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Why do ethnicities tend to gravitate towards certain professions?

Updated January 14, 2019

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In Pakistan, quite a few preconceived perceptions regarding professions based on ethnicity abound.
In Pakistan, quite a few preconceived perceptions regarding professions based on ethnicity abound.

PAKISTAN’S labour market segmentation shows the concentration of ethnicities along occupational lines. The ethnic composition in several professions, however, is visibly changing. For policymakers this insight can be helpful for developing effective interventions to better harness the country’s most valuable asset: its human capital.

Several economic, political and social factors push ethnic groups towards specific occupations. Generally, it appears that the choice of occupation is a cumulative function of an individual’s human and social capital and position on the social scale.

Currently the national labour database does not shed light on this dimension. The Labour Force Survey 2017-18 launched and posted on the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) last week did not reveal the ethnic composition of the labour force in Pakistan.

Shaista Sohail, secretary PBS, who holds an additional charge of chief statistician, joined the organisation last month. She acknowledged weaknesses in the current database of the country.

“We wish to make data truly reflective of the reality by improving its efficacy. The organisation is in the process of transformation. Instead of limiting change to administrative steps we wish to invite International Labour Organisation experts and representatives of civil society, to bring about necessary changes in the methodology and the framework of data collection and processing,” she told Dawn over phone from Islamabad.

‘For a better understanding of the quiet societal transformation, it would also be relevant to probe the reasons for the domination of certain ethnicities in specific occupations. The starting point, however, is to collect data’

“I believe that the participation rate of women is under-reported as we can see an increasing number of ladies serving in the retail and fast food chains, etc. It is also absolutely necessary to improve the quality of agriculture data to include information on organic farming in Pakistan,” she said.

“We are considering inducting young people and trained analysts to make this organisation dynamic so that it may better serve its purpose and assist policymakers and researchers,” Ms Sohail concluded.

In Pakistan, quite a few preconceived perceptions regarding professions based on ethnicity abound. These include: martial services are supposed to be mostly dominated by people from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; transporters, cobblers, unskilled construction workers are apparently more often Pakhtuns.

Other popular perceptions include: pharmacists and sweatmeat merchants are supposed to be dominated by Sindhis, low-grade civil servants, semi-skilled workers and khepias (agents who make foreign visits for the informal sale-purchase of goods) are thought to be disproportionately Urdu speaking, stockbrokers and gold merchants are supposed to be mostly Memons, while most carpenters and nurses are conceived to be Punjabis.

Shaukat Khattak, a senior officer informed that national labour statistics are survey based. “PBS carries out an extensive exercise to collect labour data. In all, 42,000 households are surveyed in four provinces and 6,000 are surveyed in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The survey form currently does not include a question on ethnicity of respondents though we do ask about the profession,” he commented.

The Labour Survey 2017-18 makes very broad 22 occupational classifications but does not go beyond gender and rural-urban dimensions. Retail and mechanics are clubbed together. Transport and storage is one category. Electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply is another classification.

According to the current data 38.4 per cent of labour is absorbed in agriculture, forestry and fishing, 16.5pc in manufacturing, 14pc in wholesale and retail trade, repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles account for 14.9pc, transport and storage for 5.6pc and public administration, defence and compulsory social security for 2.4pc and other services activities for 2.1pc. Participation in all other categories is less than 1pc.

Some occupations in Pakistan may still have specific ethnicities dominating them but this trend has weakened with urbanisation and the influx of people of other nationalities in every profession, it is observed.

“For a better understanding of the quiet societal transformation it would also be relevant to probe the reasons for domination of certain ethnicities in specific occupations. The starting point, however, is to collect data that sheds some light on this dimension of the labour market.

“This information may help carve out strategies of cross-ethnic harmony based on policies insuring equal opportunity for all as the country learned the hard way the pitfalls of ethnic discrimination when the East-wing seceded,” commented an analyst.

“It is only when people are treated by the ruling clique as an asset and not a liability that they start caring to dissect data for evidence-based planning to improve governance quality, ensure equitable sharing and equal opportunity. Currently, disparities are rampant in Pakistan. It is hoped that a stable democratic government will prove to be more caring,” he added.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 14th, 2019