The worst part about the thaikedaari system is that no worker ever receives a written document stating his/her tenure, salary and job description. This basic and important human resource policy is completely ignored
As an eyewitness to the violence at Jinnah Bridge on September 21 ,and after visiting the Ali Enterprises factory, the site of a fire that gutted 300 lives this month, some obvious realities of Pakistani society became apparent to me.
As for the fire that killed 300 workers at the Ali Enterprises factory, the response in the electronic and print media was limited to “wise” recommendations to list the various reasons for the fire and come up with solutions to ensure events like this do not happen again. Certainly we can talk about the manifold problems factory workers face in Karachi and other urban centres like Faisalabad, Multan, Peshawar and Quetta. Yes, we can discuss workers’ rights, “protected” by the Constitution and the ILO, and yes we must advocate for the enforcement of occupational health and safety standards to protect workers and ensure their safety in the workplace.
However in my opinion, the primary task is to consider how society in Pakistan today, refuses to consider factory workers, labourers, street hawkers, home-based workers and others at the bottom of the social ladder (the infamous proletariat) as human beings.
There is a deep-rooted malaise in our society, wherein the deprived and marginalized are not considered to be our equals. They are not viewed and treated as people with similar hopes, desires, ambitions and needs as the rest of us. They are not seen as workers who require job security, minimum wage and pensions, let alone the opportunity to excel and attain positions in less taxing occupations.
“We have to work like animals,” said garment worker Nadeem (not his real name), who is often in trouble for speaking out against the factory owners and managers. “Normal working hours are 9:30 – 6:30 but we usually work until 9 or 10 at night, with no overtime or bonuses. And if you cannot cope with the rigorous work or if your health starts to fail, you are fired immediately.”
Nadeem and a handful of other workers informed us that an exploitative thaikedaari (subcontracting) system is used in almost all factories in Karachi. Several thaikedaars [contractors] are employed by the owners for each step of the production process, such as cutting, stitching, cropping, pressing and packing in garment factories. The thaikedaar for cutting is responsible for quality assurance, time management and all other facets of this part of the process. He also hires and pays cutters on a piece-rate, averaging Rs.1–3 per dozen pieces of cloth. Even the most experienced cutter slaves from morning to night earning no more than Rs.250 to 350 [$2-3] a day.
The worst part about the thaikedaari system is that no worker ever receives a written document stating his/her tenure, salary and job description. This basic and important human resource policy is completely ignored, keeping the entire labour force informal and thus ineligible to strive for their rights as workers because they possess no proof of employment.
Even worse, often when a large overseas order nears completion, the thaikedaars run away with several months of workers’ salaries. The owners usually just shrug their shoulders but sometimes they take the most useful action against criminals and lodge a FIR [First Investigation Report].
What is the reason such a primitive and inefficient system is still in use today?
“It is far cheaper than having an entire administration and HR department” says Nadeem. “And it exempts the owners from being involved in the actual management of their factories. They simply worry about new orders, investment and profits. The factory conditions, the exploitation of workers and all other operational matters are left to thaikedaars.”
In order to qualify for lucrative international orders some factories now follow ISO standards and provide basic HR and safety services. On a visit to one such factory in S.I.T.E, I saw clear exit signs, fire extinguishers and emergency procedures in Urdu in place at the entrance of each department. In addition fire drills take place every quarter and a large area for workers to assemble in case of emergency is available nearby. But “these procedures are maintained to please auditors,” said Shah, a packer in the factory. “Locals conduct client audits prior to every order and they inform the management before arriving to make all necessary arrangements.”
In order to change this dire state of affairs, it is essential to regularize each worker’s employment. “Only 3% of the entire workforce is formal”, said Shah, a fact supported by evidence that only 249 workers out of 5,000 at Ali Enterprises were actually registered.
Shah emphasized the need to recognize that, “change can only take place if the employers consider us as humans. If I’m a manager I will be concerned about my employees’ welfare only if I know them personally, if I empathize with their difficult living conditions and appreciate the hard work they are doing. Only after we are recognized as humans can we expect minimum wage, health benefits, pensions, and safety conditions. This thaikedaari system will never change our situation in the next 100 years.”
