A vibrant economy, democratic stability and sustainable development will be difficult to achieve if the government, employers and society fail the working masses by letting the exploitative systems perpetuate. One of the ways to contain the growing frustration and improve the lives of common Pakistanis is to empower workers and encourage the growth of unions.

For the background research of this report on the weakening of the labour movement in Pakistan, some workers were approached besides businessmen, officials and economists. Conversation with one person who ditched his union by dealing with the management behind its back was particularly insightful and is shared here.

Nadir, discussing the receding influence of unions, admitted that he had collaborated with the management of his company some months back when the company decided to withdraw certain benefits. He works in a pharmaceutical firm. The union, he said, wanted to resist the move. Sheepishly justifying his action, he said he feared a retaliatory action by the company.

“I can’t feed my family with pride and courage. Yes, I am willing to do whatever it takes to save my job as my first responsibility is towards my dependents. Besides, I believe, as long there are people outside the factory gate willing to work the same job for less, we can’t bargain effectively.” Nadir’s monthly salary is Rs40,000.

Talking to Dawn over the phone, Nadir brought up his intensifying anxieties despite his surrender. “The dice is loaded against us. I know that loyalty doesn’t mean much. The employers can pull the rug from under my feet any time.” He was referring to the vulnerability of his class and ‘the elite capture’ of resources and institutions.

‘Trade unions, despite their diminished strength and influence, have led the fight against child labour

The pandemic has accentuated workers woes in Pakistan. Citing Covid-induced stress, employers are observed to have become more aggressive with labour though some did avail the State Bank credit scheme to cover their wage bill during the lockdown in 2020. No one knows the exact numbers but the estimates of job losses over the past year vary in a wide range of 2.2 million projected by the Asian Development Bank to 18.5m by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. No one contests that the recovery after the government generous relief package for businesses is generally jobless. It is known that the government did not insert safeguards for workers and businesses that are inclined to squeeze wage bills to further improve their bottom line.

“The pandemic is not just a health but also a labour crisis,” commented a watcher. “Instances of violations of workers and trade union rights have increased. If the government fails to manage the safety valves the outburst of growing frustration of masses can threaten not just Prime Minister Imran government but can upset the apple cart,” he warned.

Even before the Covid 19 outbreak, the working and living conditions of the labour class in Pakistan was far from satisfactory. Even the facilities and safeguards provided in the labour laws are flouted with impunity. In the absence of safety provisions, life-threatening accidents on factory floors and working sites are common. Splitting the regular workforce through a contract system is prevalent to bypass labour laws. The fact that a woefully tiny fraction of the labour force is unionised must also be a contributory factor for the sorry state of labour affairs. The ratio of unionised workers in the total labour force in the country has shrunk over the past four decades.

According to the latest estimates, trade union density in the country is at a low 2.3 per cent against a high 94pc in Scandinavian nations, ahead of bigger more powerful economies in social welfare. In Pakistan, as inequality assumed embossing levels the government stopped the annual estimation and reporting of income inequality status. One important indicator is intracompany wage differentials. It is a known secret that several presidents and CEOs of big companies in Pakistan fetch as high as Rs15m monthly salary when cleaning staff and security guards are often shamelessly paid less than the Rs18,000 minimum wage for being contractual.

So who is responsible for a situation where people are denied the right to work in dignity for a fair salary? The exploitative employers, apathetic government, ineffective trade unions or workers themselves?

Syed Zulfiqar Abbas Bukhari, special assistant to the prime minister on labour affairs was not accessible and federal secretary Dr Hashim Popalzai, who is also a member of high powered committee that recommended forced retirement of bureaucrats under the directory rules, was on sick leave according to his office secretary. Efforts to reach relevant officers for comment in the provincial labour ministries did not succeed either.

Faisal Zahoor, Director General Labour Division Punjab responded. He agreed that the situation is sad and workers affairs need more focused attention. He informed that in Punjab efforts are made to upgrade the legal framework for the benefit of workers and the women workforce in particular. “We are at it currently”.

Dr Rashid Amjad, a leading economist and a member of the Economic Advisory Committee did not see it as a situation that is specific to Pakistan. He shared his opinion in writing. “The reasons for the decline in trade union membership are universal. It includes the higher share of the service sector, deindustrialisation, the changing world of work including working from home, sub-contracting and the switch towards contract workers, globalisation and the need for flexible labour markets, the declining role of governments in labour administration and ensuring safe conditions of work and the decline of public sector employment.

“In Pakistan, the perception that trade unions played a major role in overmanning public sector enterprises (Pakistan International Airlines, Steel Mill, Railways) and causing their financial collapse have further strengthened the private sector’s almost feudal-like disdain and active discouragement of unions.

“Yet undermining the role that trade unions have played in the past in ensuring better conditions and safety at work and ensuring a just balance between wages and profits is leading to an increase in inequality and low and stagnant wages in most countries.

“The trade unions, despite their diminished strength and influence, have led the fight against child labour and recognition of rights of home-based mainly women workers and domestic workers.

“In Pakistan, a major flaw is not to associate workers reps in devising policies to improve and raise skills by institutions such as National Vocational and Technical Edu­cation Commission and Technical Education and Skill Development Authority.

“There is a real need in Pakistan to build strong and well-functioning labour market institutions and just implementation of labour laws to ensure inclusive and equitable growth and a workable balance between employers demand for labour market flexibility and stability and job protection to workers.”

A labour activist was apprehensive, “it is lame to expect the business class of Pakistan to be mindful of workers woes voluntarily. Many are not even good at their own job and owe their success to patronage more than merit. The government must update archaic labour laws and ensure their diligent implementation. It must protect the right of workers to unionise and fair bargaining”.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 3rd, 2021



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