Drone strikes, factory fires and imperialism in Pakistan

December 15, 2012

by Akram Javed (Source : Tanqeed)

The factory fire in Karachi is no less an outcome of imperialism in its neoliberal capitalist face, than drone strikes are the outcome of imperialism in its armed warfare face.

Let’s talk a little bit about what imperialism looks like. Pakistanis and Muslims in general talk a lot about imperialism—mainly about American imperialism—but we do it in a pretty narrow way. We tend to focus on American military interventions, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan: their invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and their constant military operations in Pakistan, the tip of which are the drone strikes.

For some reason, we don’t tend to point to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and other Pakistani military brass as “American agents,” even though they have secret meetings, plan out military operations, and agree on drone attacks. They come out every few weeks to condemn the drone attacks, but the Defence Secretary Lieutenant-General (Retd.) Asif Yasin Malik recently pointed out that drone attacks are carried out with the permission of the Pakistan government.

We may note that America goes around the world oppressing Muslims, and once in a while some of us might even make connections with America’s oppression of non-Muslims. But, is the American military and its support for corrupt rulers all there is to imperialism?

We have to understand that imperialism goes beyond geopolitics, and also has an economic aspect. The economic aspects of imperialism are not as visible, and they don’t make for headlines, but their effects are no less vicious. In fact, the September 11, 2012 Baldia Town factory fire in in Karachi is a prime example of how imperialism works on a day-to-day basis, quite apart from military interventions.

We’ve come to know that the factory workers were producing jeans for KiK, a very large German multinational company. By Western standards, KiK sells very cheap clothes throughout the European Union. A pair of basic jeans costs €9.99, or, about Rs. 1240.

To keep costs low, KiK outsources production of its clothes to Third World countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. Here, KiK doesn’t have to invest in what we call “fixed capital,” like factories or other major equipment. Instead, they hire a local factory owned by Pakistanis, Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his sons Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila, of Ali Enterprises.

All KiK has to pay for is the raw materials and the labor power that the Ali Enterprises use. The price of cotton is settled more or less on the international market, but the price of labor power is supposed to be regulated by laws and things like that. The minimum wage in Pakistan is currently set at Rs. 8,000. News reports say that workers made anywhere between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 10,000. They were often made to work unpaid overtime as well.

Let us put this into perspective. One pair of basic jeans costs Rs. 1240, four jeans add up to about Rs. 5,000 and eight jeans add up to Rs. 10,000. Needless to say, the average worker probably contributed to the production of a lot more than just four to eight jeans.

So where does the revenue earned from all of that extra work the worker did go?

It goes largely to profits for Ali Enterprises and KiK, rather than to better wages. Why is it that workers aren’t paid better wages?

KiK doesn’t hire production workers in Europe where, due to the struggles of trade unions over the course of the twentieth century, the price of labor power is relatively high. That said, even in Europe KiK tends to pay its workers less than the minimum wage. In Pakistan, KiK doesn’t even do the hiring; rather, it outsources production and hiring to Ali Enterprises.

But in fact, even Ali Enterprises doesn’t likely do the hiring in Pakistan itself. In Pakistan, any enterprise that hires more than ten people is required by law to allow unionization and to issue appointment letters to its workers, which enable them to receive social security. Yet, the vast majority of workers in Pakistan—over 95 percent by some estimates—have no such appointment letters. Indeed, none of the Baldia Town factory fire victims had such letters.

Partly, employers are just able to get away with not issuing appointment letters; but importantly, employers are able to hire labour power indirectly through sub-contractors. Each sub-contractor is responsible for recruiting (and disciplining) a certain number of workers. That sub-contractor is probably a worker himself, but one who gets paid for the extra workers he brings in. So labor laws need not apply, even in large factories.

Yet another part of this non-application of labor laws is the willful suppression of any and all kinds of union organizing. Factory owners and sub-contractors alike are often close to police, or just hire their own-armed guards, who discourage and harass union organizers. They also pay off factory inspectors and the like, and even international inspectors appear to be compromised.

The government has taken to trying union activists in anti-terrorism courts, for instance, recently convicting six power-loom workers in Faisalabad to a combined 490 years in prison over a labor dispute. So in the absence of independent unions bringing together the voices and power of workers and opposing scams, workers’ rights are hardly implemented. No unions means few, if any, workers’ rights.

But what does all of this have to do with imperialism? It’s precisely the fact that labor power is so unregulated, so undervalued, so cheap in countries like Pakistan that attracts companies like KiK to contract out their production here. They reap super-profits off of the backs of Pakistani workers, when compared to what they would have to pay to German or European workers. And if regulations are tightened, these multinationals just go somewhere else.

Industrialists like the owners of Ali Enterprises can be considered, in this case, “foreign agents” as they are more concerned with developing the profits of foreign companies than independently developing the productive forces of Pakistan and paying workers at least somewhat appropriately.

These poor labor conditions and labor laws are the outcomes of local political elites—military and civilian alike—who have crushed union organizing over the past several decades, and the pressure of international financial institutions (like the IMF and World Bank) to relax labor legislation and to open up the Pakistani market to foreign enterprises. This is how local “agents” and imperialists come together to suck the fruits of the work of Pakistani workers.

The relentless drive for the pursuit of profits means lowering labor standards and laws. It means weakening or eliminating unions. It means paying workers so little that they often have to work overtime or multiple jobs to make ends meet. It also means not spending appropriately on inspecting factories and ensuring that they are safe. All such costs are a subtraction from profits.

The factory fire in Karachi is no less an outcome of imperialism in its neoliberal capitalist face, combined with the actions of what we can call “comprador” capitalists in Pakistan, than drone strikes are the outcome of imperialism in its armed warfare face, combined with the actions of our comprador generals and politicians. War is an important method of making the world safer for imperialist capitalism, if not directly then indirectly.

These are but two sides of the same coin, and Pakistanis must resolutely oppose both forms of imperialism, geopolitical and economic. This means breaking the back of the generals and civilian politicians who welcome both the American drones and the multinational corporations to oppress and exploit our people.