What is to be undone

A labourer at work
A labourer at work

by Mansoor Raza

At an estimated 63.34 million workers in total, Pakistan has the 10th largest labour force in the world. Besides federations and confederations, there are 945 trade unions currently active in Pakistan, with their combined membership standing at 1.8m. In absolute terms, the number appears gigantic; in the larger picture, only three per cent of the Pakistani labour force is unionised.

Without a doubt, trade unions in Pakistan are on their deathbed, perishing to an unceremonious end that is neither mourned by workers nor by industrialists. The once-mighty trade union movement has been unable to form a response to the spectre of contracts — short-term agreements, often negotiated at lower remuneration scales and limited benefits. It is not that the working class in Pakistan is better off than its predecessors and is not facing any issues to bargain collectively for the greater good — only that they have lost the power to hit back.

Contracts were the owners’ response to a trade movement that wasn’t afraid to show its teeth; large swathes of working people lost their ability to organise effectively or campaign together once contracts were introduced since the permanence of their job became merely fleeting.


Despite a glorious tradition of struggle and sacrifice, trade unions in Pakistan have been unable to push back the spectre of contracts


“Contractual labour does not have any long-term affiliation or loyalty with the industry. They know that they are sitting on the edge and any ‘negative’ act [in the eyes of employers, this often translates into unionism] will cost them their job,” explains Mohammad Younus, director of the Urban Resource Centre.

“Contractual labour of course works on a contract, which means no or limited benefits [that permanent employees are often entitled to]. What should contractual labour organise and fight for? Their only struggle is how to resume duties the next day,” argues Younus.

Then there is the issue of law: notwithstanding the machination of employers, the law of the land does not encourage collective action; in fact, it seeks to quell unionism.

“Labour laws relating to trade unions or the Industrial Relations Act 2012 don’t enable workers to form unions. There is also very little room for those who are already organised in trade unions to bargain for the collective rights of workers,” argues Farhat Parveen, executive director of NOW Communities, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of working-women.

“Perhaps most importantly, workers are not aware of the provision of labour rights that the law still has for them. There is a tiny minority of about 1pc organised workers, most of whom are in the public sector, which is also shrinking,” says Parveen.

Background discussions and a quick survey of available literature provide a tangential view of the failure of traditional trade unions in our times. Of the factors identified by various scholars, the more pertinent and recurring include job insecurities as embedded in contractual agreements with employers, dearth of proper social nets, prolonged work hours, “a long queue of unemployed at the factory gates” ready to replace the existing work force, pocket or “yellow unions” as they are called, ever-increasing inflation and discouraging laws.

“Legally, workers are divided into several categories: temporary, contract, probationary, permanent, casual, etc. Practically, only the permanent workers can form unions, but this too requires a lot of paper work, and prior verification from the employer before the formation of union. Then workers have to deal with the disabling environment of the labour department,” explains Parveen.

Together, these factors have resulted in labour showing a sad picture today: according to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports of 2014 and 2015, the number of deaths due to industrial accidents in just these two years has increased by 50pc while injuries have risen by approximately 105pc.

The numbers are indeed staggering and there are issues that need to be addressed within trade unions.

But just who will do so, and how they will bell the cat depends, on their understanding of the dynamics of the globalisation as the retreat of unions is a global phenomenon. In the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany, for example, the membership and the capacity of unions is decreasing.

Pakistan has an estimated population of 20m (as of July, 2015) with a population growth rate of 1.46pc. The country has substantial unemployment rates and ranks 77 in the world. A breakdown of the labour force, per fiscal year 2013 estimates, indicates that agriculture employs 43.7pc of the workforce, industry 22.4pc, and services engage 33.9pc. Although the number of trade unions and membership has increased over time, labour organisations have been unable to make a mark in the face of neoliberal realities.


“Women, children, and contract workers have no voice whatsoever because no labour leader represents them. The present labour leadership is old, male-centric, parochial and struggling for their withering survival.”


“The labour department used to issue a gazette on its performance but this practice has been suspended for the past many years. Labour inspection is not implemented fully; this practice was actually suspended for the past many years. It resumed only partially after the Ali Garments fire incident,” says Parveen.

“Having said that, there is no information available as to how many unions have applied for registrations, how many were successful, and if not, then what were the reasons for denying them permits,” she claims.

