You see them everywhere in Karachi: Tower, Plaza, Water Pump or Gizri… they, along with their tools, wait under the scorching sun hoping to be picked up by a contractor or any other person looking for cheap labour, perhaps to fix a crack in a wall or dig a hole in the ground or maybe paint walls. And even when the heat gets too intense, they can’t really afford to find a place to relax under a shade as this would hide them from the view of passersby, which would lessen their chances of getting selected for the jobs.
“We get a day or two’s work sometimes, but after that we have to sit waiting for the next job for 10 days even. Our means of income is not regular,” says Abid, an aged labourer with a sanding machine at Gizri.
But when pointed out that they must be encountering some kind of success or else so many of them wouldn’t have been occupying the roadside, he says: “Well, if 50 of us find work, there are always another 50 without work still sitting here, waiting.”
According to these informal labourers, on a good day, they earn around Rs400 to Rs600. This wouldn’t be so bad if it they were getting the amount everyday. Unfortunately, since they find work on an irregular basis, sometimes, they have to rely on this amount for as many as 10 days before they find more work. Other than there being too many of them and not as much work on offer, the holidays and strikes further hinder their day-to-day survival.
“We leave our families, and come to Karachi in search of a better livelihood but can’t even find a regular job here,” says Gulab from Jacobabad. “I’m not illiterate. I have passed intermediate and also know how to work on a computer, but there is no work for my level of education or expertise here so I am left with no other choice but to find work as a labourer here.”
Shahnoor from Kandhkot, meanwhile, said that he came with the impression that there would be plenty of work for him to do in this big city of Karachi, but he doesn’t even have a place to stay, let alone a regular job “I sleep with a few others like me over there,” he says pointing towards a narrow path under the Gizri flyover.
“And even this costs us,” complains Manzoor, a digger holding close his shovel. “We pay a daily rent for sleeping under the flyover. Sometimes we wake up to find our tools stolen.”
“We prefer to stay here around the shops for up ahead where the commercial area thins, the residents complain about our presence calling us thieves,” adds Azhar from Multan.
When asked where they eat or go to freshen up, Azhar says that they have breakfast at the tea stall a block away or go to Saylani for the meals and the mosques in the area have allowed them to use their toilet facilities to freshen up.
According to a resident of the area, the labourers who spend the night on footpaths or under the flyovers are allowed to do so by an area gangster who takes rent from them and has bribed the area police station with a portion of the amount to let them stay. “And so they encroach on the roads, footpaths and wherever else that they might feel like,” he says.
This sentiment is echoed by the shopkeepers as well, who feel that the labour population around their shops is bad for business. “Some of them do drugs while some are pushers as well.
And that is their real business here, not labour,” says one rather fed up hardware shopkeeper who has a shop in Gizri.
According to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) the problems of these informal labourers does not really concern them. The government’s labour department was not of much help either as it looked after the wellbeing of the organized form of labour such as those represented by unions or those hired in the industry. The office of commissioner Karachi, too, thought there was no big issue to be addressed in this regard. “They aren’t bothering anyone. They come and sit by the roadside early in the morning and are gone from there by around 11am when the shops open. Even if the traffic police may have a bit of a problem with them due to their encroaching on the roads, it is resolved before becoming an issue since they are gone by the time the traffic takes to the roads,” reasons one person associated with commissioner Karachi.