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NIRC's revival being delayed

May 16, 2004

LAHORE, May 15: The National Industrial Relations Commission, country's supreme body for adjudication in industrial disputes and regulation of trade unions, practically ceased to exist towards the end of April.

Set up in 1973, the NIRC had been without a chairperson since Justice Zia Mahmood Mirza (retired) was relieved of his duty on Jan 17, 2003. With completion of tenure, three of its members, Justice Riazul Hasan Alvi in Lahore, Justice Ali Nawaz Channa in Karachi and Justice Syed Altaf Husain in Islamabad, were also sent home on Dec 12, 2003, Jan 31, 2004 and April 29, respectively. As a result, workers were left with no forum at the national level where they could have their grievances redressed.

According to sources, the federal government is delaying reconstitution of the NIRC because it is still looking for 'suitable' members for Sindh and the Punjab. However, there seems to be a consensus that Justice Tanvir Ahmad Khan should become its chairperson. Justice Tanvir retired from the Supreme Court early this year.

The Pakistan Workers Confederation, a united forum for nine major trade union federations of the country, says that Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali is taking time to go through the files which the Punjab and Sindh governments have sent to him for appointment of other members of the commission. PWC secretary-general Khurshid Ahmad has appealed to the prime minister to approve resumption of NIRC functions as soon as possible. The NIRC is a legal obligation of the federal government and has to be accorded priority, he said in a letter written to the prime minister.

The NIRC was to be an eight-member commission, including the chairperson. But since its formation, it has never been constituted to its full strength. It invariably consisted of three members and a chairperson.

Trade unions wonder what has delayed revival of a body which has lost most of its powers anyway. The first time its powers were abridged was in 1980 when its tripartite character as a policy-making body was taken away and the ministry of labour for the first time ignored it for tripartite consultations for formulation of labour policy.

In 1990, the federal government further clipped NIRC's wings by declaring all federal government employees - including the subordinate staff - civil servants who could no longer seek redress from the NIRC. The same year bank employees were included in the same category and barred from approaching the NIRC for relief.

However, the Industrial Relations Ordinance-2000 dealt a major blow to the NIRC. Its section 49(E) took away commission's discretionary powers for maintaining status quo in case of an industrial dispute. It can now issue stay orders only in cases taken up by it before the promulgation of IRO-2000.

The new IRO, which has evoked criticism in all trade unions of the country because of its pro-employer provisions, also restricts the NIRC by taking away from its purview a number of public utility departments like the Pakistan Railways (open line establishment), the Karachi Port Trust, PIA, airports and seaports, the Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation and some other essential services. Similarly, the NIRC is no longer authorized to take up unfair labour practice cases even if an industrial establishment sacks trade union office-bearers.

Above all, the introduction of Worker-Employer Bilateral Council of Pakistan (Webcop) in the IRO-2000, is being seen by trade unions as a replacement of the NIRC in the free market system as it hardly provides for a role of trade unions. Webcops at central and provincial levels are expected by the government to keep the industrial and commercial atmosphere clear of disputes through sustained dialogue.