The past is another union

Labour unions might well be struggling today but in the annals of history of a young Pakistan, trade unions successfully provided a buffer between the working classes and those who ruled over them — thereby fulfilling the prime function of civil society.

In the new country, the nation-building project dictated that industrialisation, urbanisation and unionisation go hand in hand. As a result, labour unions found a place and space in which to uphold their relevance and demands. They successfully managed to harness available human capital (industrial workers) for the collective good and extracted many benefits from mill owners.

Labour’s demographic dynamics and numbers began changing in the urban sector as migration to cities began in the 1950s as part of the nation-building process undertaken by various governments. The evolution of the transport sector and the resulting ease in travelling paved the way for such changes, helping surplus rural labour to find gainful employment in the industrial sector that was slowly and gradually emerging.

The protectors of the ‘underdog’ left a legacy of protests too — a history that is soaked in the blood, bones and sweat of industrial workers. In 1963, in Karachi’s Manghopir area, industrial workers staged a rally fired at by the police. As a result of government sponsored violence, 42 casualties were reported.

In 1967, workers of the Karachi Port Trust engaged the state after facing inordinate delays in the payment of their wages. Labour representatives organised wave after wave of strikes in Karachi, Lahore, Multan and other industrial cities. Although the state used brutal force to quell this unrest, the striking workers stood firm in their demands. After several months of sustained action, Gen Ayub Khan resigned, handing power over to Gen Yahya Khan.

Similarly in 1967, the Railway Workers’ Union went on strike in Lahore against the government’s price hikes and the unavailability of wheat. In response, the government arrested hundreds of workers and trade union leaders.

In 1972, under the new Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government, the strength of the street in Karachi’s SITE area once again met the might of the state — the police once again opened fire at demonstrating labourers in Karachi’s major industrial area of the time.


“Contractual labour does not have any long-term affiliation or loyalty with the industry. They know that they are sitting on the edge and any ‘negative’ act [in the eyes of employers, this often translates into unionism] will cost them their job.”


The next day, the police fired again but this time at the funeral procession of one of the deceased workers. Press reports indicate that at least 10 workers were killed on that day, including a woman and child. It was also reported that over 50 people were killed in similar incidents.

In another protest that same year in Karachi’s Landhi area, workers took control of a mill after negotiations between the collective bargaining agents (CBA) and the mill administration broke down. The police retaliated by storming the main gate of the mill and shooting dead four workers.

The above-mentioned instances are only a few of the many success stories waged by workers’ unions. In most struggles, the typology of conflict varies from conflict of diverging interest to other, broader reasons. One of the reasons for conflicts is that factories’ administrations have always viewed a union’s existence as a challenge for imposing any anti-workers’ decision that they might have to impose.

But today, as trade unionism meanders to a tragic demise, factory owners and administrations are quietly hoping that the unions will go in silence and that no retaliation will rise from the ashes of the dead unions.

Reviving hope

Mourning the death of trade unions is mourning the decline of working class politics. Of the many reasons that trade unions find themselves in crisis, there are some that necessitate introspection.

“Women, children and contract workers have no voice whatsoever because no labour leader represents them. The present labour leadership is old, male-centric, parochial and struggling for their withering survival,” alleges Parveen. “There are examples of successful labour action, such as the struggle of lady health workers. They are not part of the mainstream leadership.”

Of course, there was once a time when intellectuals and artistes provided the creative foundations for a wider working-class struggle, of which trade unions became the primary beneficiaries. With trade unions having enjoyed their heyday in the 1970s, nostalgia for past glories has been a point of inaction.

There also exists megalomania peculiar among segments of trade union leaderships — saviours and messiahs continue to emerge, for example, with new promises of revolution and slogans of change.

A sense of unions being mere helpless observers of the times also exists — the idea that unions are merely passive travellers in a moment in time rather than active agents capable of chalking out their plans and route.

“I do not subscribe to the idea that an industrial worker must be a revolutionary, I consider this dogma which has emanated either from our frustrations or our wishful thinking. It’s not fair to think in black and white that an industrial worker is either a revolutionary or a collective bargaining agent. We have to understand the existing situation objectively,” says Karamat Ali.

