Canteen politics

September 19,2017

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The West Pakistan Factories Canteens Rules, 1959 states that “the occupier of every factory wherein more than 250 workers are ordinarily employed and which is specified by [the] government [through] a notification [on] this behalf shall provide in or near the factory an adequate canteen according to the standards prescribed in these rules”.

It is, therefore, a mandatory requirement of the law that in order to have a canteen in a factory, the number of workers should at least amount to 250 and the factory should also be notified by the government in the gazette to establish a canteen. There is also a provision in these rules to form a managing committee that comprises equal representation from the management and workers to run the affairs of the canteen. The managing committee will be consulted by the occupier about the quality and quantity of food that is to be served in the canteen, the arrangement of menus and the timings of meals in the canteen.

Why it is necessary to provide the canteen facility in factories? A majority of workers live far away from factories and have to report to work quite early in the morning. During the continuous process at industries, they work eight-hour shifts. A day’s plant operation is completed after the workers have worked in three shifts – morning, evening and night.

The night shifts usually start around midnight and last until morning, causing hardship to workers and their families. There are not only countless difficulties involved in commuting to work but performing strenuous work while others are sleeping can also be a challenge. However due to the rotation of shifts, there is a gap of two weeks between the recurring night shifts for the same group of workers.

Under these circumstances, it is unreasonable to expect workers to make arrangements for their own meals. The employers are obliged to establish canteens for workers in order to fulfil their foremost biological need. Whosoever manages a factory canteen also tends to face persistent complaints and criticism from workers who avail the facility. These mostly pertain to the quality of food that is being served, especially if the services have been contracted to other companies by the employer.

In order to avoid handling of complaints, most employers make their collective bargaining agent (CBA) union responsible for running the affairs of the canteen within the amount agreed to in the collective labour agreement – which is usually reached for a period of two years. The purpose behind this arrangement is that the complaints of workers are directed towards the union without involving the management.

Most companies provide separate canteens for their management staff and their heavily unionised workers. While there are starters such as soup and fresh salad and at least one meat dish followed by a dessert in the management canteen, the menu in the workers’ canteen is much simpler.

There is also a huge difference between the prices of meals charged from both the categories of employees. The subsidised price of meals charged from the management staff is fixed by the top management while the latter does not have much control over the highly subsidised price of workers’ meals. The CBA union also does not allow the management to increase price of meal, which is fixed once and continues to remain the same for decades.

The provision of canteen facilities by the factory owners had suddenly gained momentum in the early 1970s, when most of the industries were nationalised by the first PPP government.

I also worked in a state enterprise located at Kot Lakhpat in Lahore. Prior to its nationalisation, the factory’s canteen would cater the cheapest of meal at market price. After the factory was nationalised, the CBA union took control of the canteen management with a vengeance and started providing meat dishes to workers on a daily basis at highly subsidised rate. The cost of running the canteen increased manifold while the factory’s output started declining. This factory was denationalised in the late 1970s.

In 1977, I moved to an American multinational company with a fertiliser factory in Daharki, Sindh. The company had established an air-conditioned canteen at its plant premises, which was run by a contractor. The management staff would go for lunch to their homes in the residential colony situated a kilometre away from the plant. The contractors would mostly belong to cities such as Sukkur, Hyderabad and Rahim Yar Khan.

Since the plant would operate continuously, the contractors were required to cater breakfast, lunch, dinner and the midnight meals at subsidised rates. They were engaged through the bidding process and the lowest bidder would take charge of the canteen. Although the contract would be signed for one year, no one would complete this period. Realising that there were no gains, they would simply disappear from Daharki without a trace.

Thereafter, the canteen was run by its staff, headed by an old English-speaking Anglo-Indian man who would even sleep in the canteen. This sequence of events continued to take place for the six years that I was at the plant and the management failed to find a solution.

Based on the above experience, employers should not unnecessarily save money on this account and maintain a reasonable standard of the canteen. The system of having separate canteens with a vast difference in menus for management staff and workers should be done away with and there should be one facility for both. This will not only improve the quality of food served but also provide an opportunity to the management staff to interact with workers in an informal environment.

The writer is an industrial relations professional.



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