Turning now to the September 21st protests, everyone in the country, including politicians, religious leaders, journalists and even laymen have condemned the violence witnessed on Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool [Love of Prophet Day]. Although it is common for protests to get out of hand I did not expect such rampant violence on a day that was supposed to show love for the Prophet and symbolically protest the blasphemous video. I joined some journalist friends covering the protests at the Karachi Press Club. But on the way back, we foolishly ventured towards Jinnah Bridge to see how things were proceeding near the American Consulate.
Initially, the scene was peaceful but as soon as the crowds marched towards large containers blocking the only road to the bridge all hell broke loose. Police fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. We saw several people get injured and turned back, but got stuck near Sheraton where protesters were fighting with policemen stationed outside Governor’s House. Many young men bleeding from head to toe were coming down from the bridge on Queens Road. Some were ferried on ambulances but some joined rabid youngsters in looting and ransacking banks and shops. Three police cars were also burned by the enraged crowd.
We saw smoke rising from the direction of M.A. Jinnah Road and later discovered that the three oldest and busiest cinemas in Karachi were burned to the ground. At night there were numerous incidents of mobile snatching, car and motorcycle thefts and robberies. Similar violence erupted in Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore – as infuriated mobs tried to emulate their crazed brethren in Libya who torched the American embassy at Benghazi.
Obviously, it is incorrect to claim that every protest was destructive or that every protester was mad. But we are all dumbfounded by the wanton destruction of public and private property. Why did they burn down cinema houses and destroy banks, restaurants, shops and petrol pumps? Certainly many were petty criminals taking advantage of the anarchy to loot and ransack. And yes many were religious zealots and members of banned sectarian outfits, who do not hesitate to attack state and private institutions they deem to be un-Islamic.
But the vast majority I saw in Karachi were foolish teenagers or youth in their early twenties. The same age group also indulged in senseless acts of violence in other cities. They all belong to the same class of low-income earners, 300 of whom lost their lives in the factory fire. The buildings and entertainment venues they battered have nothing to do with them. They have never entered a bank and have no hopes of opening an account or working there. They burn cars because they do not own one and have no hope of ever purchasing one. They cannot afford to watch movies in cinema houses, and many would consider attendance at cinema houses against their religious and cultural values and beliefs.
Even though we live in the same country, the lives and experiences of these young people are as far removed from ours as if they lived on another planet. These boys are desperate for work of any kind. They are often engaged in daily labour where they earn a pittance , barely enough to fill their bellies. Those with families are further stressed trying to make ends meet and lack helping hands to excel in the unforgiving, vicious urban environment. They, as well as white collar wage-slaves, are not only forced to barely survive in extreme circumstances but they are also most at risk of being robbed , killed or blown to bits.
The places burnt and looted are symbols of a system responsible for the constant drudgery and hopelessness of their lives. The senseless violence acts as a catharsis for their suppressed frustration and anger. If it is not channelled externally then it releases internally, leading to mental disorders and often to suicide.
Remember Mohammad Azam Khan, the cameraman for Channel-5 in Lahore, who took his life when he was not paid for four months? Remember Seemab Afzal, the female journalist for an anti-crime magazine who jumped from the fourth floor because she also was not paid her due salary for the past few months. Azam was the sole breadwinner among nine siblings while Seemab’s father is a cancer patient.
Meanwhile the border sentry, the army jawan and policeman – all from this same class – are prone to die from a stray bullet, a freak avalanche or run down during a protest respectively. Poor political activists who genuinely strive for socio-political change are left destitute unless they are clever enough to shove their way into the corridors of power. Right now, a 60 year old political activist who endured several jail sentences, sold his house and sacrificed his son who died by electric shock while hoisting the party flag, is pleading for financial assistance in Larkana [hometown of Bhuttos].
What about the hundreds of political party workers killed for their allegiance in reprisal attacks by armed groups in Karachi? What about the 20 men who lost their lives in protest against the blasphemous video? Who will remember them? How will anyone compensate their families for their irrevocable loss?
Essentially, they are but cannon fodder and serve as measly replaceable cogs in Pakistan’s modern society. Industrialization, the introduction of modern technology and the arrival of international corporations have failed to carry larger spill-over effects in Pakistan and have resulted in an continuation of a master-slave relationship in both the rural and urban landscape.
Imagine workers standing outside the factory while it was burning knowing full well that co-workers, many of them family members, were dying inside. But still they hesitated to speak out in fear of losing their jobs.
|Faris Kasim works for an international development agency and has a keen interest in social issues. http://fariskasim.wordpress.com/|