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April 9, 2020

Prioritising profit before social distancing


April 9, 2020

LAHORE: Impatience is in the air, as the trade bodies are not realising the importance of lockdown and are demanding relaxation for different sectors, including small traders and shopkeepers. The demand, if acceded, would be against the spirit of social distancing.

Some strange requests are coming from business leaders and the government at least in Punjab. One is the demand to relax the conditions partially. For instance, the poultry meat shops have been allowed to operate from 9 am to 8 pm in the evening. The milk shops have also been given the same permission.

Earlier, only the medical stores and grocery shops were allowed to operate between 9-5 daily. Relaxation or violations of social distancing also correspond with the spread of the virus. The nation generally does not realise the gravity of the situation. Business leaders are eying the elections of trade bodies that are due in September this year.

It is indeed unfortunate that none of the trade bodies, including the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), and its affiliated chambers of commerce and industries have played any active role in assisting the state or the affected people to fight the pandemic.

Each trade association though has come up with demands to save their businesses. They argue that they are trying to save the jobs of workers. These very businessmen have rarely looked after their workers in normal times. Their businesses flourished with the passage of time, but their employees mostly lived a substandard life. They upgraded their residences, added fleet of luxury cars, ensured best education for their children while majority of the industrial workforce survived on the minimum wage fixed by the state. This minimum wage had never been sufficient to afford them a comfortable life.

These poor workers had been compromising on their essential needs to pull through. Most of them depend on divine nature to cure them instead of going to a doctor. They could send their children only to public schools where at least 60 percent remain almost illiterate despite several years of schooling.

These workers cannot afford to send their children to highly expensive schools. With the lockdown even meagre earnings of workers have been threatened. The businesses having accumulated wealth and assets over time are not prepared to pay their salaries in the time of national calamity.

Most of them could pledge or sell some of their unused assets to bear the salaries of their workers for at least three months. Even the largest businesses have however told the state that they would at the most pay their workers one month’s salary and no more.

Many of the workers have earned leaves of up to three months in their account and the entrepreneurs are bound by law to make provision for the leave salary which most did not.

They are not prepared to give a penny to their workers but are asking the moon from the state. They want their refunds and rebates cleared. This was a genuine demand and the government has acceded to it. The cumulative disbursement has increased Rs100 billion.

They are still agitating and want more. They want moratorium on debt servicing that has partially been granted. Now they want reduction in tax rates as well. One fails to understand what income tax has to do with the current situation.

They would pay income tax on their profits and if they are able to generate profits in these testing times they should in fact volunteer to pay higher tax to mitigate the suffering of the poor.

The pandemic should be used to instil discipline among the traders. Markets in most of the economies observe specific timings. In developed economies, the markets open at 9am and close at 5pm in normal times. In Pakistan, major markets open after 12 noon and operate till midnight.

We are making the nation lethargic through this practice. All markets should observe 9-5 timing even during normal times. Only specifically licensed medical stores should be allowed to operate after that.

There is no logic in allowing any non-medical outlet after 5pm. People would get used to the new timing in few weeks, as they are adjusting themselves during the lockdown. If the rush persists in some sectors, it would encourage establishment of new outlets and fairer distribution of wealth.

The new management of FPCCI should guide the government and its affiliated trade bodies about prudent steps needed for social distancing, as well as the post pandemic management of businesses.

This would save the nation a lot of electricity and unnecessary wastage of gasoline. In a matter of life and death we should for once follow the global norms.