“I agree that there exists a continuous contradiction between the employer and the employee, and that there is an immense disparity between living standards of those who work under the same roof; but this will not necessarily brew a revolution. Workers as a class hold potential but need support from other segments in society to bring about a successful revolution,” he argues.

But is the union truly dead?

“I think that in a country like ours, where the laws and the attitudes of employers are both anti-worker in their very nature, to formulate an effective CBA is in itself quite a radical step, if not a revolutionary one,” concludes Ali.

The writer is a freelance researcher and visiting faculty member at Szabist.

Email: mansooraza@gmail.com


Laws of the devil

Workers at a ship-breaking yard
Workers at a ship-breaking yard

by Hasan Mansoor

Did Partition provide labour with the freedom of better working conditions than in united India? For Karamat Ali, who leads the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) and has spent decades for the cause of workers’ rights and peace with neighbourly nations, the answer is unfortunately in the negative.

“It is ironic when we witness that today’s laws for workers are retrogressive in their nature. The laws formed by the colonialists were designed to offer rights to labourers, while the ones made by our independent state are planned to dilute everything good that the workers had been given previously,” says Ali.

Talking to Dawn, the Piler chief gave a historic perspective of labour laws since 1919, when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had been established, which later inked conventions to ensure rights and job security to workers.


Labour laws are more anti-worker in modern-day Pakistan than they were under the British Raj, says Karamat Ali, chief of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research


“It was after the Soviet revolution in 1917, which forced the West to offer more incentives and rights to its workers as a deterrent against communism,” says Ali. “The eight-hour workday was the first convention that was written and implemented by the ILO.”

The Piler chief says that the 1920s brought a revolution of sorts for workers around the world, which paid dividends to their comrades in the subcontinent as well. “The struggle of rights of the workers in Europe paid dividends to all the colonies and beyond. Our workers were beneficiary of the same.”

He adds that a law for the workers of mines was implemented in 1923, which was still in practice and could offer a great deal of relief to mine workers, if implemented in full.

Ali refers to the making of the Trade Unions Act 1926 by an unelected forum called the Imperial Legislative Council under the Raj as among the more progressive legislations.

“That council was more independent than the elected assemblies of today,” is Karamat Ali’s view. “That law was made in 1926 and remained in practice till 1958, when the country’s first martial law deemed repealing it as one of its grand achievements.”

Who were the members of the Imperial Legislative Council who played chief role in passing the trade unions’ law?

“One of them was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who is now better known as the Quaid-i-Azam by the people of a country, the despotic rulers of which deemed it mandatory to delete everything good that showed Mr Jinnah’s fingerprints,” says Ali.


Just before the partition of British India in 1947, the government passed another law called Trade Disputes Act 1947, which was, again, a comprehensive piece of law in which workers and employers could form their associations

and unions.

That leading lawyer was himself elected president of the coastal workers union in 1925. Together with PC Joshi, who later went on to become the first secretary general of the Communist Party of India in the 1930s, Jinnah succeeded in getting the law passed by a forum, which was predominantly packed with influential lords and chieftains.

“That law allowed everyone barring the uniformed army soldiers who can form unions of their own choice, with no interference from the state, and no mandatory registration.”

Just before the partition of British India in 1947, the government passed another law called Trade Disputes Act 1947, which was, again, a comprehensive piece of law in which workers and employers could form their associations and unions.

“The laws in British India were very progressive when we see that the ILO championed for the right of association in 1948, while we had it in practice more than 20 years ago,” says the Piler chief. Besides, the trade union act was much more liberal in its spirit.

A May Day rally organised last year
A May Day rally organised last year

Karamat Ali says, Ayub Khan repealed both the laws passed in 1926 and 1947, both of which had been formulated with Jinnah’s involvement and influence.

Similarly, Ali says, the Factories Act enforced in 1934 catered to the condition of work and employment and health and safety of workers. It is still theoretically enforced in Pakistan and a ‘good law’ in general, but in practical terms, it was not being implemented.

That law introduced inspection system and made it mandatory that every factory should be inspected by the government-appointed inspectors, at least once a year. The inspectors were mandated to check safety and hygienic conditions including provision of lights, ventilation and toilets, etc at workplaces.

