Pakistan: Labour Qaumi Movement — Organizing at the margins of the 21st century workforce


First published at Jamhoor.

In the ten years since the spectacular collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, transnational activist groups like the Clean Clothes Campaign have striven for greater workplace safety. Efforts like the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (featuring over 190 top clothing brands) have claimed to greatly reduce garment worker fatalities. In 2021, the Accord was scaled internationally, extending to Pakistan in 2022. Here, abysmal safety standards in the garments industry were exposed a year before the Rana Plaza disaster: over 250 workers were trapped and killed in a factory fire in 2012. The Pakistan Accord came after a scathing report (linked to the Clean Clothes Campaign) critiquing the country’s dismal post-2012 reform efforts. It noted, alarmingly, that Punjab province banned factory inspections altogether in 2019.

The significance of transnational campaigns notwithstanding, workers at the bottom tier of the world’s textile value-chain have been fighting their own battles long before spectacular disasters exploded on the global stage. Power loom workers in Punjab’s industrial hub of Faisalabad are an important case in point. Small- and medium-scale power looms dominate the fabric weaving subsector in Pakistan’s textile industry. Big textile manufacturing conglomerates (e.g. Nishat Group, Interloop, Gul Ahmed, or the erstwhile Chenab Group) have a weaving infrastructure but this barely caters to in-house needs. They frequently run over capacity and then subcontract weaving to small- and medium-scale power looms. These looms also cater almost single-handedly to domestic fabric demand from low- and middle-income consumers.

Since 2003, power loom workers have been organized under the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM). Their strength has secured them a seat at the bargaining table: every year, the Faisalabad administration, loom owners’ association, and LQM leadership sit down to revisit and adjust wages. They have also won battles on workplace safety, where LQM interventions led to the use of better electrical equipment across loom units. Frequently, LQM has translated its organizational strength into mass mobilizations on workers’ issues. This may appear modest, but the symbolic value of ‘informal’ workers negotiating wages with city administration and loom owners, in a country wracked by routine violence from state and capital, is far from it.

Accounting for about a fourth of Pakistan’s textile labour force, power loom workers in fact symbolize the state of the global working class in the 21st century – fragmented and disorganized, sub-contracted and precarious. Yet, these same workers also offer a glimmer of hope to those striving for a revival of working-class politics around the world. This essay traces LQM’s labour organizing from its founding moment rooted in radical workers’ action in 2003, through their struggles against the onslaught of state and capital under the guise of terrorism, and ongoing fights against rampant neoliberalization across the sector today.

The beginning: (In)dignity and (in)justice

“Loom owners would happily donate money to us, when we would ask for (religious) charitable causes, but when we organized a fundraiser for workers, they resented the effort,” recalls LQM founding member and its current chairman Baba Lateef Ansari. Soon after this fundraiser in 2003, a scuffle ensued in which a riled-up child labourer threw a brick on a loom owner, who retaliated by setting fire to a part of his factory and blaming it in a police FIR [First Information Report] on workers, says Ansari. “Setting part of their premises on fire has been a routine tactic deployed by [loom] owners as part of their efforts to suppress LQM mobilizations,” he says.

A young Ansari was part of the now-historic rally against this FIR in 2003. Word about the incident and the police case spread far and wide, and as the rally reached the city center, it was joined by similar rallies of workers from different power loom clusters across Faisalabad. This was LQM’s founding moment, according to Ansari, who had been an activist with a religious organization until then: “I realized that day that the biggest jihad we needed to wage was not in some battlefield far away, but at our workplaces. We did not know about labour law or social security rights. All we knew was that there was injustice. It just didn’t seem fair that we were putting in long hours at work, but our wages were still a pittance.”

LQM’s second in command, Aslam Mairaj, was also part of the rally. He credits Mian Qayyum, the founding chairman of LQM, with spearheading efforts to establish a workers’ organization, describing an encounter that was formative. “He was agitated on seeing a weaver [i.e. a higher skilled worker] doing the job of a coolie [carrying heavy loads],” Mairaj recalls, asserting that the owner was doing it on purpose to belittle the weaver. “This made us question if we were workers or slaves. It felt like our dignity had been challenged.”

