Labour issues

February 24, 2019

Democratic socialism is being talked about these days due to the rising inequality. How does it augur for the labour force? Labour in Pakistan, as in the rest of developing countries, has a rough...

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Democratic socialism is being talked about these days due to the rising inequality. How does it augur for the labour force? Labour in Pakistan, as in the rest of developing countries, has a rough deal.

Pakistan has a population surplus. Marx has called relative surplus population as the “industrial reserve army”. According to Marx, it “forms a part of the active labour army, but with extremely irregular employment. Hence it furnishes to capital an inexhaustible reservoir of disposable labour power. Its conditions of life sink below the average normal level of the working class; this makes it at once the broad basis of special branches of capitalist exploitation. It is characterised by maximum of working-time, and minimum of wages”.

This, in particular, illustrates the plight of workers who work in the informal economy or are unemployed/underemployed in modern times. However, it does not mean that the conditions of the labour force in the formal sector are markedly better in countries like Pakistan.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2017-18, 72 percent of workers are part of the informal sector. As per the other key statistics in the LFS, the unemployment rate is 5.8 percent, relatively high in the urban areas compared to the rural areas; higher amongst women compared to men. In terms of employment status, 42.4 percent workers are hired by others, 34.8 percent are own account workers, and 21.4 percent are contributing family workers. Agriculture (38.5 percent) and services (37.8 percent) are the high employment providing sectors and industry (23.7 percent) falls in the third place. We review some key literature (Pasha 2014, PILER 2016, Human Rights Watch 2019, Kauppert and Qadir 2015, UNDP 2017, Hashmi Khan 2017, ADB 2016, PILER 2010, Hisam 2006) for this article.

The labour market is considered ‘underdeveloped’ in Pakistan. Labour rights are not being effectively enforced according to international labour conventions due to an increase in unemployment as well as slow economic growth. There is prevalence of bonded and child labour. In an environment of wage inequality; women earn relatively less. Work conditions are unsafe, and collective bargaining is quite weak. There are curbs on freedom of association. Violations of labour laws are often not countered due to weak/absent labour inspection systems. These poor conditions of the labour force in Pakistan may be somewhat similar to other developing countries with similar economic growth levels.

One would assume that labour unions would provide protection to workers rights. However, the unionisation rates are very low across all sectors, with marginally higher unionisation in larger firms and non-existent unionisation in the unorganised labour-intensive units. There is fragmentation in the labour movement. In effect, statutory minimum wage is the only protection offered to workers by the government, though even that often remains unenforced, particularly in the informal economy. Real wages are considered to be declining.

The casualisation of the labour force is represented by piece-rate employment, particularly amongst home-based workers. Sub-contracting piece-rate work to low-skilled labour force is common. The majority of labour do not have proper contracts. Women face harassment at workplaces and are not given maternity leave.

There is also ‘unfree labour’ in Pakistan in the form of bonded workers who are estimated to be around two million, particularly in the brick kiln and agriculture sectors. Bonded labour primarily works through work acquired in view of non-payment of ‘peshgi’ or debt. Child labour is also in practice, though it is estimated to have declined in the recent past. Restrictions on women’s mobility and work might induce higher levels of child labour, particularly amongst boys, and reversing this trend could decrease it.

According to informal estimates, there might be 20 million home-based workers in Pakistan, with the majority (12 million) of them women. Sindh and Punjab have drafted policies for home-based workers, andSindh passed the law last year too.

The last available national labour policy was announced in 2010, though it is considered deficient by labour rights advocates on many counts such as absence of discussion on the unionisation of agricultural workers and lack of strategic guidelines to address gender disparity, amongst others. Other than many national labour laws, all provinces and ICT have passed labour-related laws in the recent past with Sindh taking the lead. However, Punjab’s law on child labour in the brick kilns in 2016 has legitimised the credit ‘peshgi’ to an extent, and is considered problematic. Labour laws are often not implemented either.

In terms of the way forward, there is a need to ensure occupational safety and health. About 3.5 percent workers report some kind of occupational injury or disease. Agriculture and construction work are considered most hazardous. Fires like the ones at Baldia Town and the Gadani Ship Breaking Yard in Karachi were most unfortunate. So is the loss of life in coalmine accidents.

There is some evidence that select transport workers organisations offer some collective care arrangements and protection against misuse of power by law-enforcement agencies. It is encouraging. So is the BISP’s Waseela-e-Taleem initiative that offers conditional cash transfer to support families for children’s enrolments and retention. This might help with child labour.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the federal and provincial governments revise the relevant labour laws to bring them in conformity with international labour standards; and investigate mistreatment and abuse of workers and prosecute those undertaking it. It also advises the provincial governments make the labour inspection system credible and widespread. And asks international and domestic manufacturers to implement labour rights as part of their agreements.

Other than the government of Pakistan’s obvious responsibility, the international brands too often neglect abuse of labour in developing countries like Pakistan and have an equal responsibility to ensure compliance with labour rights through the entire value chains.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.

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