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Monday June 17, 2024

It’s a seth’s world

Regardless of benefits, a white-collar worker cannot feel secure working for a corporation

By Abdul Rafay Siddiqui
May 29, 2024
A representational image showing people work at their stations at the National Incubation Centre (NIC) in Lahore. — AFP/File
A representational image showing people work at their stations at the National Incubation Centre (NIC) in Lahore. — AFP/File

White-collar workers in Pakistan have barely any legal protection in their workplaces. In this concern, labour law in Pakistan does not include white-collar workers as ‘workmen’.

Although labour law is poorly enforced in Pakistan, it does cover a wide array of matters such as minimum wage, workplace security and injury, health benefits, working hours and old-age benefits. The employment of a white-collar worker is not regulated by any law and is regulated in accordance with company policies which are formed by the human resource, maybe in consultation with a lawyer.

Despite the absence of specific legislation, a typical white-collar worker may enjoy the following benefits: working in an air-conditioned room, subsidized lunch, bonuses, laptop, car allowance and health insurance. Regardless of these benefits, a white-collar worker cannot feel secure working for a corporation. This is because in Pakistan, there is almost no legislation prevalent which may obligate corporations to ensure the wellbeing of a white-collar worker.

The employee is at the mercy of the ‘seth’ – the supreme leader who not only controls the working hours of the employee but may also control the personal time of the employee. WhatsApp messages, phone calls and emails after working hours have been normalized and considered accepted practice to fulfil company goals and objectives. Every matter has become urgent.

We may recall from our childhood that when our parents came home from work, they would spend time with their children, watch television, have dinner and help with our homework. However, today’s children will grow up watching their parents work on laptops, even after their parents have arrived home. This is not a healthy work-life balance.

Progressive societies are recognizing that this disrupts work-life balance. For instance, a bill has been proposed in the state of California that provides employees with the right to ignore non-emergency calls and emails after office hours. In case of breach, the employer could face a fine of at least $100. This right is termed as the ‘right to disconnect’ and is in force in countries such as France, Spain and Australia.

However, the situation for white-collar workers in Pakistan is getting worse due to the dehumanization technology can lead to. In this regard, a white-collar worker may get terminated through a WhatsApp message, voice note, and/or an email of termination drafted in a state of anger and sent overnight.

Many employment agreements and HR policies do have conflict resolution mechanisms. If an employee is violating company policy, s/he may be called for a meeting with his/her supervisor to discuss the matter. Despite the efforts of the supervisor, if the employee still violates company policy, s/he may be issued a warning letter. If the violation continues unabated and unresolved, the employee may be terminated even so after being given an opportunity to be heard. However, we all know of people who have been terminated without any warnings.

What usually happens afterward is that the employee accepts the termination. After all, being terminated from an unhealthy workplace might feel like some great escape from a prison cell. The employer knows well that there is no legislation in place in Pakistan that guarantees the protection of the white-collar worker. The only recourse for the employee who got fired is to approach the civil court and file for a suit for damages if s/he dares to go through this route.

But is that really a smart thing to do? Why should s/he bother to engage a lawyer and drag him/herself to the courts hoping that maybe someday s/he might get some relief? S/he may come to find that the courts in Pakistan still refer to the employer-employee relation as ‘master and servant’, an antiquated term still used by the courts of Pakistan. The whole experience will be too mentally, physically and emotionally draining.

S/he may just stay at home for a few weeks, maybe a month or two. Relax and enjoy the free time s/he now has after working at a toxic workplace. After this relaxing period, s/he finds another job. S/he may hope that this workplace is at least not as toxic as his/er previous workplace. However, s/he will eventually realize that s/he is stuck in a vicious cycle.

Pakistan has a growing white-collar workforce, and there must be legislative protection for white-collar workers in the country. It is unreasonable that this workforce remains unprotected and at the mercy of the seth. In more progressive societies, workplace conditions are improving and being adapted to the exigencies of time and society.

The seth should realize that employees are human beings after all who have personal obligations as well. Most employees want to work their best given whatever their challenging circumstances, progress in their careers and provide for their families. Unhealthy and regressive workplace conditions are not consistent with global trends and practices and, in the long run, are not in the best interests for any organization.

The federal and provincial governments of Pakistan must ensure that adequate legislation is in place to guarantee the protection of white-collar workers and bring them within the purview of legal protection.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.