Munir Amjad, who works in a metal cutting and sheet rolling factory, wears a dirty bandana around his head. He says his head hurts due to a recent injury at work. “The regular employees in the factory, who are very few in number as compared to us contractual ones, have the facility of the Social Security Hospital but my contractor only gave me a week off to rest and get better. I didn’t even take the week off and was back at work in four days because I have a family to feed. I couldn’t afford to not be paid for a week,” he protested, while explaining that the time given off also means no payment for the days he is not present at work as he is after all a daily wager.
Saquib Ahmed, 22, is in a slightly better position as he had passed his Matriculation exam before joining a machine tool factory as an apprentice. “Apprentice means ‘trainee worker’ but instead of being taught much, I was straight away made to work hard for hours on end and I was not even paid proper wages in return as I was still under training,” says the young man.
Having hardly any options, the way the job market is these days, Saquib decided to carry on working. Today, he is a graduate besides doing some technical diploma courses on the side. “But even though my job was regularised after two years of service, I am being treated as a Matriculate employee. The Matric certificate I had submitted three years ago got me a permanent job at the factory and even though I have requested the management to update my file several times after doing FA and BA, it has not happened and I carry on working at a little less than Rs10,000 per month without much hope for any improvement,” he shares.
Asked why he chooses to be exploited at the hands of his employers even after graduating, the young man replies, “I am doing some technical courses and my supervisors are cooperative about changing my shifts to suit my study schedule. I am making do with what I have right now. Once equipped with proper education, I intend to look for a better job elsewhere.”
Though it is just plain labour, factory employers have made Matriculation a condition for regular employment. Those who don’t have a Matriculation certificate work on contract or daily wages.
Mohammad Shahid, who had been working for several years at a garment factory, recently got fired by his employers on account of having a fake Matric certificate. Shahid admits that he had submitted fake documents to keep his job. “I am a labourer, I work as hard as a donkey because I don’t have an education. If I had been educated, I would have been a ‘sahib’. When Matric was mentioned as the condition to be regularised, I submitted a fake certificate but I couldn’t fool anybody and was fired soon after,” he complains.
Shahid now sits by the roadside near the Gizri flyover with some tools hoping to be picked up by some contractor or anyone else looking for cheap labour with his kind of expertise on a daily basis. An informal labourer makes around Rs500 a day, if he gets a job. “It’s a hard life due to frequent strikes or holidays, ruining any chance of earning a daily income,” he says.
Samina Khan is a young woman who stitches sleeve cuffs on shirts in a garment factory. “I am not a regular employee. The factory has given some work to a contactor, who hired me. He is paid a fixed amount for the stitching of collars, cuffs, etc, and though the work is for some 10 workers per shift, to save money he only keeps five or six. So we have to work extra and at a quicker pace if we want to get all the work done on time or else stay at work for longer hours,” she says.
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!” says secretary general, All Pakistan Trade Union Federation, Farid Awan. “Menial jobs don’t come about that easily and with shortage of gas, electricity and water not to mention the extortion mafia making owners close down factories to invest in countries like Bangladesh, where labour is even cheaper, one has to settle for whatever one gets,” he adds.
Asked why the labourers don’t fight for their rights from the union platform, the union leader says, “Most factories and industrial businesses don’t even have a union. You tell me, how can a union be formed with a handful of permanent employees grateful to be appointed at last and a lot of informal daily wagers with no appointment letter, hence no proof of their years of work with a company to add to their insecurity?”