Do trade unions still exert a clout on the political scene or is their role no more than haggling for wages? Zeenia Shaukat explores.As Pakistan goes to polls, the labour agenda in the election manifestos of political parties reflects their limited understanding of workers rights. Nearly all manifestos promise to raise wages, expand social security and facilitate employment creation through privatisation. This suggests the dominant thought among ruling elites that sees workers as charity seekers. It also implies an agreement with the neo-liberal line that gives the charge of workers’ welfare to the private sector.
This attitude of the ruling elite is neither new nor surprising. The state of Pakistan has had an uncomfortable relationship with workers since the beginning. Through a series of systematic, policy and institutional measures, it has succeeded in crushing the spirit of the workers, rendering, as it stands today, the approximately 60 million labour force voiceless and clueless in the face of rapid political and economic developments deeply impacting their lives.
Oddly, no party spoke of unionisation, the biggest cause of workers’ powerless status. Despite the fact that freedom of association is guaranteed by the Constitution, less than 3pc of the total workforce is supported by any union. The exclusionary Industrial Relations Act (IRA) has ousted 80pc of the country’s labour force from the ambit of this right. No labour law covers agricultural labour, which constitutes 45pc of the workforce.
Such ruthless disenfranchisement of workers suits all. The neo-liberal regime that Pakistan is allied with demands deregulation of the labour market in the name of removing “distortions and irritants”. So while the Constitution guarantees the right to association, prohibition of forced and child labour, right to equality and secure work conditions, violations abound. As is evident in limited unionisation, a bonded labour force of over 1.7m, a child labour force of over 3m (disputed stats) and the agricultural workers’ zero access to minimum wages. Merely 5pc of the workforce has social security coverage. The death of over 260 workers in a factory fire in Karachi last September explains the vulnerabilities of the country’s working class.
Despite their autocratic and capitalist character, our colonial masters had a better track record of labour rights. The Trade Unions Act (TUA) of 1926 freely allowed formation of unions by all except those in the armed forces (it did extend to the civilian employees in the armed forces). Unions were also free to establish political funds and participate in the political process.
The state’s obsession with restricting labour rights has roots in the capitalist structure inherited from colonial rule. Post independence, it translated into the fierce protection of private ownership of the means of production (primarily of land). The state’s aggressive capitalist posture demanded a pliant labour force to secure profits. The TUA 1926 and the Industrial Disputes Ordinance 1947 were replaced with a regressive Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) 1969. As a political device, the interventionist state created and patronised the All Pakistan Confederation of Labour in the ’50s to counter major trade unions of that time. As trade unions became more independent and the ineffective confederation crashed, an exercise of fragmentation of trade unions was launched.
The undermining of labour rights has taken a toll on Pakistan’s political system eroding the capacity of workers to support the tumultuous political process. The powerful workers mobilisation in 1968 toppled the Ayub Khan regime. It was instrumental in extracting a favourable deal from the Bhutto government.
Later, Gen Ziaul Haq successfully crushed the trade unions through human rights violations, ban on trade unions, the introduction of contract system and privatisation — the latter two measures spelling the death of secure employment. There was a 40pc decline in the unions’ membership during his time squashing the institutional arrangement for resistance. His disenfranchisement of labour was laid on such solid foundations that the country had little difficulty in adapting to the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programme signed by the 1988 caretaker government and pursued by the latter governments till today. It lists the same restricted labour rights menu that Gen Zia and his predecessors implemented. He and Gen Musharraf had a comfortable authoritarian run on the back of a shattered and disempowered labour force.
Today, Pakistan’s workers battle an indifferent state, the might of a deregulated and unregulated market system, an unaccountable employer and the absence of organisation deepening the inequality crisis. Sadly, none of this is a concern for political parties eager to double the wages if elected.