WORKERS are not getting a fair deal and are treated as a liability rather than an asset in the country’s production cycle.

The participation of women in mainstream economy has increased but gender sensitivity level is low in most trades.

The sluggish economy limits the scope of gainful employment of workers and lack of trade skills keeps productivity low while weakening their case for higher wages.

As corporate sector makes record profits and big farmers benefit most from commodity price boom, rural and urban workers are condemned to live subhuman lives.

The situation, though, is not uniform across industries and regions. The latest Labour Force Survey 2010-11 published by the Federal Bureau of Statistics has a huge pool of information.

It is, however, difficult to deduce trends from it. A labour economist can interpret this information better.

Based on whatever little was grasped it would be safe to say that in urban areas real wages have risen in certain sectors but these exceptions are few and cover a low percentage of the labour force.

An informal survey by this writer revealed that the working conditions are better in multinationals and technologically advanced sectors such as pharmaceutical, auto, cement, chemical, fertiliser, etc., in areas where technical skills are required.

However, in such companies, the gap between salaries of workers and different grades of managers is so wide that it breeds discontent in workers though they are better paid.

“Yes, Rs18,000 wage for an unskilled worker of a company is more than double the officially fixed minimum wage of Rs7,000. But when workers see company expanding and its executives and officers spending more than their (workers’) monthly salary on a single meal they tend to feel frustrated”, an expert commented on the higher pay scales in certain firms.

The textile sector, that is the largest industrial employer, does not seem to generally treat workers well. They take advantage of the mass of job aspirants outside their factory gates. The textile tycoons, in some cases, pay even less than the minimum wage or what is recorded in the company books.

“We cannot cut on capital expenditure whereas hidden cost of enterprise (payment of bribes and bhatta) has risen vertically. We are in the business to make money, so we squeeze wage bill for better profit”, a textile manufacturer told Dawn.

Industrialists invest little to improve the environment on work floors of their factories. Often halls are poorly lit with little or no ventilation beside lack of other facilities.

“Whatever little has been done for workers is to qualify for standards set by export market for their products”, a worker commented.

“The inactivity of labour department and suspension of labour inspection has encouraged manufacturers to flout conditions for providing workers a decent work environment”, an insider in the Employers Federation of Pakistan told Dawn informally.

The employers and the government, it seems, have colluded to ignore workers’ vulnerability in a changing economic environment. According to the Global Competitiveness Report 2012, Pakistan ranks 136th out of 142 countries in terms of labour market efficiency.

Pakistan has slipped behind 23 countries in this survey from its ranking in 2008. It shows that the pace of growth of the labour market is slower than other developing countries.

The trade unions have not succeeded in defending workers effectively against vagaries of free market or preparing them to cope with modern day challenges.

President All Pakistan Trade Union Organisation Habib Junaidi has accepted that the trade union movement has lost its relevance as it was ill prepared to deal with the technological advancement in a market-driven economy.

“We were occupied with our routine affairs, resisting onslaught of privatisation while computers nudged the society to the next level. We know how to deal with harsh employers and hostile bureaucracy but we have lost to software”, he said.

“We will have to run an extra mile to catch up with the society and use social media to our benefit. We understand the value of increasing productivity and are ready to cooperate with anyone willing to help us improve labour productivity”, he made a point talking to Dawn over the phone.

Lack of appreciation of the value of human capital and absence of right polices, planning and management have led to growing weakness in the labour market.

“The current economic system that does not treat workers as partners in development, and actively works to deprive the labour of its share in the national wealth can simply not deliver”, a trade union leader turned politician PPP Senator Saeed Ghani told this scribe over the telephone.

“When you treat an asset as a liability this is what happens. Lack of training and overcrowding of state enterprises pushed down the average productivity of labour, losing the race for competitiveness”, commented an economist.

The wedge between the demands of a transforming economy and a large stagnant education/training sector has aggravated the situation. On the one hand, it has swelled ranks of unskilled manpower and on the other hand, created shortages of trained workforce for an upgrade of various economic activities.

The slow pace of economic growth has depressed its capacity to absorb teeming millions who are joining the growing mass of job seekers as businesses opt for risk-free options under the circumstances.

Depending on affordability and the nature of trade, many industrialists prefer capital-intensive options. Others fragment the production process to avoid trade unions, often accused of virtual blackmailing to secure better bargains.

While legal safeguards for workers are insufficient, employers find them too stringent and demand free hiring and firing rights. They argue that labour laws are tough and hamper their productive pursuits. To avoid labour protection legislation and dealings with trade unions they prefer to engage workers on contract.

Still for a variety of factors, the standard of living of workers has risen in terms of per capita access to amenities and calorie consumption though the link between productivity and wages is weak.

”The key reason for achieving higher living standard is that more and more families generally depend on earnings of more than one member”, said a worker.

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