Pakistan and the state of unions

By Rayaan Aly Khan
Fri, 05, 24

On 12 September 2012, Pakistan saw the worst factory fire in its history in which 264 garment workers died at Karachi’s Ali Enterprises Factory....

Pakistan and the state of unions


On 12 September 2012, Pakistan saw the worst factory fire in its history in which 264 garment workers died at Karachi’s Ali Enterprises Factory. 1500 people worked in this factory, regulated by German company KiK, which had no fire alarm or extinguisher. Witness accounts claim the management prioritized saving their merchandise over employees. As tragic as the fire was, it is even more dismaying to note this was far from an isolated incident.

Rights of Pakistani working class

The status and rights of Pakistan’s working class are at a highly substandard level. Income inequality is extreme with the income of the richest 20 percent, four times that of the poorest 20 percent. Pakistani labour rights are completely unacceptable, with debt bondage, minimal wages and a lack of security measures plaguing the working class. The Labour Rights Index measures countries’ abilities to provide their workers legal protection. According to the index, Pakistan came 106th out of 115th countries, behind neighbours like Iran, India and China. What I find most interesting from this fact is that Pakistan scored naught on the trade union indicator, which helps explain many of our shortcomings relating to labour rights. Pakistan has just 2.2 percent of its workforce unionized, as the advent of short-term contracts has stopped unionization in its tracks. The Industrial Relations Act 2012 did not encourage their formation, but neuter effective collective bargaining and the direct result has been excessive exploitation of workers.

Pakistan and the state of unions

Purpose of trade unions

Trade unions primarily function to defend the rights of workers. Through collective bargaining, unions can make demands for higher pay and benefits at threat of industrial actions like strikes. All companies need labour, and the threat of losing it is what allows unions to function effectively, which tend to be very successful when they are permitted to form. Unionized workers make 20 percent more money than regular workers and receive better pensions, time off and other forms of compensation. In Pakistan, Human Rights Watch has reported payment under minimum wage, forced overtime and in extreme cases, beatings and sexual abuse. Unions almost exclusively have the power to provide some response by threatening actions, but this can only be done when the government takes steps to support their creation.

Unions and politics

In Pakistan specifically, unions have had mass impact on government policies. Jinnah, himself a union leader, achieved a law in the 1930s permitting everyone in British India to form unions without registration. Strikes and protests by trade unions were a major force in forcing General Ayub to give up power, as mass strikes throughout 1967 in Karachi, Lahore and Multan made it impossible for him to continue despite brute force taken against these workers.

Pakistan and the state of unions

Decline of unions in Pakistan

Despite heavy concentration of wealth and power throughout Pakistan’s history, unions made sure that at the very least, workers could have a chance to stand up for their rights, but the sharp decline of unions began in earnest due to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s privatization laws.

An extreme number of Pakistani workers suddenly began working under short-term contractual agreements, which makes collective bargaining nearly impossible as any protesting employee could be fired with no repercussions. Human Rights Watch has also reported that there are extreme accounts of extended short-term employment with no job security.

Pakistan and the state of unions

Unions rely on permanent employees who can go through multiple periods of bargaining and have the job security of permanent employment, and so contractual agreements effectively made them redundant. It’s also important to note that Pakistan has substantial real unemployment, so attempts from the impoverished working class to stand up for their rights very often means the loss of employment.

While the Industrial Relations Act permits unionization, it has done nothing to promote it. The act forces all unions to register with the government, which is problematic because companies can intimidate or sack their workers before they even attempt to do so. The act also excludes sectoral unionization as only 25 percent of its office-bearers can be from outside the firm. This means it is impossible to put any pressure on industries, for example in the garments industry, where most workers make below minimum wage. According to estimates in 2016 by Kamarat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, current labour laws exclude 75 percent of Pakistan’s workers from forming unions.

Pakistan and the state of unions

Student unions’ status

Student Unions are also greatly threatened in our modern educational sphere. They have a particularly rich history in the subcontinent: The All India Muslim Students Federation (AIMSF) of pre-partition India was a major ally of the Muslim League, through which university students played an active role in campaigning for the existence of an independent Pakistan. This rich history lasted till General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship, when he banned student unions in 1984, fearing they would mobilize against him in the manner of the East Pakistan Muslim Students’ League, who had agitated against Ayub Khan before rallying behind the Awami League during the founding of Bangladesh. Fearing our student union’s historical tendency towards partisan politics, student unions remain illegal in Pakistan.

Student unions importance

Beyond simply their revolutionary potential, student unions have historically served two essential functions. Through allegiances with established parties and formal structures for voting and political debate, they foster democratic participation that allows our student base to become involved in mainstream politics and make more conscious political decisions. At the same time, they allow students to challenge their own institutions for academic equity and engage in student welfare, helping to get ahead of tragic incidents like the lynching of Mashal Khan by his peers at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan.

Pakistan and the state of unions

Unions formation without registration

A major change that could be made immediately is allowing unions to be formed without registration. This would mean that companies would find it harder to force employers not to organize as their formation could take place with no need for government recognition, and this should be supported by laws passed to protect any employee from being fired for industrial actions through unions. The laws related to fixed term contracts should also change, with clarification as to the definition of these workers and stricter limits to the time they are hired for as well as the nature of their work.

The government should also make any attempted registration of a union public, as they can refuse the formation of any union with no mechanism to keep them in place. The only way effective unionization can be guaranteed is by removing all barriers to forming them. Awareness must go hand-in-hand with this from the state, which can happen by encouraging their formation in public discourse and policy making. It is unlikely, unfortunately, that any of these actions will be taken.

Politicians have no incentive to do so as the working class does not have the awareness to campaign for it. The elite seeks to maximize wealth nearly exclusively, and at the point at which trade unions conflict with this aim, they incur its wrath. However, the buck stops with the government, and unionization is a sure-fire way of improving the nation’s labour rights shortcomings.