Workers of international brand H&M being ‘treated like slaves’ in Karachi factory

An H&M outlet in London. PHOTO: AFP

An H&M outlet in London. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: International apparel brand H&M’s workers in Pakistan are treated like slaves, labourers of Artistic Milliner factories recently fired for attending a rally demanding safety at work places, it has been  revealed.

“We are harassed, abused and not allowed to form a union at the factory where international brands such as H&M exploit us,” Syeda Kanwal, a female worker at Karachi’s Artistic Milliner factory, the largest supplier of H&M products in Pakistan, told The Express Tribune.

Kanwal was asked to handover her ID card on October 9, 2017 and leave for good just a day after she along with her co-workers attended a protest rally in Karachi to demand safety at work places.

Labour activists decry exploitation of workforce

All in all, six workers were fired for attending the rally, with the administrator saying: “Go, attend all rallies you want to now, and we will see what you people can do to us,” as quoted by the labourers.

The Artistic Milliner workers who were fired for attending this demonstration demanding safety at work places.

The Artistic Milliner workers who were fired for attending this demonstration demanding safety at work places.

Although H&M has signed a deal with IndustriALL, a global union federation based in Copenhagen, that binds them that their suppliers will maintain a standard at work places where their products are manufactured, the international brand has failed to make their suppliers’ factories safe and hygienic for the workers.

In 2016, H&M signed the Global Deal, a joint initiative with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) that aims to address the challenges in the global labour market and improve social dialogue and working conditions.

“Everyone should be treated with respect and the suppliers should offer their workers fair wages and good working conditions,” the H&M reiterated as its vision after signing the deal on its website, but the working conditions (as narrated by the labourers) don’t reflect the needed commitment.

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The sacked workers with their cards, cut by half, sharing their experiences at the sweatshop of H&M manufacturing 

The sacked workers with their cards, cut by half, sharing their experiences at the sweatshop of H&M manufacturing 

The recently sacked workers shared that the denim pants they stitch are sold for over Rs5,000 per piece but they get almost nothing in return. “We don’t even get the minimum wage specified by the government for skilled workers but as soon as these pants hit the market the brands make millions of dollars,” said worker Farhan Ali, who was also fired a day ago.

“Is it not our right to get a living wage by these firms who amass huge wealth? Truth is that the factory administrator put a gun on our heads and asked us to leave whenever we raised the issue and demanded them to give our due rights,” he added.

As specified by the government, the minimum wage for the unskilled workers stands at Rs15,000, whereas around 20% increment is given to skilled workers for doing a tedious job in factories. But, the Artistic company fails to meet this criteria and pays their skilled workers the wages of unskilled labour, in clear violation of the laws.

Workers lament how they served the company for over two years, some more than four years, but were fired the day they questioned the management for not giving them basic rights such as social security, minimum wage, medical facilities and drinkable water at the manufacturing unit.

“A manager named Rashid Bajwa calls us names in the factory… says in this area no one is the gangster but us, and that we should keep mum if we don’t want to get picked up by law enforcers,” workers said.

Another worker showed a grotesquely long cut on his arm which, he said, was a result of an accident at the work place. “I had to bear the cost of medical treatment, some one-third of my salary. I told the management that I had received this cut from the machines, but they wouldn’t pay any heed,” he said.

A worker shows the mark of severe cut he had received while working on H&M products.

A worker shows the mark of severe cut he had received while working on H&M products.

Mohammad Sarwar, another sacked worker, shared with The Express Tribune how he had contracted malaria, and was on two-day leave but was fired the day he returned. “They just told me to go and join the workers’ union, and that they don’t need me anymore,” he said, showing his reports and medicines which he had taken to the factory as proof but was not allowed to enter.

A worker with his medicines and report of Malaria after whose contraction he was fired by the company.

A worker with his medicines and report of Malaria after whose contraction he was fired by the company.

When contacted, an H&M representative in Pakistan said they are in touch with their suppliers and workers, trying their best to resolve the issues arising between the labourers and their employers. H&M in Pakistan had done so in recent past with National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) being the representative of the workers, he added, while agreeing that it’s the brand’s responsibility to make sure workers get their rights at all units. The representative said the international brand could release a statement on the issue after contacting higher-ups in Stockholm.

“We are the modern-day slaves where we have no right to raise our voice against injustice done to us at our workplaces. We only get catcalled, harassed, abused and the worse is being threatened to be detained by the bosses,” said another female worker Kousar, who is in the finishing department making H&M jeans.

“Not a single worker has been issued social security card. There is no medical facility neither are we allowed to unionise. We urge the consumers of these international brands to think about us before they make the purchases. The jeans you wear are actually made by us, the present day’s slaves,” she added.

When Zafar Kazi, a manager at Artistic Milliner, was asked to shed light on the matter, he declined to comment, and denied that any worker was fired. “I will confirm it in a bit,” he said, minutes before his mobile phone was switched off.

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