Hazer Gul is eliminating the system of bonded labor in the cottage industry sector of Pakistan. Starting with the weaver community in Swat, Hazer is establishing rights awareness, collective power, education, and is integrating informal workers as key players in the economy. Rather than demonize the powerful middlemen in the value chain, he has developed peaceful, mutually beneficial solutions to break through a traditionally exploitive system.
Having freed himself from life as a bonded laborer, Hazer has an informed and thorough understanding of the problems that plague people working in cottage industries throughout Pakistan, and has developed a plan to empower laborers involved in the sector. Through the Islampur Cottage Industries Association Hazer educates laborers about their rights, helps them come together to assert those rights, links them to banks and goods suppliers, and guides them through the process of producing and marketing their products while keeping the middlemen involved.
Hazer implements his plan at various levels: He identifies a problem within a community and organizes the workers within the community to come together to overcome the issue, such as poor working conditions, or lack of monetary compensation. A worker’s association is formed to provide training and networking services to gain access to a wider market, price their products at a competitive level, and negotiate with middlemen. At the household level, Hazer works with other citizen organizations (COs) and the government to introduce family planning and access to formal education. At the industry level, Hazer engages designers and professionals from the industry to help improve weaving tools and provide product design services. At the government level, Hazer campaigns for the recognition of the rights of the cottage industry workers and lobbies to change and implement worker protection laws.
Pakistan has a thriving cottage industry, renowned in South Asia for its expertise in textiles, weaving, woodwork, and pottery. According to various surveys, there are nearly 10 million home-based workers in Pakistan’s cottage industry. Despite the large number of people involved in this industry, it is still considered an informal sector and a majority of these workers are exploited daily by middlemen and other power players in the economy.
Swat, located in northern Pakistan, has the largest weaving community in the country. An independent state until 1967, Swat still lacks labor legislation and worker protection laws, thus, home-based workers are not recognized by law. This has lead to the establishment of a labor-based caste system, whereby weavers are considered of a lower caste, and bonded labor has become an entrenched reality in society. Workers live and work in unhealthy and unsanitary conditions and are paid with food; never able to save enough money to break out of this cycle of exploitation. As a result, illiteracy is high, and the lack of government services, such as public schooling, only exacerbate the problem. In the past, weavers have come up with ideas to improve their situation. For example, families have resorted to having more children in the hopes of increased productivity (i.e. with children and adults weaving together) to increase their financial standing. But this strategy led only to more mouths to feed and no way to move into a cash economy. Instead, it only increased the debt and financial hardships of the community.
Many organizations have tried to ameliorate this problem by removing the middleman and encouraging the weavers and laborers to directly apply for loans, open their own shops and sell their own products in the market place. This approach has backfired time and again as the middlemen undercut their prices and even managed to coerce the national bank to increase interest rates, making it impossible for weavers to pay the principal amount or the interest. The middlemen never pay in cash because they do not want the weavers to compete with them by starting their own businesses. The overall working and living conditions are poor, a significant cause of the workers declining health.
Hazer worked as a weaver for a middleman for more than 8 years and encountered a number of the problems cottage industry workers face each day. He identified the root causes of these problems as the lack of collective bargaining power, laws, education, and awareness. Hazer’s organization, Islampur Cottage Industry Association, works toward addressing and changing each of these issues.
Hazer begins by studying a community and identifying a problem they collectively face. Since most families with the same occupation tend to live together as a community, Hazer educates them on their rights and benefits from the existing policies of their professions. Once they are united under the Islampur Cottage Industry Association, they campaign the local government for recognition and protection under the law. The Islampur Cottage Industry Association currently has 463 members, of which 53 are women.
Hazer’s organization then acts as an intermediary for market information for the workers, who use this information for collective bargaining power with the middlemen. His program now includes training in marketing to the weavers to help them improve their bargaining skills and continued market surveys to identify where the value addition is done and the market for the value-added products. The middlemen are not cut out from the process—they are an essential part of it. A number of middlemen serve on the advisory board and also help with the technical feasibility studies. By doing this, Hazer has ensured a peaceful working relationship between the workers and middlemen; both he believes are integral players in the industry.
Hazer also realized early on that once he provided information on the supply-side of the market to workers, they were more motivated to improve their tools, and so he brought outside professionals to help the weaving community develop their new products. The modified version of the traditional weaving tools are easily adjustable, even in small rooms, and do not require the weavers to work outdoors in harsh weather conditions common in the northern regions of Pakistan.
Another aspect of Hazer’s work revolves around providing education and health awareness to the families of the workers. His organization carries out family planning education and tries to change the perception that “more kids means more workers.” His organization also educates communities on investing and capacity-building, and placing cash and assets directly in the hands of the workers. As a result, there are now 5,000 looms in Islampur owned by the community, as opposed to 1,200 in 1998.
Integral to Hazer’s work has been convincing local banks to give interest-free and low markup loans to workers. Earlier, the national bank had been pressured by the powerful middlemen to increase interest rates, making it impossible for laborers to borrow money. The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has recently attained much more autonomy, leading to more banks being opened in the region. Hazer has taken advantage of this opportunity to work with local banks and has worked out programs for laborers to borrow money at very low interest rates.
By ensuring that the workers are able to articulate their problems and lobby for governmental support, while also produce and sell their goods at competitive prices, Hazer is building an educated society which works in tandem with the middlemen, and contributes to uplifting the national economy.
In 2009, as a result of one of his campaigns, the Ministry of Industries in the Khyber declared Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province Islampur a model village and granted 100 canals of land and a substantial amount of money (Pakistani Rupees 68M or US$805,690) for its development. The government, in collaboration with Hazer’s organization, is constructing a facility to address the problems of underserved and marginalized workers. This facility includes a state-of-the-art weaving college and training center, a school for the worker’s children, 100 units of weaving looms for the neediest, a branch of the Industrial Development Bank to provide interest free/low markup loans, a park for the women and children, and small residential units for poor workers. With the help of the government, Hazer has the financial flexibility to replicate this project in other areas of Pakistan.
Born in Islampur, Swat in 1976 to a low-income family, Hazer began working as a firewood collector at the age of eight to support his family and then as a weaver at 16. Although working over 9 hours a day, he could never accumulate enough cash to feed his family. Witnessing the exploitation of the weaving community at the hands of the middlemen, Hazer realized that the solution had to come from within the affected community. He worked as a weaver until the age of 24, and studied the community’s problems to escape the cycle of debt and exploitation. Managing to break free from the hold of the middleman, Hazer attended school. In college he began working as a pump operator at the Public Health Engineering Department. Looking into improving the water supply to his village, Hazer organized the households to form the Islampur Alfalah Tanzeem, a community-based organization established to create awareness around problems in the community, and developed a better understanding of how issues at the household and community levels, such as large family size, increasing pollution, and illiteracy were all linked to their working issues as weavers.
Hazer believes that if this problem of bonded labor among home-based workers is not solved, it will lead to huge numbers of jobless men and women and/or conflict between workers and middlemen. The military and militants pay well and will be seen as an attractive alternative to home-based poorly paid work. The economy will not develop. If the problems of the poor are solved, Hazer envisions educated cottage industry communities gradually integrated into a cash economy that contributes to the national economy. He believes there will be less conflict and increased opportunities; peace will then be ensured.
Motivated by his personal circumstances and his deep understanding of the problems faced by the cottage industry workers, Hazer collaborated with Ashoka Fellows Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Sharar in Swat to carry out preliminary research on cottage industry communities in the north. The results prompted him to establish the Islampur Cottage Industries Association in 2004 for all craft workers in Swat and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.