What you won’t learn about Pakistan in the WikiLeaks revelations

By Jeff Ballinger

Recent reports from three disparate sources provide an explanation for the parlous state of publiceducation in Pakistan, a major factor behind increasing instability there.  In early June, both Brookings and the International Labor Rights Forum released studies which bespeak a fateful symmetry; Brookings’ researchers point to tens of millions of dollars (each year for several years) pledged by Western donors to shore up the long-neglected school system – far from enough to fix it – while the ILRF report documented wage-cheating in the soccer ball-stitching industry.  Those greedy bosses join thousands of others according to our third field report – an August newspaper story quoting Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research (Piler).  He says that 80 per cent of employers across Pakistan fail to pay the miserly minimum wage of PKR  7,000 per month.  Added up, it is a figure which easily matches the donors’ education dollars.  Numbers from the Brookings report show that the free schooling offered by the religious madrasas attract hundreds of thousands of young men whose parents cannot afford modest school fees that would assist in reforming the dysfunctional state system.

There is widespread agreement in business schools, newspaper opinion pages and in the discourse of development professionals: these hand-stitched soccer ball workers are “the lucky ones” in Pakistan, since they are producing for export and the buyers are mainly rich-country brands.  My research in the late 1980s in Indonesia proved the conventional wisdom wrong – workers making expensive sports shoes for export were getting cheated even when the minimum wage was 86 cents a day and beaten or demeaned for making production mistakes.  The ILRF study demonstrates how to rebut the mainstream – rosier – view of Germany’s largest newspaper: “…sporting goods industry [has created] a rare oasis of wellbeing in Sialkot” with double the national average annual income ($650/yr).  Interviews with 218 workers show that more than half were earning less than the minimum wage of $876/yr.  Moreover, 70% of those interviewed were employed on a “casual” basis, meaning that the employer saved social insurance payments required for permanent workers and the workers lost this and other key protections afforded those in the regular workforce (such as the right to form a union).  Astonishingly, the Fairtrade Labeling Organization “certified” the Anwar Khawaja Ind. (AKI) factory where 85% of the 3,916 workers are casual.  At Vision Technology Corp. – another FLO-certified factory (also OK’d by Social Accountability International) – one worker reported working for over 4 years on a temporary basis and earning only 60% of the minimum wage; Nike buys balls here for its Umbro brand and it is a FIFA licensee.  (Please see my writing about FIFA/soccer balls here).

Defenders of the corporate self-regulation model often point to increased worker awareness of factory rules (derived from an industry-dominated meeting in Atlanta, Georgia in this case).  The ILRF reports, however, that less than 20% of workers interviewed had any knowledge of such “codes of conduct” – even after close to fifteen years of implementation and literally thousands of “audits.”

The study finds FLO certification to be “very questionable” – especially since the organization has been observing these workplaces for eight years.  One key flaw in the methodology of FLO-CERT (FLO’s independent certification entity) is the long-discredited practice of interviewing of workers at the production site, instead of at some neutral site where a worker may speak freely.  In addition, the body says that it is unable to share audit results with workers or their advocates, due to “confidentiality agreements” with buyers.  Piler, the worker-rights watchdog group mentioned earlier, makes an even more serious allegation against Social Accountability International – in a May, 2010 report – that its certification is outright “for sale” if a factory is willing to pay $2,460.

Far worse than the venality of Western-run certification agencies, is the denial of worker rights to these “lucky ones”.  These workers should be the first in Pakistan to force employers to the bargaining table (there are scattered examples of effective unions in Pakistan, but they operate in a repressive milieu) and thereby become a beacon for workers in other industries.  This happened seventy years ago in the U.S. with needletrades unions assisting in the organization of steel factories and the automotive industry, to name but a couple.  Independent unions also provide a key support pillar for democratization partly as a check against corruption and as an alternative contestation arena to tribal politics.

To be sure, many in the “democracy promotion” field are not neo-cons or cynical neo-imperialists. Most government-funded operatives, however, do share a distrust of what can loosely be described as populism. Examining their key tenets reveals an over-reliance on institution-building (such as party recruitment or policy-research projects) – the infrastructure of polyarchy.

One major deleterious impact of this approach on the “democracy development” debate has been the squeezing out of conflict – a key driver in early democracy-promotion literature. According to the political scientist, Dankwart A. Rustow, back in the early ‘70s, “What infant democracy requires is not a lukewarm struggle but a hot family feud.” He was even more explicit in asserting that there was no case he could think of where notable advances in democracy had been made except as the result of crisis.

The implications of the move away from contestation – to a hybrid one-party “capitalist” regime – were clearly expressed by Samuel Huntington as he observed foreign investment shifting from newly-democratic Korea and Taiwan to military-backed regimes in Beijing and Jakarta: “If China develops economically under authoritarian rule in the coming decades and expands its influence and control in East Asia, democratic regimes in the region will be significantly weakened.”

The best summary statement that I have found comes from somewhat surprising source (surprising to me, at least):  “Democracy is not achieved simply by the hidden process of socio-economic development bringing a country to a point where it has the necessary ‘prerequisites’ for it; it is not delivered by the grace of some sociological deus ex machina; and neither is it simply the result of the divisions, strategies, tactics, negotiations and settlements of contending elites. Political scientists who conceive of democratic transition simply in this way miss an important element. That element is struggle, personal risk taking, mobilization and sustained imaginative organization on the part of a large number of citizens.”

Unfortunately, this “old school” approach cannot be found in any of Larry Diamond’s academic writings and there are very few examples of such lucidity in the eighteen-year history of his Journal of Democracy, most of which is turgid and formulaic. With his base at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford, Diamond is one of the best-known and best-funded democracy gurus. (To his credit, however, he spoke forthrightly – on Democracy Now!, no less – about what he found in Baghdad during an 8-month stint running democracy programs for the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004.)

What Diamond may never write is an expansion on the quote above with the full recognition that, when mobilization occurs in the developing world today, instigators often end up in jail, or worse. In far too many cases, repression is accepted as the normal course and that is especially true when U.S. corporate interests are benefiting from that repression.

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