The Clean Clothes Campaign and Cardiff University‘s WISERD have published new research that shows the rights for workers in Pakistan’s garment and textile industry have hardly progressed since the fire at Ali Enterprises garment factory a decade ago due to a lack of fire exits.

The report explains there is still no safety agreement that holds employers and international brands accountable for implementing basic safety protocols and procedures, leaving workers in almost the same conditions that led to what it describes as the deadliest fire ever in the global garment industry.

The Clean Clothes Campaign believes the findings from its report illustrate the need for the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry to expand to Pakistan.

However, Professor Muhammad Azizul Islam of The University of Aberdeen’s Business School, who has conducted research on apparel workers in Bangladesh, tells Just Style: “An Accord in Bangladesh or Pakistan or in entire south Asia may not completely resolve the problem based on the research we have conducted in the region..”

Professor Islam explains that in addition to an Accord, he would advise governments to establish a fashion watchdog, or garment adjudicator that can monitor and penalise those brands not complying adequate safety and human rights standards.

He argues: “At the moment brands are making super profits by avoiding compliance and they are more responsible than any another party in the global supply chain, who must be monitored for their unfair practices.”

What are the main findings on worker safety within the Pakistan garment industry?

The Clean Clothes Campaign’s report follows on from data it collected using an incidence tracker and revealed over a dozen incidents resulting in deaths and injuries in garment factories in Pakistan over the past 18 months.

In Pakistan, an estimated 2.2 million workers produce garments, 1.8 million make textiles, and 200,000 are employed in the footwear and leather industry. The sector supplies for large global apparel brands and Clean Clothes Campaign argues that brands need to address what is happening within their supply chain in Pakistan.

For this report, the Clean Clothes Campaign conducted a broad survey of almost 600 workers covering issues from workplace harassment, workplace health and safety, and worker wellbeing.

Most of those surveyed (80%) were employed at factories that employ over 3,000 workers and the survey was conducted between June and August 2021.

The report’s findings suggest there are ‘extreme deficiencies’ in some of the most basic provisions for factory safety, including:

  • Only 15% of workers reported proper fire exit stairwells in case of a fire
  • One in five workers reported their workplace lacked fire drills and were unaware of emergency escape routes and exits.
  • Factory inspections were not found to be happening so there was no regular inspections to ensure the equipment was working safely.
  • In female-dominated factories, only three quarters of workers reported having access to escape routes free from obstruction.
  • The report also highlights other important issues ongoing within the sector such as worker wellbeing issues, low wages and low rates of worker registration.

How can Pakistan improve worker safety within its garment industry?

The Clean Clothes Campaign believes an Accord would ensure regular independent factory inspections by qualified engineers, require compliance with time-bound corrective action plans to correct identified safety hazards, and provide a complaint mechanism by which workers can hold factory management accountable for implementing safety procedures, without fear of retaliation.

It adds the involvement of local unions and other local workers’ rights organisations in the design, governance and implementation of the expansion of the Accord to Pakistan would be of vital importance.

“The responsibility to ensure factory workers in Pakistan are safe when they go to work falls on the brands who source and profit from these factories. Brands have the power to lead the way and make changes with the potential to improve the lives of millions of workers by giving them what we should all be entitled to expect – a safe and healthy workplace and the right to be part of the process of making it so,” Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign, notes.

Meanwhile, Nasir Mansoor, general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation in Pakistan, adds workers and local unions have been demanding a binding safety agreement for years.

“Implementing the International Accord in Pakistan would not only ensure the safety of workers but also ensure workers have space to negotiate directly with brands and factory workers. Workers in Pakistan are in desperate need of a binding safety agreement, not only to fix safety issues within factories but to also provide workers security by fixing the low rates of worker registration.”

While Khalid Mahmood, director of Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan, says: “Even though the health and safety laws in Sindh and Punjab provinces have been strengthened in the last few years, without proper implementation of these laws and absence of effective labour inspections, workers’ safety cannot be ensured”.

Zehra Khan, general secretary of Home Based Women Workers Federation in Pakistan, adds workers’ safety is a gendered issue, with women “faring consistently worse” than their male counterparts in the garment industry.

“Implementing the Accord would have enormous benefits for women’s safety in the workplace and would give us a mechanism to have our complaints properly heard and responded to,” Khan says.

In 2020, a Pakistan court ruled the Ali Enterprises fire was arson, sentencing two former political party activists to death.