delayed and underpaid salaries, the harassment they face at work and having no healthcare facilities.
For those rural women who travel to the factories from surrounding areas early in the morning and work long days for low pay, this is their only source of income.
My city is known as the Manchester of Pakistan, and produces textiles for the world. But the pressure on the industry is immense: electricity costs have doubled; floods have devastated cotton fields, adding to shortages; the government has placed limitations on credit.
Hundreds of factories have closed or are working short shifts. Workers have been fired. Even the cottage industry of female workers, sewing at home, lacks support or incentives. They make gloves, socks and stockings for less than a dollar a day. I believe this artisanal work has huge potential and the government should declare it an industry, ensuring respectable wages.
The Women Workers’ Alliance (WWA) is protesting against the mass layoffs in the industry, and demanding workers are paid. I’ve conducted education sessions with hundreds of women over labour laws and collective rights but still there is a lack of awareness. We estimate that of more than 150,000 workers in the hosiery sector alone, only 4,200 have social security cards.
Women are reluctant to raise their voices because they fear it will mean losing their jobs. WWA has helped workers form anti-harassment committees in textile sectors and other industries. We have also held meetings with the government’s labour department regarding the formation of anti-harassment committees and succeeded in getting them into 40 mills in Faisalabad.
One of the key issues is that we cannot meet with women at their workplaces for any union activity, and they are bussed in to these workplaces by the the owners. Three months ago, workers from Masood Textile Mills succeeded in forcing the implementation of the legal minimum wage, a battle that took us four months.
In small mills labour laws are ignored and workers denied even maternity leave. Women rarely get much sympathy but despite this I’m hopeful – that jobs will return, that women in the factories will become more aware of their rights and win out against the prejudice to get financial freedom through respectable wages.