In letter, not spirit

Published April 28, 2013

The labour force has often remained at the periphery of legal attention, discusses Sa’adia Reza.

Legally speaking, Pakistan’s Constitution offers a range of provisions with reference to the rights of labourers — a force of nearly 60 million people in Pakistan documented under seven Articles —11, 17, 18, 25, 27, 37(e) and 38. The law specifically states prohibition of all forms of slavery, forced labour and child labour. It allows freedom to form unions and gives the citizen the right to choose any occupation or trade, as long as it’s legal. The Constitution also stresses gender equality in labour and ‘humane’ working conditions, particularly for pregnant women.

At a conference last year, the CEO of the Institute of Leadership Development, Fasihul Karim Siddiqui, had suggested that Pakistan should either comply with the ILO conventions that it has ratified over the years, or think about de-ratifying given its changed legal framework post devolution where legislative powers now rest with the provinces. According to Siddiqui, Pakistan has hardly incorporated 10pc of what it has ratified internationally.

“Very few laws are made according to the convention,” concurs Piler’s Karamat Ali, “and those made are restrictive in nature.” Ali gives the example of the Industrial Relations Act 2012, which despite including some important clauses, excludes around 75pc of workers from its purview. Similarly, the definitions noted in the bill are worded in ways that leaves a lot to be desired.

The IRA Ordinance is not applicable to those employed in the police, defence services, or “installation exclusively connected with the armed forces, including an Ordnance factory maintained by the federal government”, those in the state’s administration — apart from workers — security staff of PIA Corporation or those drawing wages in pay group not lower than group V, in the corporation and the Pakistan Security Printing Corporation of Security Papers Limited. The bill has addressed unfair labour practices on part of the employer as well as the worker, penalties and procedures, inclusion of women in trade unions, etc. It also discusses setting up a national industrial relation commission. Its main functions include adjudicating and determining industrial disputes, registering trade unions, trying offences on matters related to trade unions, keeping checks and dealing with cases on unfair labour practices, among others.

Pakistan adopted the British labour laws at the time of inception, which were progressive in nature and gave room for trade unions to prosper and to promote labour rights. But with the passage of time, and the introduction of various regressive policies, trade unions began losing power. At this point, only two pc of workers are part of the unions.

“The contract system in particular, which has been around for about 25 years, greatly weakened trade unions,” says Justice Rasheed Razvi, member, Pakistan Bar Council and president, Board of Governors, Piler. This system gives leverage to contractors to hire labour without registration which means the labourers have no rights that they will be entitled to otherwise.

The system began in order to work around rules, adds Ali, citing the example of the Baldia factory fire, where even though around 1,500 people were employed, just over 100 were registered.

At the outset, devolving powers to the province should have improved the situation, since they could now work with greater autonomy. However, according to Ali, the step has hardly made a difference since the plan was “half baked” and lot of matters at the time of devolution were left ambiguous — particularly in relation to delegation of powers and responsibilities. Also, uniformity in formulating and implementing rules is lacking among the provinces.

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