Balochistan’s wretched labour

Updated October 10, 2019

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THE view that Balochistan is still a neglected federating unit means that a preponderant majority of its citizens cannot enjoy their basic rights. But they are not equal in misery as many suffer more than others.

The worst off include the workers belonging to government departments who were deprived in July this year of one of the most important markers of their identity — membership of trade unions — as a consequence of a decision by the Balochistan High Court.

This strange case arose out of a rivalry between two unions of workers employed by the Public Health Engineering Department. When the matter came up before the high court, the additional advocate general argued that “the men in government service are not allowed to form a union”, because they are not workers or workmen, nor is a government department an establishment within the meanings of the Balochistan Industrial Relations Act, 2010. The employees of these departments are civil servants or government servants as defined in the Balochistan Civil Servants Act, 1974.

Read: Registration of 62 trade unions cancelled in Balochistan

The high court accepted this line of argument and gave its own reasons as well. It considered it “highly unfortunate that the registrar, trade unions, in complete negation of the law, registered the unions by the government servants, thus acted illegally.” The court directed the chief secretary to ensure cancellation of the registration of all trade unions formed by government servants, and added: “The illegal practice on the part of government servants has to be discontinued, and in future might not be repeated.”

Chastened by the rebuke delivered by the high court, the registrar of trade unions, Balochistan, ordered that the “registration of all the trade unions formed by the employees of government departments, semi-government departments and autonomous bodies, being governed by the Balochistan Government Servant (Conduct) Rules 1979 are hereby cancelled with immediate effect.”

Does the government of the province have no responsibility to come to the help of the workers?

The 62 unions whose registration was summarily cancelled include those formed by employees of 23 municipal bodies (the Quetta Corporation and municipal and town committees), employees of the National Bank of Pakistan, and various government departments. Somehow the union of the employees of the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation (an autonomous body) escaped being axed.

These orders have created an anomalous situation. Employees of government departments all over Pakistan have trade unions, some of them among the largest in the country, except in Balochistan. The employees of National Bank have unions in all the provinces except Balochistan.

The questions raised before the Balochistan High Court have been dealt with by the superior courts on numerous occasions, and considerable case law is available. Two significant cases were civil appeals 889/94 and 532/95 that were disposed of together by the Supreme Court in November 1996. In the judgement written by justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui and agreed to by justices Ajmal Mian and Zia Mahmood Mirza, the court examined a number of decisions of the Lahore and Sindh high courts on registration and deregistration of trade unions. The court accepted the appeal against a decision of the Balochistan High Court. As a result, the Agricultural Workers’ Union Balochistan, Quetta, representing the employees of the Directorate General, Agriculture Extension, Balochistan, a government department, was registered under the Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969.

The unions affected by the en bloc cancellation of registration have gone to the Supreme Court, but the fact that the poor trade unions of Balochistan should have to fight for their right to organise before the apex court, unaided by the provincial authority, is a sad reflection on the state of governance. How can the government of Balochistan remain unconcerned about the plight of workers? Even if it is assumed that the high court has rightly interpreted the provincial laws, does the government of the province have no responsibility to come to the help of the workers? The best course for it is to do everything possible, including taking legislative measures, to ensure that the workers are not denied their fundamental right to unionise.

While dealing with this problem the authorities will have to bear in mind the state’s obligation to respect workers’ right to form unions, including Article 17 of the Constitution, which gives every citizen the right to form unions subject only to “reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality”. No such ground has been mentioned in the judgement of the Balochistan High Court.

They will also have to carefully read Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights that has been duly ratified by Pakistan. Clause (a) obliges the Pakistan state to ensure the right of everyone to form or join the trade union of his or her choice, “subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned ... No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public order or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

Sub-Article 2 of this article allows the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces or of the police or of the administration of the state. (The last category comprises officers in government departments.) Trade union leaders have argued for decades that this provision does not bar employees of the armed forces, police and administration that work in subsidiary departments, such as hospitals, commercial enterprises or housing societies.

Sub-Article 3 bars states parties to ILO conventions concerning freedom of association and protection of the right to organise from making any law that would prejudice the guarantees provided for in the relevant convention.

Many instances of legislation to secure relief from adverse court decisions can be cited. The sooner the Balochistan government recognises its obligations to help its workers to regain their rights the better it is, as any authority that ignores the rights of citizens is neither democratic nor efficient.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2019