Tuesday February 27, 2024

Reconceptualization of labour issues

May 14, 2023

In the plethora of news stories and talk shows about the arrest of Imran Khan and related violence, there was hardly any mention of some real issues that the working classes of this country are facing. On the day Imran Khan finally sat in the police van, in Islamabad there was an event taking place to discuss labour issues.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) is an organization that keeps an objective eye on human rights violations across Pakistan. These violations are not just in the government and state sectors, they also take place in private and semi-government organizations. On May 9, the HRCP organized a roundtable in Islamabad to discuss a possible reconceptualization of labour issues. Since labour matters barely get a mention in the mainstream media in Pakistan, here is a brief recap for my readers to give them an orientation of what we discussed.

Nasreen Azhar, who is heading the Islamabad chapter of the HRCP, in her late 80s looks as active as ever and hardly misses a single conference or meeting that the HRCP organizes. She set the ball rolling by reminding the audience that trade unions were much more active in the 20th century as compared with now. In her opinion, a tendency in Pakistan to promote privatization has caused great damage to the workers’ cause. With increasing inflation there is practically no major attention on the workers’ plight by government and private sectors.

Zeeshan Noel – a human rights activist from Islamabad – ably moderated the roundtable with active participation by workers’ representatives. A point that most participants highlighted was the impact of the 18th Amendment on labour issues. Many of them did not fully understand the advantages that they could derive from this amendment that has shifted most labour issues to the provincial domains. The leaders of labour organisations expressed their dissatisfaction over the inability or unwillingness of provincial governments to devise appropriate labour laws and implement them. Since now it is a provincial subject, no one can blame the federal government for neglecting the labour issues.

One of the participants reminded the audience that some of the most labour friendly laws got underway during the first PPP government when Z A Bhutto became the first elected prime minister of the country in the early 1970s. The Employees Old Age Benefits Institute (EOBI) that came into being under the Bhutto government performed well initially but gradually successive governments have neglected it and it is now performing much below par. Even after the 18th Amendment, the EOBI remains a federal subject.

One of the labour leaders present at the roundtable – Asad Mehmood – lamented that most provincial governments have simply replicated the existing federal labour laws and while doing this they did not take on board employers and workers. So, the entire exercise turned out to be a one-sided affair that overlooked the concerns of the real stakeholders about such laws. With the labour ministry devolving to provinces, their social security issues also became a provincial subject which should have facilitated the workers, but that did not happen. In all provinces, there are non-resident workers who come from other provinces; for example, Balochistan has thousands of workers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The same applies to Punjabi and Saraiki workers working in Sindh who do not get any social security from the provinces they work in, for being non-resident. This is not the fault of the 18th Amendment, as the provincial governments should take care of all their workers – residents or non-residents. All workers across the country should get certain social security coverage irrespective of their birthplace or work location, as is the practice in many other countries. In case of death or serious injuries, most workers find themselves helpless in the absence of proper implementation of labour laws.

Another point that most participants raised was about the need to revive tripartite conferences involving the government, employers, and labour unions. Though there have been various conventions that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) supported, no proper tripartite conference has taken place for long, especially after the passage of the 18th Amendment. Such conferences can play a significant role in the development of an appropriate labour policy at the provincial level with guidelines for businesses and employers, but no provincial government has taken the initiative to hold a proper tripartite conference.

Nearly two-thirds of the total workforce in Pakistan are engaged in the informal sector such as domestic workers and roadside businesses, small industries, and workshops. There are inadequate laws to provide succour to these informal workers in all provinces. Even the existing laws lack a proper implementation mechanism. Akram Bunda – trade union leader and a former student activist of the National Student Federation (NSF) – highlighted a lack of workers’ welfare programmes and even the EOBI is not fully functional and suffering from massive corruption by the top management for the past many decades.

The old-age allowance that was just around Rs6,000 per month has now been increased on the Supreme Court order to Rs8, 500; but this is also insufficient and irregular. The same applies to the Workers’ Welfare Fund which has not given any death grant, education allowance, or marriage grant to employees for many years. There are billions of rupees in the welfare fund but that is not benefitting the workers. There are not many social security hospitals and that too do not provide complete treatment to workers. Employers also have multiple tricks to deprive the workers of their medical treatment.

One example of such employers are tile and marble companies and industries that do not improve working conditions and workers end up toiling in extremely dangerous and hazardous working conditions. Ceramic tile companies and marble tile industries are notorious for treating their employees in a shabby manner with almost no protective gears and near absent environmental control for air and water pollution. A visit by this writer to some marble factories in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recently confirmed the concerns of the labour which mostly work without any collective bargaining associations or trade unions. The same applies to coal miners in Balochistan, as a recent HRCP report has highlighted.

Another labour leader – Shaukat Suleri – lamented a lack of effective leadership within the working classes and labour unions and in the absence of trade unions the exploitation of workers has been intensifying. Aftab Alam Advocate clarified that after the 18th Amendment, provinces have more powers to draft laws for their workers’ benefits and labour leaders in each province should do advocacy for better provincial laws. Better provincial laws are likely to benefit more workers at the local levels. There are separate laws for social security, wages, and welfare that we need to study holistically.

Lastly, labour leaders from Islamabad underscored the need for a separate labour department for the Islamabad Capital Territory which has industrial areas that have developed over the past decades with hundreds of thousands of workers in the capital. Then there is a tendency to overlook the labour issues in the AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan. For example, if a worker gets employment in the Northern Areas Transport Company (Natco) but lives in Islamabad or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the worker has to appeal in Gilgit, causing a lot of hassle to the employee.

Latif Ansari – a labour leader from Faisalabad – declared that the labour movement in Pakistan was nearly dead as thousands of workers have lost their jobs in recent years due to Covid-19 and then due to the declining economy, but no labour movement was there to take up the issue effectively. Only a fraction of the labour force is registered in social security. In short, there were many anomalies that the participants discussed, and the HRCP deserves commendation for organizing such a roundtable in an atmosphere where agitation and politics consume too much energy and resources at the cost of the working people.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached