Drone strikes, factory fires and imperialism in Pakistan

Dec 2012

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?

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