All of us have seen the hyperbolic posts on LinkedIn about the future of work and how the labour markets have changed dramatically especially over the past year. There’s obviously truth in that, even beyond the usual work from home examples. The contrast is glaring whenever any young adult goes to their parents to discuss switching jobs from some big firm to a lesser-known entity. From stability and security, the priorities have shifted to growth.

Gone are the days when one’d take any job just for the sake of some fancy name. In this day and age, roles and skills have come to take precedence. But that might be applicable to only a few: specifically the globalised (usually urban) upper middle class, mostly with their degrees from a handful of top universities and brief stints with multinationals or major Pakistani corporates. That’s the food chain, with foreign grads on the top, followed by the big local brands. It’s this lot (or some chartered accountants) that largely features across leadership positions. Then come the kids from other private (or major public) sector universities, often making up the rank and file of the non-management trainee positions.

Starting salaries have more or less stayed the same — or even declined — for almost all industries

Point is, while preferences have surely seen a shift, for a great majority of the educated middle class, there hasn’t been much change in attitudes towards the idea of “good” employment. There’s a reason why government jobs are still so coveted (apart from the power and corruption avenues they bring). In the end, what they offer is the opportunity to move up the social ladder, albeit with a long wait. Plus the stability and security that comes with it mean the world to any Pakistani without generational wealth.

Within the private sector, there are a few trends that stand out. Multinationals are generally good employers, as far as salary and other benefits are concerned. Among locals, it’s usually the banks that for once are doing a better job, as far as following the labour policies are concerned. The annual increments and the prospect of cheap loans to get a car or house are enough to make people stay in the same company for decades.

This lack of opportunities creates a further divide between Karachi-Lahore-Islamabad and the rest, as most corporate headquarters or noteworthy startups are concentrated in these places. Where exactly do the rest go? In this respect, microfinance banks — with their branch network spread in tier-2 or 3 cities — have partly come to fill the gap.

“We have an annual summer internship programme that recruits and places two interns in each of our 100 branches, while 10-20 students/graduates join the different departments in the head office,” says Mobilink Microfinance Bank’s (MMBL) Chief Human Resource Officer Samiha Ali Zahid. “It’s often these interns we end hiring for full-time roles at the organisation.”

There is also the opportunity to make it to the head office and be closer to the decision-making room or move up the ranks in the same organisation over the years. With startups, this mobility is often missing, in part due to scale and higher turnover than organisations like MMBL.

However, broadly speaking, technology companies don’t seem to be bothering about irrelevant things like employee rights. According to Salman Shahid, the founder of Kamayi — an end-to-end recruitment solution with a strong clientele from tech space, only 14.5 per cent of the employers registered with them offer provident fund (PF) or gratuity, while the figure declines even further if we go for the “and” conditionality.

Meanwhile, the labour law is very clear on the matter: “The commercial establishment employing 20 or more workmen OR any industrial establishment employing 49 or more workmen, directly or indirectly, during any days of preceding 12-months, are legally liable to offer at least any one of these retirement benefits.”

Around one-third of the employers registered with Kamayi meet this criterion. Assuming that only those legally mandated to provide gratuity/provident are doing so, even then more than half of the companies aren’t bothering. This is despite export-based IT companies registering double-digit growth (and the association boasting about it) while the local startups are raising record amounts of funding. Yet that money is not being really spent towards ensuring the legal rights of employees or at the very least not on priority. Based on observations and anecdotal evidence, the starting salaries have more or less stayed the same — or even declined — for more or less all industries.

Granted that some of the tech companies — particularly those with big investments — are often more than willing to compensate for the lack of PF/gratuity with more lucrative salaries. However, the catch with that is that it doesn’t take long for startups to do mass layoffs at the first sign of trouble, as we saw during the pandemic when a much-celebrated mobility player (who shall not be named) fired most of its staff even though it had scored a record funding barely 4-5 months ago. This reveals a broader shift away from the mandated and rightful labour protections.

Undoubtedly the new breed of well-funded tech startups is providing a growing set of opportunities to work on the in-demand skill sets which are sought after in the global marketplace as well. “There is a supply-demand mismatch in the market where good talent — for more advanced technologies such as Mern (MongoDB, Express, React, Node) — is in shortage,” says Mr Shahid. While the blame largely falls on the education system that has not nearly moved in line with the industry’s requirements, the organisation themselves haven’t done much to really groom their talent. That’s why you see most new startups recruiting ex-staffers from the same five to six companies at best, with Careemers usually in high demand. Guess what did Mudassir Sheikha (CEO of Careem) and co do? That’s right: they invested in people.

Unfortunately, not many local players have any sort of defined policy for employee training. Compare that with MMBL for example, which pays up to Rs200,000 per worker for a degree/course, in addition to the usual certifications from the Institute of Bankers Pakistan. So the next time a founder complains about the dearth of talent in the industry, ask what initiatives they have taken to add to their staff’s skill set. About time we shift the narrative away from employees to employers.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 5th, 2021

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