Crushing the working class

June 08, 2011


THE power crisis in Karachi has now begun to paralyse life in this metropolis. The immediate factor responsible is the KESC management’s failure — or is it unwillingness? — to negotiate an agreement with its workers.

I will not go into the details — 4,500 workers were recently put in the surplus pool while 6,000 untrained men were reportedly recruited on contract. KESC’s troubles are symptomatic of the bleak state of the labour sector in the country. With the national economy in the doldrums (having recorded a growth of less than three per cent this year) expectations are not high. We know who is being hit by this economic catastrophe.

A report by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) published a few months ago gave a human face to the economic crisis when it painted a bleak picture of the labour market succinctly summing up the appalling condition of the people. After all, the huge majority of our population comprises workers and their dependents — there are 51.78 million workers 15 years and above — and nothing sums up the state of the economy and the sufferings of the people better than the state of the labour class.

Take the case of Latif, a construction worker, who has been out of job for nearly three years. Initially, he would go and sit on the pavement in front of Empress Market in Karachi with his tools lined up before him waiting for a builder to hire him to polish the floor of an under-construction house. Despairing of months of fruitless waiting that was an expensive exercise for him — he had to spend on his bus fare to reach Saddar — he stopped looking for a job.

Piler’s report was relevant in describing the plight of people like Latif. It said that opportunities for decent employment are shrinking, wage inequality is growing and the labour market is dominated by a rising share of informal and vulnerable employment. The dilemma of the KESC workers is a good example. According to Piler, nearly 62 per cent of the labour force falls in the category of ‘vulnerable’. It has inadequate earnings, is denied social security and has no “effective representation through unionisation”. The KESC’s move to sideline the legally recognised collective bargaining agent in the negotiations amounts to being a slap in the face of the concept of unionisation and labour rights. Most vulnerable are the informal workers whose number has been on the rise. What has pinched most are the stringent conditions imposed by the IMF which has got the government to withdraw subsidies on food and fuel and to reduce the budgetary allocations for the social sectors. As a result, 45 million people in Pakistan have become food-insecure. Military expenditure has increased to Rs249.8bn while the expenditure on health and education has slid to Rs5.9bn and Rs22.6bn respectively.

There has been a growing feeling that the armed forces swallowed up those massive resources and could not even provide protection to the people. Had enough been spent on the education of the workers’ children we would not have had terrorists lurking behind every bush.

Anyone can see that the workers’ hands have been tied, making it difficult for them to struggle for their rights. Last week, three organisations, Piler, Sungi and Muttahida Labour Federation joined hands to hold a national conference in Islamabad to share the stakeholders’ concerns over the lacunae in the labour policy and labour laws that have deprived the workers of their rights. It was felt that the 18th Amendment provided the provinces the opportunity to rectify the wrongs that exist in this sector.

What emerged clearly, as pointed out by Karamat Ali, the director of Piler, was that throughout Pakistan’s history, the country’s economic structures have been delinked from human rights that the constitution guarantees. As such, workers’ children have not been provided adequate and quality education by the state while no social protection exists for them.

The conference came out with a number of recommendations that included the formulation of inclusive laws especially a trade union law (that has until now been clumped with other provisions in the Industrial Relations Act weakening labour’s right to association and collective bargaining). It also asked for these rights to be extended to workers in agriculture, the fisheries, small industries, mines and quarries, home-based work and domestic service who have so far been left out in the cold.

Some specific demands were made. One demand was for employment bureaus to be set up at the district level, others for increasing the number of labour courts to expedite the disposal of cases and the establishment of human resource centres and training institutes. Are the provincial governments interested in doing this? It would require them to generate resources, set up new institutions and make new laws. Hypothetically, the provincial governments now have control over this sector and if the political will exists, matters can be improved. For some time now, the concept of corporate-sector responsibility has gained ground but this has not really improved the condition of workers and their family. Corporations that skim off some of their profits to help social causes could instead have inbuilt mechanisms to provide social security and training to workers and education to their children — as a matter of right, not as charity, They need to recognise that labour that is happy and well provided for performs better and is more productive.