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May 22, 2020

Unpaid labour

Opinion

May 22, 2020

Thousands of textile workers in Karachi and Lahore are protesting layoffs and non-payment of wages. These workers are taking big risks to press for their demands, organising protests when coronavirus infections are rising rapidly in the country. But they have been left with no other option but to take to the streets.

These labour leaders and protesting workers are demanding that wages and bonuses should be paid to all factory workers before Eidul Fitr. And that forced dismissals of workers from factories are stopped immediately.

The Sindh government took a bold decision to introduce a notification and ordinance on Covid-19 against the non-payment of wages and forced dismissals. But it seems that the Sindh government is somehow reluctant to implement the ordinance in letter and spirit. Labour leaders and sacked workers are demanding the proper implementation of this ordinance to stop layoffs and non-payment of wages.

Instead of addressing the problems and demands of protesting workers, the government decided to use force to disperse the workers on Tuesday. This will just make matters worse.

The Covid-19 Sindh ordinance is a classic example of how our highly bureaucratic system works. The Sindh government promulgated the ordinance to stop layoffs of workers and non-payment of wages. Now labour leaders and activists are urging the Sindh government to issue a notification to delegate the powers and responsibilities to the concerned departments for the proper implementation of said ordinance.

The labour department, local administration including commissioners, deputy commissioners and assistant commissioners should be given powers and responsibilities to enforce the ordinance. Implementation committees can be formed at the district and tehsil levels for the smooth implementation of this law. Trade union leaders, representatives of district and local administration, district bars, civil society and local parliamentarians can be included in the committees.

Some industrialists are using the corona crisis as an excuse to sack workers without paying them wages of two to three months, and workers are demanding wages from the period when the industries were running at full capacity. Wages were not paid to workers even when these textile mills were making profits.

Capitalists and industrialists have the intention to keep wages low to maximise their profits. But some industrialists and capitalists, in a bid to earn super profits, even refuse to pay workers wages from time to time. After all, unpaid labour is a major source of the super profits and wealth amassed by the capitalist class. Nonpayment of wages is the worst form of exploitation and deprivation. It is cruelty. It throws not only the workers but also their families into a miserable and painful life.

Wage labourers depend entirely on their monthly wages to survive. They work hard for the whole month to get wages to buy food, pay for rents and utility bills. When they are denied these wages after so much hard work, they are left with nothing to feed their families. It is not hard to imagine the conditions of workers and their families who have not been paid for months. It means poverty, starvation and miserable life despite all the hard work of 12 to 16 hours a day.

In Pakistan, we can divide the labour force into two categories. One that belongs to urban centres and is permanently settled in the cities. They broke their relation with agricultural land and became wage labourers. Most of them migrated to cities from rural areas in the 1960s and 70s at the time of rapid industrialisation and expansion of the public sector.

They have to find a job to earn money after losing one. They have no other means of earning. They cannot survive without a job.

Two, millions of workers migrate to cities to find work every year. But they keep their historical relations with land and agriculture. Their families still live in rural areas. They work as wage labourers in the cities but when they lose their jobs and find it hard to get a new job or work, they decide to return to their native areas. That is what happened after the lockdown and restrictions imposed by the government to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Some of these workers have agricultural land to cultivate. They become farmers and peasants to earn a living. Others indulge in agriculture related work. They can survive for a few months with lower incomes.

When many in the world are talking about living wages and decent work, we are still facing the problem of nonpayment of wages and bonuses. We need to come out of this feudal mindset of not paying wages of work done by the workers. We are not ready to pay minimum wages to our labour force.

We are not ready to share a small portion of wealth with workers – the same wealth that was created by the workers. Without paying living wages to workers, they can’t spend much money buying products and services. And when average Pakistanis can’t buy products and services, the companies that sell products and services to average Pakistanis can’t grow.

One obvious solution to this problem is to encourage companies and businesses to pay their workers more to share more of the vast wealth that they create with the workers who create it.

The writer is a freelance journalist.