THE discourse on labour in Pakistan is dominated by the terms and conditions of employment and other indicators such as the labour participation rate and the status of employment. Labour productivity, a crucial measure of economic performance and one of the key indicators of the labour market, receives scant attention and is yet to be reported by the Federal Bureau of Statistics in its yearly Labour Force Survey being published since 1963.
The factors that determine labour productivity include physical capital and technology, human development (health, education and skills of the labour force) and labour relations. Underpinning productivity is work ethics which is considered the key force behind economic growth and prosperity in any country. Though work ethics, or the lack of it, in our society is constantly commented on in the private sphere, the issue is seldom debated or researched by social scientists, economists and policymakers.
Work ethics refer to a basic set of moral values associated with the way work is done whatever its nature or status. Honesty, responsibility, discipline and diligence are values we inculcate in children from an early stage linking these up with performance in school and early childhood tasks. We ask children to perform in school ‘to the best of your ability’. In adult life these values should translate into hard work, efficiency, discipline and integrity at the workplace.
Regionally, Pakistan has one of the lowest labour productivity rates.
Societies that displayed strong work ethics have prospered. Max Weber linked work ethics with the Protestant faith to explain the development of Western Europe. Later in the 20th century, the rise of Southeast Asian countries was attributed to the values espoused by Confucian philosophy. Weber’s work, though seminal, has been refuted by many. Values associated with work ethics are intrinsic and espoused by all major religions. In Islam the concepts of making an ‘honestly earned living’ or rizq-i-halal, and contractual obligations between the contracting parties are of utmost importance.
Pakistan has one of the lowest labour productivity rates in the region and suffers from poor work ethics. Anecdotal evidence abounds regarding the violation of ethical values at the workplace by all and sundry, from top to bottom in the organisational hierarchy and in all sectors, be it manufacturing or services, public or private.
Even our parliamentarians and legislators demonstrate poor work ethics. The average attendance rate at the National Assembly hovers around 20 per cent, below the minimum quorum of 25pc.
In the manufacturing sector, industrialists recount stories of workers’ negative attitudes, inefficiency, irresponsibility, absenteeism and low productivity. The workers have their own tales to tell of employers’ harsh attitude and violation of labour rights. Flagrant disregard for ethical standards (unaccountability, nepotism, corruption, etc) by all tiers of workers and management in the services and public sectors are an open secret. Workers display little respect or sense of responsibility towards equipment and machinery at the workplace.
The tendency to get away with minimum effort and not abide by the rules is pervasive. The late Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, renowned development practitioner, had described this trait very aptly as ‘chori aur kaam chori’.
The picture is grim but there is light at the end of the tunnel: mechanisms for inculcating work ethics can be designed and sustained. Foremost is the need to improve substantially our human development indicators which have a significant bearing on labour productivity. It is time to increase public spending on education and health from the currently dismal allocations of 2pc and 0.8pc respectively to at least 4pc for each.
In addition, work ethics need to be nurtured through curriculum development advocating the value of work. Inculcating in schoolchildren a perspective that work is a creative, self-fulfilling and socially productive activity lays the foundation of strong work ethics. Schools should stress on performance-orientation, and help students adopt good work habits based on discipline, punctuality and team work, besides facilitating development of a balanced relationship between the individual, work and society. At the secondary level, children should be educated about the contemporary world of work and their own future contribution.
While talking about the general trend of poor work ethics, we must not lose sight of the fact that there always remains a segment of the workforce that displays a good sense of work ethics. They do not just believe in but also demonstrate their honesty, integrity
and accountability at the workplace. Hardworking and committed, these people contribute to the country’s progress to the best of their ability. What we need is for a critical mass to be turned into an expanded labour force with strong work ethics.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
Published in Dawn February 5th, 2017