EVERYONE and their uncle knows that the Pakistani job market is screwed beyond proportion, where it’s now almost impossible to make ends meet. For younger people, it’s getting even more difficult now. Starting salaries have stayed stagnant for around a decade, while the cost of living has at least doubled in the last five years. We have reached the point where freshers — graduating out of four-year degrees — can’t even cover the cost of commuting.
This applies to pretty much every sector, maybe the exception of technology, where the global competition has made things at least relatively better for local talent in terms of remuneration. Pakistan Software House Association’s 2021 survey showed that the average starting salary of a developer ranged from Rs40,000 to Rs62,000, depending on the stack.
Elsewhere, the situation is quite different and the status quo is such that as a fresher, you are basically paying out of pocket so that the employers benefit from your labour. In return, the overlords obviously promise you “exposure” and expect unconditional gratitude. Think of the chartered accountants who start their articleship for a meagre Rs19,300 and Rs24,000 in case they have a four-year undergraduate from some of the most expensive universities in Pakistan. This remuneration is even lower than the minimum wage in the country.
The only silver lining is that this exploitative experience helps the kids get jobs abroad eventually where they are valued for their work and experience dignity probably for the first time.
Youngsters entering the job markets are inadequately compensated in the name of exposure and experience
Many other sectors do not have this privilege either. Currently, the legal profession is under spotlight, where junior lawyers are paid well below the living wages and are expected to spend a good few years of their career slaving in return for training and exposure.
Given the non-existence of benchmarking data, it’s hard to really assess where exactly the industry stands but based on social media posts, it seemed to lie somewhere between unpaid internships and Rs40,000 a month on the higher side.
Seeing the discontent among the younglings, the name partner of a reputed law firm tried to explain the reasons, at least in his own mind. He argued that since the remuneration for litigation is based on lump-sum fees instead of billable hours, this makes for a lopsided pay structure.
Though to any sane person, it read like adding insult to injury as the gentleman called junior lawyers as “net losses” to the firm. He also raised questions about the junior lawyers’ commitment, especially women, to the profession for the long term and attributed it as the reason why firms are cautious in investing in human resources.
The level of disconnect is comical because the reason many, if not most, people leave professions in which they majored is due to financial gains, not because of a commitment to the field. So, law firms not paying living wages is the cause, not the effect.
Social media posts indicate that starting salaries may lie anywhere between unpaid internships and Rs40,000
Secondly, if the lump sum nature of remuneration is the reason, what is stopping partners from billing in hours at a rate that’d allow them to offer living wages to junior staffers? If small software, design and consulting firms with no brand names can do this, surely some of the biggest names in Pakistan’s legal fraternity can? After all, they are the key decision-makers who command some degree of pricing power.
At least to me, this sounds like a business failure, the brunt of which is obviously borne by those on the bottom of the food chain. Not due to a lack of commitment but because the seniors know they can exploit them and walk away scot-free. Those who have worked in the media are all too familiar with this.
In fact, the media is far worse. Not only is there any concept of increments, but you may actually get pay cuts. Or salaries delayed for months. Things are so awful that you have accomplished journalists earning less than what they did a decade ago, in nominal terms. Those at the helm are quick to blame the powers that be for such a state of the industry, ignoring their own incompetence in finding new monetisation opportunities.
The same group then has the audacity to churn out editorials on the state of human rights in Pakistan or abroad while they fail to provide the even barest of minimum dignity to their subordinates. Funnily enough, it’s usually the self-righteous professions that fail most miserably in providing any dignity or decent future to their own people.
What ends up happening is you have a loop where mostly the nepo-babies end up sticking around and eventually take charge. Simply because they could afford to survive on pocket money instead of salaries and think everyone else can do the same. The cycle repeats when the same lot is at the helm. It’s the survival of the richest.
The writer is the co-founder of Data Darbar
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 25th, 2023