A House Of Cards: Mobina Junaid

Victim: Mohammed Shahbaz..Survivors: Mohammed Junaid, Abdul Ghaffar (father), Mobina Junaid (mother), Mohammed Asif (brother - not photographed) (Asim Rafiqui)

“We came with nothing.” He said in response to my question about why they had moved to Karachi. “There was no work, no way to make a living in Shahdadpur.”

Each year thousands make a one-way journey from rural Sind towards the edge neighbourhoods of Karachi. Escaping a life of deep poverty, exploitation and abandonment where inequitable land ownership, exploitative sharecropping agreements, and unproductive farming practices make life unsustainable. Inevitably entire families head for the city in the hope of finding a way to feed themselves. The recent floods have of course only exacerbated the situation, but they have not fundamentally changed the economic equation that maintains millions in abject poverty, social exclusion and economic backwardness. Those who can escape, do so at the first chance.

“We had done well until now and things were starting to get better.” We are sitting in Abdul Gaffar’s family home, a pleasnt, well kept house in Baldia Town. Freshly made cups of tea sit in front of us. “We were doing well now. This house is our own, though we are paying off the loan in installments. But it is our own.”

Abdul Ghaffar had left his home town some seventeen years ago and he, along with three young children and a wife, headed towards Karachi to find a better life. As I sat with him in his home, he wept for his son who had died in the fire on September 11th, lamenting that he had never imagined that his journey would end in this way. After seventeen years of hard work, things were beginning to come together, and that they, as a family, were finally finding a way to stand on their feet and dream about bigger things. It had taken a lot of courage and hope to come here to Karachi, but he had never imagined that it would all have come to this.

I can hear her crying in her room. His voice breaks as he fights to control himself. His face, despite being scared by years of hard work and toil, suggests a man of great personal integrity and inner strength. “She had wanted to see him stepping into manhood – to marry, to start his own family, to enter the next stage.” His voice trails off as he looks into the distance. I suspect that he is trying to avoid making eye contact.

The journey from Shahdadpur had taken them two days, though it is only about 250km from Karachi. With little or no money, their belongings in small bags, and three small children to care for along the way, the journey had taken a lot longer than they had thought. Family members who had already moved to Karachi earlier had encouraged them to come, telling them about the possibilities available in the city. It had not taken much convincing for Abdul Ghaffar to agree. There was nothing for him in Shahdadpur, and his lands were too small to live on.

But Karachi too had not proven easy. It had been a struggle to find work. He finally found work as a handy man, though often he would spend hours sitting outside on the streets with his tools of the trade, in the hope that someone would come by and hire him for the day. His three sons were also put to work – Mohammed Shabaaz was only twelve when he started working at the garment factory. Slowly, over the years, they had also managed to secure a loan from local money lenders and invest in a house.

“I am still waiting for my son.” I hear her say “I can’t sleep at night. I long for him, my son, my soul, to come home.” When Shabaaz had died, they had been in the process of making improvements to the home, repairing the roof and planning on adding a second floor. Shabaaz was to marry soon, and his wife would need her own space in the house. They had been optimistic despite the realities around them – a rising cost of living, an increasingly fragile work space, backbreaking work hours, little or no room to negotiate salaries, rising criminality and violence in the neighborhood, and a constant fear of losing it all at the whim of the factory owners. All this was perhaps why Abdul Ghaffar had been keen on Shabaaz opening his own tailoring shop and find a more stable way of making a living. As I look around the room I can see two new sewing machines the family had recently purchased as part of this plan.

“I curse them those who did this.” Mobina, Shabaaz’s mother had sat at the back of the room, but her voice, raised to spit out these words, cut past the bodies of the men sitting in front of me. “May their children burn as mine did. I curse them!”

It had all been so fragile. With the death of his son a major source of income had disappeared. The family was once again concerned about home to make ends meet. The home loan, electricity, gas, food, transportation, and health care bills pretty much ate through what the two remaining sons made at their factory jobs. They feared having to leave the house, though Abdul Ghaffar was adamant that he would do whatever it took to make sure that did not happen.

“This was the last piece of clothing he sewed.” His brother Mohammed Junaid holds a black shalwar kameez elaborately adorned with embroidery work on the collars and cuffs. “A wedding outfit. Now this is my last memory of him.”

You can’t help but realize that the family’s dreams are based on nothing more than a hope and a prayer. The same years during which this family had tried to improve their lot, dreaming of moving up in the world, had been the years of severe economic decline in the country, of rising inflation, of disappearing labor and collective rights, and a weakening of the state’s sense of responsibility towards its labor as welfare other programs have been brutally cut. A continued focus on export oriented industries and a desire to belong to the ‘global marketplace’ has led to ‘investment friendly’ policies which include cracking down on unions, removing factory inspections, holding down wages and getting around social security commitments.

“He had come home for lunch that day.” Mobina is speaking, but to no one in particular. “I heard him teasing his niece, laughing as he rushed back to the factory. He was afraid that the owners may fire him if he was late.” Her face contorts with anguish. “I will never forget that last laugh. I never even saw him leave!”

Flexibility – a word heard often around the conferences held by industrialists, industry organisations, government ministers and economics, means an easily accessible, useable and removable workforce towards which the corporations and the state have little or no obligations or responsibility beyond the pay-per-piece. It is what the marketplace demands. An over-supply of unskilled labor drifting into the cities from the rural areas, each wave more desperate than the first, means that there is little incentive to offer living wages or reasonable work hours. Using ‘contractors’ ensures that the employers can avoid paying social security benefits and offering any health and other insurance. This despite the country being a signatory of almost every international labor rights and human rights convention.

When I ask about his salary Abdul Ghaddar quietly answers “Shabaaz was making about Rs. 7000 a month.” There is a tinge of if embarrassment in his voice. “Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.”

The desperate search for jobs requires a reliance on biradari or caste, religion or other allegiances. These allegiances are also crucial for finding a home, receiving basic services like water and electricity, and of course, security for the family. The communities divided along these lines, and are unable to come together to fight for their rights and demand better working pay, working conditions and work benefits. If some do persist on demanding better working conditions, reasonable pay and rightful benefits, they are subjected to the full force of the state and its laws. Many have been charged and imprisoned under Paksitan’s ‘terrorism’ laws. The luckier ones are simply fired. The residents of towns like Baldia Town are rootless, wandering around from short-term job to another short-term job, each on sustaining their life from one day to the next. Abdul Ghaffar and his family are memebrs of are the underclass cut adrift from Pakistan’s cultural modernity, mainstream politics and economic ideology.

“He came to my grandmother in a dream and told her it had been sabotage.” Mohammed Junaid says this with a look in his eyes that suggest that he knows the truth. “He said to her that they had planned it all, and that there had been a reason for it too.”