ON the Balochistan High Court’s orders, the recent announcement to cancel the registration of 62 trade unions is yet another blow to workers’ right to vocalise, defend and organise for their interests. Largely impacting government workers, along with some from the private sector, there have so far been no reports of the verdict being challenged, despite it being a blatant violation of Article 17 of the Constitution (which provides for the right to association) and several ILO conventions that Pakistan is a signatory to. Only a small percentage of Pakistan’s large workforce is unionised, and a great deal of labour gets categorised as informal work. But it seems as if the workers of this country have become so accustomed to conceding their rights that barely a whimper is raised at their demise. Meanwhile, the people in the country’s most impoverished province continue to be marginalised and have their grievances silenced. This points to a worrying trend, indeed a global one, which can be witnessed in much of the (post-Reagan and post-Thatcher) world in varying degrees: the diminishing strength of labour unions and movements. In a world of great power imbalances, the biggest casualties are the working people. Many are hired on a contract basis, are paid poorly and face job insecurity. This will only worsen in these times of a poorly performing economy, rising inflation and layoffs in many industries.
Often, they have no choice but to put in long hours at work and are not provided any social benefits. In industrial professions and factories, workplace hazards, accidents and fatalities on the job are all too common, and yet there is a dearth of proper health and safety mechanisms. Without the presence of strong unions, how will any of these issues be addressed? While the present government has rarely spoken about unions, legislators must take notice of the high court verdict. In worst-case scenarios, snuffing out lawful dissent will only give birth to unlawful means of registering protest.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2019