Recently I got into an interesting argument with an old acquaintance. This person belongs to the privileged class, has an office at the Karachi stock exchange, and knows all about trade, commerce and money matters. We had met after a long time. After the usual hello, our discussion went straight to the topic of minimum wages.
Surprisingly, he started lamenting the Sindh government for raising the minimum wages from Rs17,500 to Rs25,000 in a single stroke. His concerns were all for the factory owners, and how they will arrange for the additional amount for the thousands of workers in the hundreds of factories scattered across Karachi. He asked where the money will come from to pay the workers as per the Sindh government order. He made it a question about the survival of the industries, and said some will close down or move. He called the decision unfair and against the business community.
Being a service provider, my argument was a bit different. I opined that Sindh government’s performance has been disastrous in the last 10 years in every sphere of life, whereas this was one ‘good’ thing that came out of the government. Some relief has been provided for the miserable masses who find it difficult to make ends meet in the current unprecedented inflation.
The daily wage earner is worst hit and unable to manage with the back-breaking price hike of essential goods, whereas the business community can always find ways to manage through this crises. Besides majority of the workers belong to unregistered enterprises - cottage industries, the owners of which are already underpaying the workers.
The story of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ has become a cliché, but I sincerely feel that if you deprive a person on any scale, on bare essentials of life by design or otherwise, he will not hesitate to find ways to supplement his income, by fair or unfair means. It is survival, plain and simple. It is us who unconsciously sow the seeds of corruption and crime in the society by not paying the rightful wages. We are responsible of pushing the poor segments of the society to crime.
It would be unfair to judge the Police department as the most corrupt department of all because if we look at their working conditions, living conditions and the pay scale, we may have a different point of view. The police staff is not ‘born’ corrupt, but there are peculiar conditions created by the system that opens up ways to unfair means. The element of ‘power’ in the hand of governmental staff becomes an advantage to defraud the hapless masses, but if we were to conduct a detailed investigation on the pay scales, we find that since our independence the wage board of the government of Pakistan was completely out of sync and created a disproportionate policy of pay scales for the lower cadre.
The salaries were never commensurate with the cost of living. Voila! For ‘power’ wielding staff it is easy to make extra money on the roads, in offices and our notorious thanas. But the most miserable are the ones who serve sans power. The ‘illegitimate income’ syndrome has become so justified that it is not a means to an end anymore, but a legitimate right. Once the system becomes corrupted and accepted as a norm, there are no limits. It poisons the whole system.
The middle class and lower middle class are struggling, but the lower classes are in a critical state. The ‘class’ difference creates a general resentment and host of other social ills. The percentage of people under poverty in Pakistan is 40 percent.
We have no study to show what poverty does to a society. Today the average cost of living for ‘lower middle class’ is calculated at Rs50,000, which is quite unfair considering the prevalent double digit inflation, so is it not justifiable to pay half of that amount to a daily wage earner.
It is ironic that the factory owners when dining in five star hotels with their families would happily pay Rs17,500 for a single meal, but they are oblivious to the fact that a daily wage earner has to pay for 90 meals for an entire month in that amount, and if he has a wife and two kids, that would be 360 meals in the same amount. (And this is just food on the list of items of survival).
Moving factories to areas where labour is cheap is not such a bright idea either. Look at the example of China where every manufacturer of the world shifted their factories because of cheap labour. Now China has become a workshop of the world and a powerhouse beyond comprehension. The factory owners were blindly transferring power base to a foreign land, while leaving their own manpower unemployed and impoverished, all in greed of temporary cost saving in wages. Profit over people!
There are several government and semi-government organisations that are under-paying daily wage earners and denying various benefits to their workers. We know of a journalist and social activist, Naeem Sadiq, who has waged a war against such organisations that exploit the poor. He has singlehandedly raised awareness and exposed the conditions of the poor wage earners who are being short-changed. The good news is that many an organisations have responded positively.
My argument in favour of increase in wage was not of any consequence with my friend in discussion but I was convinced in the end that campaigns like highlighting plight of poor segments of the society, accountability of ‘power wielders’, legal support and a new wage board with new data on cost of actual living might somehow start to make some improvement on this front.
The writer is a design consultant