Both Ansari and Mairaj assert that such events and the 2003 rally acted like catalysts, enabling loom workers to break the shackles of fear. “Owners’ behaviour was widely resented by workers well before the rally, but they wouldn’t speak up publicly because of fears of reprisal,” said Mairaj. “The workers learned that they could speak up against their oppression if they did it collectively,” echoed Ansari. 

These memories reflect that themes of (in)dignity and (in)justice loom large in the moral economy of loom workers. They serve as a reminder of a horrid pre-LQM past where there was neither dignity nor justice—which have become possible with “the movement” (tehrik). In every subsequent incident of mass mobilization, then, by linking the immediate concern (whether nonpayment of wages or poor working conditions) to the origin story of 2003, these memories reinvigorate the feelings of indignation which bind the LQM leadership and the loom workers in a relationship where the former’s legitimacy resides in its ability to take care of the latter. 

Mass mobilizations: From the extraordinary to the routine

In social movement studies, collective mobilization has been conceptualized via two main approaches: a rationalist approach (i.e. activists/allies are bound together through organizational and human resources including social networks), or a culture-/emotion-driven approach (i.e. bound through collective identity and emotions). Indeed, both approaches explain different aspects of LQM’s mobilization efforts. It is hard to fathom how LQM could have persisted over 15 years without material and cultural/emotional resources in the face of the collective might of state and capital.

Between 2003 and 2010, every year the LQM managed to get a modest yet definitive raise in wages for loom workers. “Sometimes we would get our demands met through negotiations, but often we had to resort to protest,” recalls Mairaj. In 2010, it faced a watershed moment. When loom owners continued to ignore its demand to honour the state’s official notification for a 17% raise in minimum wage, LQM announced a strike. Every day, workers from different areas stopped operations mid-day to join rallies at the city center demanding the raise.

One rally in the Sudhar sector (a major industrial area in Faisalabad) turned into a brawl after loom owners shut the factory gates, locking workers inside. Mairaj recounts that when workers outside the factory resisted and managed to force the gates open, the owners and their goons opened gunfire, killing and injuring several LQM activists. “The workers were enraged. They outnumbered the owners and goons and were now agitated too. By the end of the brawl, many owners were left with bruises and injuries, which they used to get the sympathy of the city administration.”

Loom owners colluded with local administration (police and civil bureaucracy) to respond with the full force of the law: terrorism charges were filed against LQM leadership, six of whom were sentenced to 10 years in prison. The use of terrorism charges (especially against the backdrop of the ongoing US War on Terror in the region) itself reflects the depth and brutality of tools waged brazenly by the state and capital against workers merely demanding their rights.

Eventually, the strike and subsequent events yielded success as the demand for wage raise was accepted. However, relief for the wrongfully incarcerated workers became a central focus of LQM’s activity. Multiple protests, campaigns, and statements condemned the use of terrorism laws against unarmed workers. The LQM, along with allies in the political Left, and in liberal civil society, media, and globally connected intelligentsia, contributed to these efforts which culminated in the workers’ acquittal in 2015.

Through these successes, LQM continued to expand its worker base. By 2014, its work included organizing for the end of ‘bonded labour’, a practice rampant in Punjab’s brick kiln sector whereby workers are entrapped through advance payment of (very low) wages. In a big showdown in 2014, LQM led a sit-in rally demanding the end of bonded labour and provision of social security cards to kiln workers along with basic workplace facilities like separate women’s toilets. This rally was also violently attacked by loom owners’ hired goons. Subsequently, in an armed attack on LQM headquarters, Ansari sustained bullet wounds in his shin while Mairaj was beaten and had three ribs broken.

However, the 2014 sit-in yielded partial yet important successes. While the practice of advanced payments continues (as, according to Mairaj “workers have needs to fulfill”), kiln owners can no longer use them to depress wages, which was a common occurrence prior to 2014. “We ensure that workers get the wage that kiln owners and LQM have agreed upon," he says. And if workers seek to leave kiln work for something better—an impossibility in the past— they can do so after repaying the owners’ debt through funds pooled by LQM.

Whether it was the 2010 strike or the 2014 sit-in, organizational muscle, networks of solidarity, and a collective identity of workers long-denied dignity and justice proved instrumental. The 2010 strike facilitated the implementation of minimum wage directives, while the 2014 sit-in weakened the advance payment system that keeps brick kiln workers bonded to employers. Since then, these achievements and associated sacrifices have contributed to the historical memory of LQM, consolidating the bond between leadership and collective.

