Tuesday November 28, 2023

For the workers

By Editorial Board
May 01, 2020

The first day of May is celebrated in many countries of the world as International Workers’ Day or Labour Day. This day commemorates the struggle of workers for an eight-hour workday that resulted in the famous Haymarket Affair in May 1886 in Chicago, USA, in which many workers lost their lives. But ‘mayday’ also serves as a distress signal, and that is what is happening in 2020 when most daily-wage labourers and workers are under tremendous distress. This distress is caused by the poverty that is a permanent scourge for the workers of Pakistan but this year it is also compounded by a mounting pressure of job losses and threats to their health in the face of the novel coronavirus. We sound this distress call on behalf of millions of workers around the country who are without sustainable means to support their families. They are without jobs, lack food security, and seek help just to remain floating somehow. Though every year Labour Day serves as a reminder of workers’ rights, this year it is more so amid increasing hardships resulting from a protracted lockdown. The lockdown is necessary to protect people from getting infected but it has also put labourers in an extremely difficult condition.

Pakistan is one of those countries where labour laws are either non-existent – or even if there are some laws – they are not properly implemented. Ideally, provision of job opportunities should be a constitutional responsibility of the government in power. But in Pakistan we have only heard about a welfare state being promised by successive governments. No government to date has considered it its responsibility to make sure that all able-bodied adults are gainfully employed. In the absence of jobs, the government does not offer any unemployment benefits. There is no food security for the common people if they are unable to feed their children. This Labour Day is perhaps the worst for workers in many decades, and calls for an effective and immediate response from the government and the private sector alike. From the government side, concerted efforts are required not only to solve the problems at hand such as relief provision and health cover, but also to devise a long-term strategy to improve living conditions for the laborers and workers, both in rural and urban areas. From the private sector, a consideration beyond the profit motive is required. Businessmen, industrialists, and traders should all be not just doling out charity but also change their business practices for good and provide permanent benefits to their employees.

In rural areas bonded labour, sharecropping, and lack of job opportunities is a permanent issue. In urban areas, a ruthless contractual system, lack of job security, absence of any health or life insurance – even for workers laboring in hazardous conditions – are common. Rampant occurrence of child labour at factories, shops, workshops, and in construction industry deprives children of workers of their right to education. There is hardly any builder or workshop owner who hires their labour on a permanent basis or gives them any benefits such as annual leave or health coverage. All these factors have made Pakistan a country where labourers are totally at the mercy of those who hire them. As the present government is also fond of talking about establishing a welfare state, it is about time it went beyond hollow talk and did some legislation for the laboring and working classes of Pakistan. Such legislation must include a constitutional guarantee for gainful employment to all workers, absolute provision of health and life insurance, unemployment benefits, annual leaves, gratuity and provident fund for all workers in Pakistan. It may sound ambitious but there is no other way. We must take care of our labourers and workers, before they decide enough is enough and take to the streets in a way that will not be without violence. Mayday, Mayday.