Gen Zia bared his teeth on the inspection system and linked it with the permission and agreement of the employer. He virtually left the inspection department dysfunctional. Before this, Pakistani inspectors would be trained for free in London, but since Gen Zia’s ban, the number of inspectors was reduced to procedures.

“Today, we have more than 100,000 factories in the country, for which we have just 541 labour inspectors with just 17 women. That means if a factory is inspected today, it requires at least 50 years when its turn will come,” says the Piler chief.

Besides, he says, there were thousands of garment factories where 80 per cent of workers were women and the woman inspectors were just 17.


The Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) was introduced by retired Air Marshal Noor Khan after a gap of more than 10 years when no law was in place for workers, as Gen Ayub Khan had scrapped the previous legislation. The IRO, effectively, excluded 75pc of workers from the right of association, which was evident from the long list of exclusions it shows in the beginning.


The Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) was introduced by retired Air Marshal Noor Khan after a gap of more than 10 years when no law was in place for workers, as Gen Ayub Khan had scrapped the previous legislation. The IRO, effectively, excluded 75pc of workers from the right of association, which was evident from the long list of exclusions it shows in the beginning.

Besides, the IRO binds workers to identify an employer before forming a union. They should go to government office for registration of their unions, but the registration is not possible before intimation of the employers. Employers normally sack those employees, thereby making it impossible for workers to form any union.

“Even the workers have been divided in religions, sects and ethnicities at the cost of their strength of unity.”

The IRO has also given government authority to specify the number of office-bearers for a union and limit the percentage of ‘outsiders’, which now could not be more than 25pc. They could not form unions on sectoral basis, which was possible by law in 1926.

“Earlier stalwarts like Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru were presidents of workers’ unions who championed and boasted for workers’ rights, but now such a huge right has been put on the backburner,” says Ali.

Another ‘good’ law, Industrial and Commercial Employment Standing Orders, which was promulgated in 1946, also became a casualty to Gen Ayub’s propensity to suppress workers’ strength to steer his so-called agenda of uninterrupted development.

The Shops and Establishments Ordinance, which was promulgated in 1968, guarantees basic rights with working hours, holidays and leave but it is never implemented. Ali says the Cold War started with the independence of Pakistan, which was picked as a ‘frontline’ state by the West, to combat against rising communism.

“Since working class matters pertain to the class question, which in turn is part of communist philosophy, our rulers and their pals understood that not allowing the working class to unite was a bulwark against communism,” says Karamat Ali.

“Prime Minister Clement Attlee had said then that they had established a bulwark against communism in the shape of Pakistan.”

“It was not Jinnah but the clergy that had conflict with communism, and their agenda later dominated politics.”

Ali counts the IRO as a repressive law as well as the Essential Services Act, which was introduced during war days by the British for a specific period, but the authorities here use it as a “tool of suppression”. The latest example of this selective use was during the protest by Pakistan International Airlines’ workers against privatisation.

Similarly, the Factories Act in its current form gives no relief to less than 10 workers in a unit, while the Industrial and Commercial Employees Standing Order Ordinance provided no relief to less than 20 workers and gives half its benefits to workers who are less than 50 in a unit.

“These laws exclude more than 75pc of all workers of Pakistan,” says Ali.

He says collective action by workers could be taken through organisations, but such repressive laws are hurdles against it. It is required that the government should allow uninterrupted organisation and recognise unions, and give workers the right to strike.

“All the laws which are against the right to association and collective bargaining should be reviewed and replaced with better laws. Or it is better to reinforce the 1926 Trade Union Act with its full spirit to solve most of problems workers face?”

Karamat Ali claims that the ILO advised the government to change repressive laws many times, but the authorities gave such requests short shrift. The ILO is a tri-partite organisation, but the last tri-partite convention held in Pakistan was 15 years ago.

For the workers who died in 2012 fire incident in a Baldia factory, he says there is a death grant which every worker’s family gets. Besides, government also pays compensation, while workmen compensation is specified by a labour court. He says, almost all the families of workers have received compensations, excluding those who had no identification cards, or those who could not be identified, and their bodies found unidentifiably decomposed.

He says $1m paid by the German firm, KIK, have been distributed among the families. Besides, a long-term compensation deal is under discussion. Its first meeting will be held in May.

Some 259 people died and 55 seriously wounded or permanently disabled in the Baldia factory fire.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 1st, 2016