A less-noted yet equally important factor sustaining LQM’s efforts all these years has been the leadership skills honed by men like Lateef Ansari and Aslam Mairaj. Nothing captures this better than the shift in their relationship with the law. From not knowing anything about labour law or civil and political rights in 2003, and guided just by their instinctive perception of injustice, these leaders now personify their knowledge of the law in everyday praxis. Indeed, Faisalabad’s textile workers beyond the loom sector and outside the folds of the organization now often approach LQM in relation to their own struggles. Narrating a recent incident where LQM intervention enabled certain textile mill workers to secure their unpaid salaries from the factory administration, Mairaj recalls, “the labour law is on my fingertips now. This is very important since in my everyday encounters with the labour bureaucracy, I cannot come across as lacking the knowledge of the law.”

Thus, beyond the spectacular mobilizations, in routine encounters with employers and labour bureaucracy, the legal knowledge of the LQM leaders enables them to further leverage organizational muscle and negotiate a better deal. A better deal is really just the bare minimum legally required wage the workers are entitled to but will not get in the absence of LQM. Power looms do not hire workers for fixed monthly wages; they follow a piece-rate system, where the worker gets paid as much as the yarn they are able to transform into cloth through the loom. Hence, daily shifts run as much as 12-14 hours, and any days off result in foregone wages. The only respite is that the LQM’s presence now ensures that every year, the gazette minimum wages are implemented across the looms under their purview—a singular achievement not just in the power loom sector but across most of the textile sector nationwide.

In some bigger looms with larger workforces, LQM has also pursued unionization efforts led by Mairaj. They have registered a trade union federation with the provincial Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). Under the plant-based union model, Pakistan’s labour law allows trade unions to be formed at workplaces with more than 10 workers. Unions at the plant-level are represented at government forums (like IRC) by federations. Having his own Textiles, Power Looms, and Garments Workers Federation (TPLGWF) has enabled Mairaj “to not depend upon a few babas [old men, a reference to seniors set in their ways and not willing to engage with newcomers] in dealing with the provincial government on all matters pertaining to labour welfare.”

Similarly, labour law allows employers with more than five workers to register with the provincial Employees Social Security Institutions (ESSIs) which run a network of subsidized healthcare and education facilities. However, the spirit of the law remains unrealized in the face of widespread subcontracting and employers’ countering unionization efforts. “They show their relatives or henchmen as workers, and use them to register ‘pocket unions’,” Mairaj says. These are unions that work for the employer rather than employees. Widespread pocket unions (or absence of unions altogether in a subcontracted workforce) prevent loom workers from claiming their legal entitlements like social security or employee old-age benefits (EOBI).

Changing times and re-orientations

Despite these valiant efforts by the LQM and allies, there remains much to be desired when it comes to labour welfare on the ground and challenges persist at multiple scales. First, Pakistan’s macro-economic framework often pushes LQM to mobilize not just for workers but also for the protection of the loom industry overall. Moreover, technological advancements are creeping into firms slowly but steadily, threatening to render less valuable, at best, and irrelevant at worst, the skills of dozens of weavers, vendor men (shutter operators) and ‘masters’ (machine repair workers).

It is no surprise that the power looms sector has seen ups and downs that neatly map onto growth spurts and stagnation in the national economy. Since the 1980s, the neoliberal economic framework pursued globally has meant a race to the bottom for low-skilled workers. With production systems moving from the assembly line to ‘just-in-time’ models, and from nationally organized to globally disaggregated value chains, transnational capital has become even more mobile after breaking the postwar political and social shackles placed on it.

In Pakistan, most scholarly accounts document a considerable rise in urbanizing middle-class populations in the neoliberal era. One widely cited study by Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) estimates the middle class as 18-35% (32.5-61.6 million) of the population. The upper echelons of this class are well integrated in global networks of capital and power. In fact, their higher purchasing power and consumptive habits have not only propelled but also shaped the character of national economic growth spurts. Growth has concentrated primarily in elite-centric service sectors, such as retail and wholesale trade, real estate, finance, media, telecommunication, private education and healthcare, whose share in national output and employment now exceeds the erstwhile productive bases of agriculture and industry. However, below these segments and above those still trapped in poverty, there is a sizeable population with enough disposable incomes to participate in low or middle tiers of garment markets.

