Published in Dawn on February 7 2018
ONCE upon a time, in one of the neighbourhoods in Karachi’s PECHS area where I grew up, there stood two or three houses in each row of the demarcated land; the remaining plots lay vacant. Children would roam around, play in open spaces, climb the trees and go back home.
Fifty years have gone by and practically no plot has remained without a structure. I do find children on the streets, only boys though, between nine and 17 years, playing cricket in the afternoon for an hour or less. All are domestic help; the kids get some respite from their chores while their masters take a siesta. They live in this neighbourhood but belong to the fringes of society. Compelled to leave their homes up in the north, they supplement the household income through child labour in the city.
Though visible, child labour remains undocumented. One census taker told me that children engaged in domestic service were not counted in the 2017 census as they were not members of the households they lived in and that there was no category to document their existence.
WHILE debate on the contradictions of capitalism, its ruthlessness and vulgarity, gains momentum on the margins of global discourse, capitalism glides smoothly along on the back of its modus operandi: the global supply chains. Termed as the foundation of 21st-century trade, global supply chains account for 80pc of global trade, benefitting Western populations through the availability of cheaper products manufactured by the low-wage, abundant labour of developing countries.
Pakistan is one of the low-cost production centres in Asia. In this country, Sialkot is a hub of several industrial clusters producing surgical instruments purchased by the healthcare industry in the West through global supply chains. According to a 2012 report by the Trade and Development Authority of Pakistan, 2,300 units in Sialkot, employing 150,000 workers, produce 150 million surgical instruments every year. Sialkot manufacturers sell to suppliers at a very small margin of profit; the suppliers then sell to the end users at much higher rates. For example, according to an estimate quoted in the 2010 report of the Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a pair of surgical scissors costs $1 to produce, is exported from Pakistan to Germany at a price of $1.25 and, probably, sold to a hospital for about $80.
In the morning hours when you leave for office you find women, young and middle-aged, sitting in groups at the edges of the streets of several localities in Karachi — North Nazimabad, Gulshan, Garden, PECHS, Clifton — some chatting, a few ruminating, a couple doing needlework.
These are domestic workers waiting for bajis, their employers, to wake up, open the doors of their homes and let them in to the world of work that exists at the fringe of the labour market. It is one that is bereft of job security and decent wages and excluded from the scope of labour laws.
Previously a beneficiary of the tariff cuts under the Generalised System of Preference, Pakistan is one of the 10 countries which have been granted the Generalised System of Preference Plus (GSP-Plus) status by the European Union from January 2014. The GSP-Plus allows developing countries tariff-free export of their products to European markets. Under this special incentive trade arrangement, presumably for ‘sustainable development and good governance’, Pakistan fulfils the criteria for vulnerability. As defined by the EU, vulnerable (in terms of trade) are the countries which lack diversification and insufficient integration within the international trading system.
The GSP-Plus is conditional to ratification of, and compliance to, 27 international standards and covenants on labour, human and women’s rights, environment, narcotics and corruption. These 27 standards comprise eight ILO core labour conventions, six UN conventions/covenants on human rights, and gender and racial discrimination, nine UN conventions/protocols on environment and four UN conventions on narcotics and corruption.