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Pakistani workers make face masks, which are in great demand worldwide due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, in Karachi, Pakistan, March 31, 2020.    © 2020 AP Photo/Fareed Khan

(New York) – Pakistani authorities should take urgent steps to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19 on its most vulnerable workers, Human Rights Watch said today. Social distancing, quarantines, and the closure of businesses will have enormous economic consequences for garment and textile workers, domestic workers, home-based workers, and other workers in low-income households.

The Pakistan government should adopt measures protecting workers affected by COVID-19 from suffering loss of income that would push them further into poverty and deter them from self-isolating to contain the spread of the virus.

“The Pakistan government should take measures so that the loss of livelihood and income doesn’t compound the threats workers face to their health,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The economically marginalized are among the most vulnerable groups affected by COVID-19, and the government should urgently find ways to protect them.”

Pakistan has at least 2,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with at least 26 deaths. Though with little testing available, the numbers are likely much higher. The federal and provincial governments have announced partial or complete lockdowns. All factories not producing essential items have been closed. Experts estimate that between 12.3 million and 18.5 million people in various sectors may lose their jobs. According to Pakistan Workers’ Federation, as of March 28, at least half a million textile and garment industry workers had been dismissed in Punjab province alone.

Global supply chains in numerous sectors, especially the garment and textile industry, have already been disrupted, with global clothing brands canceling orders even for products already manufactured or in the process of being produced. This has exacerbated factory closures and layoffs. There is a risk that hundreds of thousands of workers in jobs linked to the global economy will be forced into part-time work for less income or lose their jobs.

Among the factories ordered to shut down are textile and garment factories that employ Pakistan’s largest industrial workforce. In the most recent figures available, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that in 2014 to 15, roughly four million people were employed in this sector, which contributed 8.5 percent of Pakistan’s GDP and at least 50 percent of its total exports. The numbers are higher now.

A lack of written labor contracts, inadequate legal protections, and poor enforcement of labor laws and regulations could heighten the problems during this crisis. Human Rights Watch research on the garment industry in Pakistan found that Pakistani labor laws and regulations do not adequately protect these workers, and constitutional safeguards are seldom enforced. The use of verbal contracts means that most do not have paid sick leave, social security, or health insurance, leaving them particularly vulnerable during an industrial shutdown and the pandemic.

According to a report by the global alliance of labor unions and nongovernmental organizations Clean Clothes Campaign, 85 percent of textile and garment workers in Pakistan lack formal contracts and therefore are not registered with the provincial social security institution. It is common practice in Pakistan’s garment and textile sector to hire workers on a piece-rate basis. Since these workers have no contract or appointment letter, the management can sidestep legal protections, leaving them laid off and without any salary during a shutdown.

These economic shutdowns have a disproportionate effect on women workers, especially home-based workers and domestic workers. On March 28, 2020, the Pakistan Workers’ Federation and Women Democratic Front demanded that “women workers, who are often invisible within the system, be accounted for and brought into official lists for wage provision and financial support.”

The government should, to the maximum extent of its available resources, provide low-wage workers with assistance to help offset the intense economic hardship and food insecurity from this situation. The federal and some provincial governments have taken measures to mitigate the impact on low-income and daily wage workers.

On March 23, the Sindh provincial government issued directives prohibiting employers from laying off workers during the lockdown period, ensuring payment of salaries, and establishing an emergency fund to address the negative economic consequences of COVID-19. The Sindh government has also set up a tripartite mechanism with representatives of employers, workers, and government to deal with salary complaints.

The federal and Punjab governments have announced economic packages for businesses and workers and monthly payments of PKR 3,000 (US$20) and PKR 4,000 ($27), respectively, for workers who lose their jobs. This is significantly lower, though, than the minimum wage in any province and is likely to be inadequate. The federal government and other provincial governments should consider other measures, including the Sindh government’s approach, Human Rights Watch said.

The Pakistan government has announced a tax reduction to help businesses deal with the economic impact of COVID-19. Unconditional tax cuts for employers are often poorly targeted and may not reach those most in need. Instead, expanded social insurance programs that include unemployment benefits would permit workers in the formal and informal economy to prioritize their health needs. Donors, international financial institutions, and global companies that depend on Pakistan’s workers should work together to create social protection for workers.

“The government’s failure to enforce labor laws has contributed to garment and textile workers being among the most vulnerable segments of Pakistani society,” Adams said. “The Pakistani authorities should meet their obligation to protect workers while considering necessary measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19.”

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