Field Diary Pakistan – Sialkot: A city of success stories

By Momina Saqib and Jawad Khan


In Sialkot in the province of Punjab, all roads lead to some sort of manufacturing unit. Thousands of workers in factories big and small, sophisticated production houses, small workshops, even smaller ‘makeries’, in every corner of the city are producing all manner of items for markets all over the world. There is manufacturing of surgical instruments, sporting goods, leather goods, and interestingly, they make bagpipes and Scottish tartan in Sialkot.

A Poverty and Gender Study

Recently, we spent a week in Sialkot investigating ‘who is poor’ and ‘why they are poor’ within the leather sector, and ‘what avenues are available to climb out of poverty’. This visit was part of a countrywide Poverty and Gender Study, which aims to understand poverty and gender dynamics in the sectors MDF works.

Understanding poverty requires a nuanced understanding of incomes and expenditures, as well as opportunities available for poor households to advance or become more productive within certain sectors. Similarly, understanding gender dynamics requires investigating spheres of influence and decision making within a household unit.

To develop this understanding, the Pakistan team spoke to many farmers, workers and households in Sindh, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan. The study is still underway, and results will be published on this website in the coming months.

The top tier

We began our trip by visiting some of the big factories that export items to retailers in Europe and North America. A leather jacket manufacturing facility was located in a large gated complex surrounded by gardens, evoking a college campus. The factory floor was divided among different functions.

In one room, ‘cutters’ converted large swaths of finished leather into smaller pieces. The work requires both dexterity and skill, as cutters try to work quickly while getting the most pieces out of leather sheets of different shapes and sizes with minimum waste. Another room was filled with the buzzing of hundreds of sewing machines, with workers organised in an assembly line – each working on stitching together particular pieces.

Majid Ali has worked as a stitcher’s assistant at the factory for seventeen years. “I am able to earn a good salary working overtime. I also get benefits such as medical assistance and two paid leave days a month. This is enough for my needs so I am happy,” he told us. But we were a little confounded at how seventeen years of apprenticeship has not led to opportunities to advance as a stitcher for Majid. Further probing didn’t get us very far. But we learnt that in some months work dries up, and the factory is forced to shut down and even lay-off some employees.


A cutter at work

The next day we visited a factory that makes motorbike boots. There we met Javaid and Riaz, who spent two years as assistants before becoming a stitcher and cutter. Prospects at this factory seem much brighter; there is work throughout the year and opportunities for progression.

“When I started working here I did not have any skills. Now I stitch the most difficult part of the shoe,” Javaid said. Unlike the jacket factory, workers are paid according to the complexity of their work and the number of pieces they cut or stitch. The incomes of shoe factory workers are generally higher than the jacket factory workers.

This comparison led us to the first hypothesis of the trip to investigate further – workers in growing segments (motorbike boots) are better off than the workers in shrinking segments (jackets).

The Sialkot entrepreneurial spirit

The industry and prosperity of Sialkot does not go very far back. The British colonial presence encouraged the emergence of a craftsmen class who produced and repaired all sorts of goods to serve the needs of the empire. These craftsmen were the original entrepreneurs of the city – investing their savings into workshops. Some have today, grown into factories trading millions of dollars worth of goods.

Most businesses in Sialkot are family owned and operated. Rags-to-riches stories are not uncommon here; anecdotes about the grandfather of ‘so and so’ industrialist who started with borrowed money out of one room were encountered often. Unlike most of Punjab, wealth in Sialkot is not as often a result of feudal inheritances, but a result of entrepreneurial activity. It is the city of possibilities.

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Leather manufacturing in Sialkot has focused on apparel and sports goods

The entrepreneurial spirit continues to flourish. We met Rehan at a leather skills training institute where he was taking designing classes to complement his stitching skills. Rehan worked at a leather apparel factory before setting up his own workshop, or ‘makery’ as they are colloquially referred.

“I started as a helper without any skills but within two months I got promoted to a monitor, and then a stitcher,” Rehan told us. “Opportunities to learn are present but you have to go after those. I learnt different stitches from teachers during my lunch break, and the next time someone left work I got an opportunity to work as a stitcher,” he said.

Having learnt the skills at the factory, Rehan picks up contracted stitching work from factories and does it out of his home. “If you want to succeed you have to start your own makery, or perhaps go abroad,” said Rehan.

The belly of the beast

The bigger factories outsource excess production to the small ‘makeries’, which are a big part of the industry. These workshops are responsive and lean, some are small family-operated enterprises – others employ labour. Working conditions are generally worse than in the factories and their informal nature means that regulations are not enforced or monitored.

It was difficult for us to find ‘makeries’ to visit and conduct interviews; the industry is still reeling from the child labour allegations in the hand stitched football manufacturing sub-sector which effectively shut down home-based football stitching enterprises. Many ‘makery’ owners we contacted suspected us to be inspectors of some sort. When we were finally able to speak to Malik Inam on the phone, after being introduced to him through a trusted contact, he instructed us to find a certain tea stall in the main city market and meet him there.

Stitching jobs are the most common in the industry

In a narrow lane crowded with pickup trucks, horse carts, and rickshaws we were able to locate the tea stall. Together with Inam, we set off on foot through the alleys and came to the building where his ‘makery’ is located. After we climbed a narrow flight of stairs and moved around a courtyard, we came to his ‘makery’ – which operates out of three small, windowless rooms. The rooms were filled to capacity with stitching machines – sheep’s leather flying gloves were being made on the day we visited.

Apprenticeship systems thrive in these ‘makeries’, typically with people starting out as apprentices when they are 15 years of age. There were previously a large number of children below the age of 13 working as apprentices in the sector, but the international advocacy against it has reduced the number considerably. Apprentices only earn a small stipend, but once skilled they can earn more as cutters and stitchers.

Inam told us that he does not let children that should be in school work in his workshop. But circumstances for people are difficult. We met Khalid here, who started working as an apprentice when he was 15 to support his parents and seven younger siblings. “Most of my friends left school after 8th grade – some are working in surgical items, others in denting painting, and some with electricians. School does not help you much, but with skills you can earn money and even go abroad,” said Khalid.

Where are the women?

We also learnt that the involvement of women in the leather sector is minimal. Except for one, none of the factory floors we visited employ any women. Some women we spoke to expressed strong reservations about working away from their homes. It is generally socially stigmatised for women to be working in a factory or even going to a small-scale enterprise in a town.

Despite this, there are many women who need to work because of desperate circumstances and dire need. We met a single mother who works as a quality tester in a glove factory. She told us that she would not be able to support herself or her young child if this job was not available. The factory allows her to bring her child to work, which makes it possible for her to earn money. Other women we talked to expressed a desire to find stable factory employment, but most of the factories in their area will not hire women.

Women used to be extensively involved in home-based football stitching, but the child labour controversy put an end to it. To better monitor working conditions, exporters started to centralise production, which has tackled instances of child labour, but has reduced the work opportunities for home-based women workers.

What’s next?

We came back from Sialkot with some answers but many more questions. Over the coming months the work on the Poverty and Gender study will continue leading to a deeper analysis of urban poverty, specifically for leather sector workers. Meanwhile, as we contemplate our first partnerships in the leather sector in Sialkot, the insights from this study will help us identify which segments to work in, how best to create jobs that are sustainable and provide growth opportunities, and how to encourage businesses to create opportunities that encourage and allow women to work.