IN the run-up to Eid, there is often some unrest witnessed among workers. The Covid-19 pandemic added greater purpose and urgency to the chants by trade unions as they gathered on Tuesday to take out rallies in over 30 cities of Punjab amongst others. They represented exploited workers who face an uncertain future. The issues they raised are not new to those who make and operate the system. Throughout, the stories have been the same and only the faces of workers change as they continue to be recognised and dismissed as mere ‘industrial hands’. The rallies were organised by a conglomerate of various trade unions, and aimed to highlight the plight of those hit by the large-scale layoffs, cuts in and non-payment of salaries and pensions. A main protest theme of the meeting in Lahore was the ‘neglect’ of the working class by a ‘labour-hostile’ government. It was obvious that these protesters were not in a mood to be cajoled by the allowances the government had been promising those economically hit by the coronavirus. Also, the relentless prime ministerial reliance on the ghareeb or poor worker for his justification against a proper lockdown worth the name seems to have had little appeasing effect on those who live in dread of losing their livelihood.

Trade unions are in the habit of demanding more than what appears reasonable to employers and regulators. That, however, doesn’t take away from the reality of how labour — even the documented workforce — is absent from the general discussion on schemes for economic uplift. Worldwide, labour has been the worst hit economically by the pandemic. Among this group, Pakistani workers are likely to be at the bottom rung, given the fact that we are still a country where labour law violations are easy to conceal, and where the authorities routinely turn a blind eye to the wrongs committed by industrialists meaning to contribute to the ‘country’s economy’. The truth is that on immediate evidence, these 30-odd rallies have gone unnoticed officially. No spokesman has turned up to respond to the calls of these trade unionists. These labour leaders may be more deserving of an answer than opposition party politicians whose remarks receive a routine and loud retort from officialdom. By ignoring the issues raised by these workers, the government is only helping to intensify the feeling of exploitation and the sense of hatred against this exploitation.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2020

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