WHY HAVE THE WORKERS FAILED TO UNITE?

Sound and fury signifying nothing ... that is what be trade union movement in Pakistan has come down to with the passage of time. - Photo: Dawn Archives
Sound and fury signifying nothing ... that is what be trade union movement in Pakistan has come down to with the passage of time. - Photo: Dawn Archives

TRADE unions invariably grow from the political system in a country. The structural nature of a country’s political system deeply influences trade union membership, coverage and impact. Primarily, it is the internal political system of a country that gives or curtails space to trade unions to either institutionalise and become stronger, or remain fragmented and marginalised. The impact of external, or global, factors is secondary, though crucial.

In Pakistan, trade unions were never granted the space to institutionalise and were kept away from political institutions. The downhill trajectory of trade unions in Pakistan since 1947 is generally attributed to three decades of military regimes. However, according to labour historians, the seeds of neglect and disregard of labour interests were manifest in the ideology of the All-India Muslim League (AIML) in the pre-Independence era. After Independence, the ruling elite steered development policies towards growth via capital formation, rather than by laying the foundation of a welfare state. Hence, neither land reforms nor dynamic trade unionism saw the light of the day in the country.

The roots of trade unionism in the subcontinent date back to the labour movement that emerged in the late 19th century, when industrialisation took off under British colonial rule. The Bombay Mill-Hands Association, formed in 1890, was the first informal labour organisation. In 1918, the Madras Labour Union, the first conventional trade union, was formed. The first trade union federation, the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), formed in 1920, was affiliated with the Indian National Congress as the labour movement, and was deeply intertwined with the anti-colonialism movement. In contrast, the AIML did not develop a concrete vision or programme concerning labour, and never really encourage the workers to organise themselves.

After Partition, Pakistan inherited only 9pc of the industrial base of undivided India. There were 55 registered trade unions in Sindh and Punjab, and 30 in East Pakistan. The unions were mostly in the railways, post and telegraph, dockyards and cotton mills. Divided on political ideology, the unions with leftist leanings formed the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF), while the rest formed the Pakistan Labour Federation (PLF) and the East Pakistan Federation of Labour along the lines of the Indian Federation of Labour.

Pakistan’s trade unions remain relevant to our future, especially as times get tougher. But their failure to unite reflects poorly on their ability to focus on common goals for workers.

By 1950, the number of trade unions had increased to 251 when the state created the All-Pakistan Confederation of Labour (Apcol) to check the growth of left-leaning unions. Over the decades, trade union federations splintered or merged many times over, or formed anew.

In subsequent decades, the state focussed on actively keeping the labour unions away from mainstream politics and development discourse, with duplicity of words and actions regarding organised labour remaining prominent.

Keeping a façade of its professed concern, the state in 1951-52 ratified two International labour Organisation (ILO) conventions crucial to trade unionism; the right to unionise, and the right to collective bargaining. However, of the six labour policies formulated in 75 years — three under military regimes (1959, 1969, 2002) and three under elected governments (1955, 1972, 2010) — none was ever implemented. The provinces of Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa announced their first labour policies in 2018, but no follow-up ever came to light.

For labour legislation, the rulers, both military and elected, resorted to the colonial legislative framework. The first damaging law of the early days was the Pakistan Essential Services (Maintenance) Act of 1952. Based on a colonial war-time measure, the Act deprived workers of the rights to organise and collective bargaining in federal government services and any industries declared to be public utility services. As trade unions existed mostly in the public sector, this law weakened the nascent labour movement.

The two other laws concessional to labour — the Trade Union Act, 1926, and the Industrial Dispute Act, 1947 — were amended several times and finally replaced with the regressive Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO), 1969, which took away the right of freedom of association and collective bargaining from a vast category of workers and prohibited industry-wide unions. This law was not changed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose governance, according to a historian, “only brought to new heights the familiar mix of labour concessions and repression that characterise Pakistani labour history”.

IRO 1969 was replaced with IRO 2002 by Gen Pervez Musharraf, and then reshaped by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government into the Industrial Relations Act (IRA), 2008, both retaining most of the restrictive clauses.

After the 18th Amendment to the Constitution devolved labour, it was thought that the provinces would get rid of the colonial framework and bring about legislative reforms. This did not happen. Instead, according to trade unions and labour activists, there are more complications than was the case earlier.

Provincial industrial relations laws remain by and large exclusionary. Only Sindh granted freedom to form associations and collective bargaining to workers in agriculture in 2013, and made the rules of business in 2021. Keeping in view the feudal character of agriculture, it appears unlikely that workers would form trade unions to claim their rights.

The federal government, meanwhile, failed to formulate a broader national legislative labour framework based on constitutional rights and ILO standards to harmonise labour laws across the provinces.

A critical challenge to the trade unions since the 1990s has been the globalisation of the economy, which has pushed millions of workers into contractual employment and out of the ambit of industrial relations laws. Meanwhile, corporations’ resistance to workers organising and bargaining collectively has become endemic.

A 2016 ILO study cited the number of registered trade unions in Pakistan as 7,096, out of which only 1,390 were collective bargaining agents (CBAs). Union density was 2.32pc of the total labour force; 15 trade union federations and 28 industrial trade union federations were registered with the relevant body.

The challenges trade unions confront internally are numerous. Lack of education and skills among the majority of workers, hence lack of an educated cadre, vulnerability due to economic hardships, and fissiparous tendencies in society are serious constraints that have obstructed the labour movement.

Lack of emergence of a younger leadership in trade unions is another issue. The old guards who represent workers in national tripartite mechanisms and international forums do not let go of their seats. The most damaging weakness is the trade unions’ non-acceptance of informal workers into their fold.

Trade unions in the formal sector are male-dominated in terms of both membership and leadership. The negligible presence of women in trade unions is due to parochial and patronising attitudes of the traditional trade unionists who see women only as home-makers and not as wage-earners. This is despite the fact that an increasing number of women are joining factories and offices. The number of home-based women workers is much larger.

In 2021, Pakistan was ranked as one of the worst countries in the world to work in, according to the International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index, which rated 149 countries on a 1-5 scale based on the degree of respect for workers’ rights. Pakistan got a rating of 5 (No Guarantee of Rights), indicating that while the legislation spells out certain rights, workers have effectively no access to these rights.

Despite these political-institutional challenges, internal weaknesses, constraints and repercussions of neoliberal policies and globalisation, trade unions are still relevant to Pakistan, rather more so during these turbulent times. Trade unions must innovate and revitalise to resist inequities, play an active role in addressing the impact of emerging issues on the workers, such as climate change and pandemics, and strive to build a just and fair world of work.

The writer is a researcher in the development sector and can be reached at: zeenathisam2004@gmail.com.

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2022

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