If shopping malls, high-end commercial areas, and brand outlets dotting the Pakistani urban space embody the top tier of the clothing market, the low and middle tiers are integrated into large retail and wholesale bazaars (e.g. Karachi’s Jaama and Eidgah Cloth Markets, the bazaars around Faisalabad’s clocktower, Lahore’s Azam Cloth Market, etc.). In a nutshell, then, in the post-1980s neoliberalizing economy, the absolute rise in the number of urban middle class populations has meant more buyers than before, in both the top- and mid-to-low tiers of the clothing market.

While LQM-associated power looms cater primarily to the latter, they are not entirely removed from the former. “Many top lawn and cotton brands place big orders with power looms for production of raw fabric,” says Lateef Ansari. The disaggregated value chain means that stitching and designing happens at a workplace far removed from the loom, and the final product is sold at brand outlets or online, and increasingly exported to North America and the Gulf for burgeoning diaspora markets. Thus, even though the loom worker’s labour produces the most fundamental component of the final product, whether a lawn suit or a cotton kurta, it lies at the lower end of the value chain, leaving only a pittance in their hands while enabling savvy entrepreneurs and fashion designers to reap the highest shares of value.

The value chain - from pre-loom yarn spinning to weaving on looms, and then onwards until the finished good ends up in brand outlets - flourishes in times of growth when the middle class sees a rise or stability in its purchasing power. When crisis ensues, as it has since last year’s drastic rise in fuel prices and subsequent devaluation of the PKR, raw material costs go up and production orders decline.

This highlights another unique aspect of the power loom sector where such crises allow the interests of the piece-rate workers and small loom owners to converge. Whereas labour law makes no distinction within the ranks of employers, there is a world of difference between big textile capital (represented by vested interests along the value chain and embodied in textile mills and large conglomerates), and smaller employers owning fewer than 10 looms at rented premises, or even inside their homes, as is the case with the families of both Lateef Ansari and Aslam Mairaj. These small owners flourish in times of growth but are left in shambles when crisis strikes, with many forced out of production, as noted in the latest round of crisis by Lateef Ansari. This segmented character of the looms sector highlights a lesser-known and unusual aspect of LQM’s struggle—it has occasionally (in times of macro-economic crisis) joined forces with loom owners to defend the industry in general, by demanding for example, provision of subsidized and uninterrupted electricity. As Lateef explains: “There won’t be any workers to fight for if there is no industry left.”

Beyond such challenges built into the structure of the textile industry, a new nemesis is creeping in with the power to render redundant the labour of large numbers of loom workers: technological change. Already, according to some estimates, 30% of looms have shifted to pricier, more productive, and possibly safer auto looms.

Whereas auto looms still require human power for operations, the more recent shutterless variety drastically reduces human input and exponentially increases output. LQM leaders are well aware of these technological trends: “Our looms produce about 70 to 80 meters of cloth in a 24-hour cycle. The newer Chinese varieties increase production by about 10 times as they have the ability to produce up to 700 to 800 meters in a 24-hour cycle,” remarks Lateef. “What will the workers running the loom industry do if the newer varieties become widespread?” He insists on the need for concerted technical skills training to enable the workforce to adjust to changing times.

LQM’s need to adjust to these changes is reflected in the new priorities of its two top men. Lately, Lateef Ansari has been actively organizing as the Punjab president of a new Lahore-based Left political formation, Haqooq-e-Khalq Party (HKP). The party is building a grassroots electoral campaign in working-class neighborhoods in the south of the city, which were a major base of the industrial labour movement in the heyday of the late 1960s but currently embody wider de-industrialization trends. This is best captured in the partial transition of one of the biggest factories of the area, Packages Factory, into the Packages shopping mall. Mairaj has also been expanding the organizational footprint of his federation into textile mills and big garments factories in Faisalabad. “The future of the workers movement lies in expanding our ranks to the workplaces that employ the most workers,” he explains.

In marking a decade from the Rana Plaza collapse, the year 2023 offers us a moment to stop and reflect upon lessons learnt in the aftermath of the great travesty. Coincidentally, the year also marks two decades since the Pakistani Punjab saw the most heroic show of worker power since the heyday of the country’s labour movement in the 1960s. LQM’s gains may appear modest, but its organized presence at the level of the workplace has ensured that gains could be made whenever the opportunity arose.

Umair Rasheed is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign