In transition

Published May 29, 2022
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.

TRADE unions are in a flux the world over. The first two decades of the 21st century, characterised by heady globalisation and ruthless neoliberalism, accelerated the downfall of workers’ associations. The last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic came as a jolt. Trade unions realised it was time to do or die; change or bust.

One could sense a change in their perspective while listening to over 80 trade unionists and labour activists of the four provinces who gathered in Karachi recently and talked their hearts out. Consumed by internal weaknesses and worn out by persistent challenges, the senior leadership, though jaded, still exuded a passion for a just world of work and a desire to leave something tangible for posterity.

Though requested to talk about the report they provided information for, the trade unions found the launch event as a space to air grievances against the system, acknowledge internal weaknesses and foibles that obstructed the emergence of a second line of leadership, and critically reviewed the report Mapping Labour Unions in Pakistan. Put together by the research team of a newly emerged platform, The Knowledge Forum, the study is published, along with a separate Urdu translation, by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German non-profit, one of the very few global NGOs still promoting labour rights in this day and age.

External challenges that almost decimated the trade unions in Pakistan as reported by them — repressive legislation, employers’ resistance, informality, pocket unions, lack of institutional support from the government — are well known. The union leadership talked about the rule that allows two or more trade unions in one enterprise, which divides the workers and paves the way for a so-called pocket union — the union which sells itself to the management. The process of registration of a union has been made so complicated by design that only diehard and committed workers take up the challenge.

Political parties have created divisions amongst trade unionists.

There was one challenge reported in the study, which I had not heard them talk about in the open during my two decades of association with trade unions as an observer: the role of political parties’ labour wings. Political parties, over the decades, have exploited trade unions and wreaked havoc on the labour movement, “causing divisions among workers based on political party affiliations, eventually leading to linguistic and sectarian divides”. Perhaps the trade unionists took it as an opportune moment in the history of Pakistan to tease out the root causes of the divisions amongst themselves, with political divisions being at the core.

Another issue which the leadership is well aware of, but does not talk about, is the extremely low literacy levels of the workforce. According to the latest Labour Force Survey, in the civilian labour force of 71.76 million, 14 per cent have schooling less than Matric, 11.76pc are matriculates and only 6.09pc have studied up to Class 12! Education is not just important for productivity and a robust economy, it is also the core ingredient of self-empowerment. A labour force with low literacy means a large segment of the population is not empowered enough to claim and access its rights.

A significant challenge was pointed out: lack of documentation by trade unions of their membership, activities, achievements, finan­ces, etc. Few trade unions have a website, or a presence on Facebook. Lack of documentation and absence on social media is linked more to literacy levels and less to financial res­ources. Trade unions need to strategise how to include the crucial right to education in their struggle for rights at the workplace.

An important issue raised during the discussion on divisions among trade unions and federations was related to the absence of sector unions in Pakistan. The sectoral model of trade unions benefits a larger number of workers across the country in a specific industry. Sectoral bargaining, a form of collective bargaining, extends negotiated wages, benefits and workplace standards to all workers across an entire industry. The need for a sectoral union in the textile industry has been pointed out by labour activists time and again. In the meeting, a leader said his trade union could turn into a textile sector union. He said: “Come and take it all, including the leadership.”

Unfortunately, good sentiments are not enough. Perhaps the textile trade unions and federations should consider this proposition seriously, organise consultations, develop a strategy to figure out the possibility and logistics of re-registering the union as a sector union, and then take practical steps to make it functional. If an existing trade union cannot be re-registered under another name, then at least this whole exercise can provide much-needed space to ponder, explore and find ways to form a sector union and benefit all workers in the textile industry, the largest sector in manufacturing.

The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
zeenathisam2004@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2022

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