PROMINENT labour leaders in Sindh recently complained to the caretaker chief minister of the province about non-compliance with labour laws by some employers. In response, the CM asked the secretary labour to carry out inspections of all factories in Sindh and prosecute the violators. The labour leaders’ concern was more focused on the contracting out of most jobs, non-compliance with the law on minimum wages, and termination of employment without notice.
It is an arduous exercise to keep track of the status of compliance stipulated in some 200 labour laws and rules. However, one can concentrate on those areas which are critical to the economic welfare of workers and workplace safety. The Employers’ Federation of Pakistan recently developed a labour inspection questionnaire, covering questions regarding the maintenance of records, payment of wages, occupational safety, health and environment, work timings, overtime benefits, the right to organise, collective bargaining, disciplinary action, etc.
The questionnaire, taken by labour inspectors to factories, primarily comprises questions relating to record-keeping in pursuance of the rules framed under the Factories Act, 1934, Shops and Establishments Ordinance, 1969, and the Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers Ordinance, 1969.
Rules relating to record-keeping, such as the display of notices, maintenance of various registers, etc, were legislated decades before the advent of IT, when such work was done manually. However, despite electronic advancement, no effort has been made by successive governments to simplify the requirements or digitise them. In fact, the government, with the involvement of workers and employers’ representatives, should review whether such record-keeping is required when lifestyles and technology have drastically changed over the last half century.
Manual records must give way to digital information.
The following are some administrative requirements besides the maintenance of certain records and display of notices on factory premises, which might have been relevant decades ago, but are now obsolete, even absurd. A rule under the Factories Act, 1934, provides: “A well for the supply of drinking water to a factory or for the purpose of humidification in a factory, shall not be constructed or located within 50 feet of any latrine, drain or other source liable to pollute the water in the well”. Similarly, the Factories Canteen Rules, 1959, provides that “The canteen building shall be situated not less than 50 feet from any latrine…”.
An entrepreneur, who has invested in establishing a factory, will discard such a primitive system and switch over to modern living standards. A labour inspector from Sukkur used to frequently visit an American MNC’s state-of-the-art fertiliser plant in Daharki, where I worked in the 1970s. Mostly, he would be accompanied by his family and stay in our guest house for a few days. Taking advantage of the legal provision cited here, he would object to the distance of just a wall between the urinal in the washroom and the electric drinking water cooler in the corridor outside.
During the inspection of factories or establishments, inspectors ask employers to produce registers for employment, remuneration and leave, and the inspection book. They also check whether the employers have displayed the following notices near the main entrance: abstracts from the Factories Act, the Shops and Establishments Act, and a few other laws and rules, the day of wage payment, and a list of holidays.
Now that it has become more economical for employers to maintain electronic records, instead of age-old manual record-keeping, there will hardly be anyone still maintaining registers as required under the prevailing laws.
According to the laws, the notices to be displayed at or near the main entrance of the factory should contain abstracts of the laws and rules in English and Urdu. The purpose was to make workers aware of their rights and benefits, so that they were not kept in the dark. As most employers have adopted electronic record-keeping, the traditional time offices at the main entrance to the factories no longer exist. Such offices now cater only to the security staff, or to control the entry and exit of visitors and employees.
Now that most people have access to Google and WhatsApp, who will be interested in reading abstracts from the acts displayed on the noticeboard? There is a dire need to simplify the requirements of inspection, besides converting them to electronic form. The level of inspectors should also be raised, and their performance consistently monitored by superiors to ensure that they also start inspecting the establishments of those employers who do not bother to learn about the labour laws.
The writer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi.
Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2023