Unions: rise & fall

May 01, 2019

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The writer works at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research.
The writer works at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research.

LABOUR Day is observed the world over in remembrance of a historical labour struggle by US industrial workers. It was back in 1886 when workers in Chicago revolted against inhumane work conditions and a score of them were killed in police firing.

Since then, the day is observed every year to remember the struggle of those workers who rendered their lives while seeking just treatment at workplaces. As a result of this historical mobilisation of workers the right to have the workday regulated to no more than eight hours was accepted. In 1919, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was established under the League of Nations and later became the first specialised agency of the United Nations. The very first standard it set was the eight-hour workday or 40-hour workweek.

A lot has changed in the world since then. However, there is a little improvement in working conditions in Pakistan. Informality of labour relations, long working hours, low wages, poor health and safety arrangements, absence of social protection and lack of unionisation characterise labour in the country.

In essence, labour issues are imbalances of political power.

The Global Slavery Index ranks Pakistan among the top six countries in the world where labour bondage is rampant and over three million people are compelled to work under slavery-like conditions.

Though labour conditions in many countries are not ideal and there is still a need for urgent measures to comply with international labour standards, the question of workers’ self-agency has become a central point in the labour discourse.

The issue of labour rights is actually an issue of political power imbalance — capital at one end and a large number of vulnerable workforces at the other. Given powerful interests’ greed for profit maximisation, compliance with labour rights has slipped off the list of priorities of governments and employers. Governments across the world have bowed before corporate power. So it is in Pakistan too, where the declining capacity of state enforcement mechanisms have left millions of workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Labour experts and veteran trade union leaders describe the lack of unionisation as the singular factor responsible for poor work conditions, and believe that without organising and exercising the right to collective bargaining, labour will remain vulnerable.

Article 17 of Pakistan’s Constitution provides the right to association as a fundamental freedom for all citizens. This is backed by Pakistan’s ratification of the ILO’s core conventions (No. 87 and No. 98) committing to ensure the right to unionisation and collective bargaining. However, our country is still a far cry from an environment conducive to exercising this fundamental right.

Various researches suggest that only three to five per cent of Pakistan’s 65 million-strong labour force is unionised. A latest ILO mapping suggests an even lower union density — only 1,414,160 workers in 7,096 unions in the entire country. Of these, only 1,390 of unions are collective bargaining agents, which reflects the weak bargaining position of even unionised workers. This small number of the organised workforce is also fragmented and divided on the basis of politics, ethnicity and religion.

Low level of unionisation, which has resulted in the absence of workers’ representation from the factory level to national policymaking level, is blamed on several factors including repressive laws. The country’s industrial relations law since 1969 has promoted exclusion. A number of industrial sectors are exempted from the ambit of the law, and in sectors where workers have the right to unionise the provisions of the law make it difficult to form a union.

The general attitude of employers has also contributed to such a low level of unionisation. Indust­ria­lists who claim to have unions in their factories have, in fact, created their own ‘pocket unions’ to meet the requirements of global buyers while at the same time stopping genuine trade unions from emerging.

In addition to exclusionary legislation, changing work patterns and employer attitudes, unions themselves are also responsible for weakening labour movement in the country. The existing unions have not made any serious efforts to expand their membership base. Most of them remain focused on industrial pockets and others survive on a public sector whereas the huge service sector is yet to be tapped for unionisation.

Also, the unions have not made any efforts to bring contractual employees in to their fold. The existing trade union leadership is the same as that of the 1970s. It has failed to induct and nurture young leadership, or improve the gender composition of the unions. Despite increasing participation of women in paid labour economy, there are just a handful of female members, and none in leadership positions.

Without workers’ self-agency with a capacity to negotiate, improvement in working conditions is difficult to achieve.

The writer works at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research.

zulfiqarshah@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2019