ABOUT a year ago, the Sindh government announced a highly ambitious labour policy. Now, the PTI’s Punjab government has followed suit by launching its own labour policy, the first since the 18th Amendment was passed. Post-devolution, the PML-N government had introduced a number of prominent labour laws at the provincial level but, unlike Sindh, without making any drastic changes.
Elaborating on the new policy, the Punjab government states: “For a paradigm shift in the prevailing policies and for visible improvement in the system, there is no reliance on the gimmickry of words and the policy directly addresses bitter realities and social evils like child labour, bonded labour, gender discrimination, gender mainstreaming, labour protection, out-of-school children and lack of health facilities for the workers, etc, which stare us in the face even in the 21st century.”
The policy includes strategies for effective implementation in key thematic areas such as: labour standards; social dialogue; workplace safety; living wages; child and bonded labour; awareness raising; labour inspections regime; technical skills and training centres; simplification of labour laws; medical facilities for secured workers (ie those registered with the Punjab Employees Social Security Scheme) even after retirement; labour colonies and schools for workers’ children; disbursement of welfare grants; and the gradual extension of the labour protection framework. One of its main objectives is an ‘Ease of Doing Business Policy’ to attract investment by simplifying rules and procedures under labour laws.
The new policy presents both promises and challenges.
Pakistan is signatory to eight core international conventions on labour rights, which require strict adherence in order to meet the policy goals. Previous governments have also announced policies depicting noble intentions of protecting labour rights and making tangible improvements in living standards — unfortunately, nothing has changed. The Punjab government’s policy document is, likewise, full of plans and promises, and each of its objectives requires overcoming many hurdles.
The government wishes to move towards a living fair wage, almost double the existing monthly minimum wage of Rs15,000 for unskilled workers in Punjab. Since wages are to be paid by the entrepreneurs, does the government have any data regarding compliance with this legal requirement?
The monthly minimum wage of Rs140 remained applicable throughout Pakistan from 1969 to 1993, when it was raised to Rs1,500. In 2014, the federal government had in its fiscal budget fixed it at Rs12,000. All the provinces implemented this, with the exception of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which fixed it at Rs15,000. On a petition by the employers, the notification was suspended by the Peshawar High Court in March 2015. By September that year, the KP government set the minimum wage at Rs12,000 with retrospective effect, causing irretrievable financial distress to KP’s workers.
Nevertheless, the Sindh government, too, recently deviated from the practice of having the same minimum wage across the country, raising it to Rs16,200. There is no issue with provinces setting their own minimum wage, but it cannot be achieved without the consensus of employers.
The government has stated its intention to formulate new occupational health and safety legislation, which will supersede the obsolete provisions of Chapter III of the Factories Act, 1934.
Meanwhile, to ‘gradually’ end the practice of child labour, reference has been made to the prohibition of children and adolescents’ employment against 38 occupations and processes as provided under the Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act, 2016. This act had repealed a federal law of 1991, with the same title and provisions. Despite the lapse of 28 years with similar commitment from the then government, we still find children working in prohibited vocations of cloth printing, dyeing and finishing sections. Children are also employed in carpet-weaving, tobacco processing, biri-making and manufacturing niswar. Completely eliminating child labour will not be possible unless related policies such as that of population planning and education reforms are put in place.
The consolidation and simplification of labour laws in order to attract investment is a commendable initiative and appears achievable. Pre-devolution, a number of labour commissions formed for this purpose had even prepared draft laws, which the respective governments failed to pass. The Punjab government may seek help from persons like Dr Sabur Ghayur, who has ample experience in this area. In 2009, his team had consolidated eleven labour laws into one. The Employment and Service Conditions Bill has remained in draft form ever since.
If the government makes a sincere and sustained effort, achieving these challenging policy goals is possible.
The writer is an industrial relations professional.
Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2019