The protection of the rights of the workers appears to have become more than a challenge for our country, particularly after the 18th Amendment was passed whereby the subject of labour was devolved to the provinces.
In addition to the challenges involved in the smooth implementation of laws, there also seems to be a lack of preference from the provincial government. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government took five years to enact the KP Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 2015, ban the practice of bonded labour and protect the rights of the workers. Due to this lack of preference, the KP Labour Department has, to date, failed to frame the rules of this law.
The law seems fine on paper as it specifically declares peshgi (a payment made before services are rendered) illegal and also fixes a punitive punishment against the illegal practice. But in the absence of its implementation, the law has so far been unsuccessful in ending this illegal practice. Under this law, the provincial government is authorised to appoint as many labour inspectors who are bound to visit a workplace and promote the welfare of the labour force. But no one bothers to inspect brick kilns and other workplaces where bonded labour continues to be practised or where workers’ rights are violated. There are many places wherein labourers are forced to drink contaminated water and the concepts of child education and women’s rights are disregarded.
Workers can’t speak for their rights. If they do, they end up losing their jobs. There are brick kilns where labourers are forced to work the entire day without being paid their overtime dues. But there is no one to stand up for their rights. Whenever a labourer intends to leave an employer from whom he has received peshgi, his new employer pays his debt to hire him. The process continues, only the ‘master’ changes. The vigilance committee, which is expected to rehabilitate bonded labourers and suggest changes to the government for the effective implementation of the law, is also absent. There are hundreds of workers who are underpaid. But the action of the concerned departments is only limited to papers.
Furthermore, there are a number of bonded or underpaid domestic servants as well. But in the absence of accurate and specific data, there can be no welfare or oversight. Activists believe that this form of exploitation is common among the elite. These bonded domestic workers of KP also include children. However, there are no official figures available with any department.
Among other laws, there also exists a provincial law to regulate minimum wages – the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Minimum Wages Act, 2013. The Minimum Wages Board that has been established under the law has the power to notify a minimum wage amount and ensure that no worker is paid below that. Even though the law empowers the provincial government to appoint as many inspectors to ensure the smooth implementation of the law, the situation on the ground is contrary to it. The workers continue to be paid less than the board’s declared minimum wage rate of Rs15,000 a month.
Although there are laws against modern slavery, Pakistan ranks in the sixth highest position in the Global Slavery Index – we have around 1.8 million bonded labourers in our country. This is because the implementation of laws is weak. How can these laws that are only written in English be understood by a worker? If the workers don’t understand these laws, or have any idea about their rights, how and who will they approach for the enforcement of their rights? The voice for the protection and promotion of labour rights appears hollow. The rights of workers can only be protected when the labourers are educated about their rights and when laws are implemented in letter and spirit.
The government should publish these laws in all local languages and also run a media campaign. There is a need to build schools for the children of labourers and efforts must also be made to rescue children who are victims of bonded labour. A survey should be conducted to ascertain the actual number of bonded and underpaid workers in the province, and welfare work should be initiated on the basis of that figure. The children of the workers should be registered and their birth certificates should also be issued. Moreover, they should be provided with educational, nutritional and health facilities that ought to be properly monitored in accordance with the laws.
The oversight mechanism needs to be improved. The KP Labour Department should coordinate with labour inspectors and ensure that inspections, in areas where bonded labour is practiced, are conducted regularly. The KP Minimum Wage Board should also chalk-out a strategy to implement the minimum wage law. All laws and rules pertaining to labour and bonded labour should be translated into local languages, including Pashto and Urdu, and propagated through the media.
The KP government should take cogent steps to implement the laws protecting the rights of the workers at the provincial level. It should also ensure that workers’ medical and health issues are looked after. The role of the various stakeholders and departments should be defined and a strategy should be devised for different provincial departments to work in tandem. There is a general failure to implement laws. However, steps ought to be taken to improve the implementation mechanism so as to ensure that the rights of workers are protected.
The writer is a Peshawar-based lawyer.
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