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Discourse on labour welfare

September 18, 2012

FOR many amongst us, the deaths of some 300 workers caused by factory fires in Karachi and Lahore were the outcome of regulatory failure on part of various government departments, and of criminal complicity and negligence by the factory owners.

At one level, this particular way of looking at things is simply the logical outcome of a circumscribed worldview.

If labour inspectors were honest, we’d have better working conditions. If factory owners were less greedy, they’d actually make an effort to ensure worker safety. If politicians were pro-people, they’d hold negligent bureaucrats accountable. If everyone did their job, as they’re supposed to, as the law asks of them, tragedies like the ones in Lahore and Karachi would be completely avoidable.

The common strand running through all this post-disaster talk is how certain agents, i.e. factory owners, government officials, and politicians, dropped the ball at some stage.

Nobody, and I apologise for overlooking those who are, is talking about structural compulsions that not only make such tragedies inevitable, but also continue to push us towards greater levels of urban oppression.

The fact that the state failed to do its job is hardly surprising. The state fails in some of its designated tasks every day, in multiple domains, at multiple levels.

It fails every time someone dies of a water-borne disease; it fails every time a school-aged child ends up working at a mechanic’s shop; it fails every time a bomb explodes in a crowded market; it fails when students of the Government Girls Primary School, mauza Islampura, Deepalpur, sit on the muddy ground for their lessons because the roof of their classroom collapsed five years ago; and yes, it failed horribly when worker safety regulations were completely sidestepped by the owners of Ali Enterprises.

The thing is that discourse centred on state negligence and corrupt practices is automatically geared to miss out on other, equally important facets of such events.

For example, based on recent reports, it turns out none of the employees of the Karachi factory had employment letters, and according to one government official, the factory wasn’t even registered with the labour department.

Essentially, this means that the labour was informally contracted, probably through a parasitical jobber, and that the value of their work was being determined by the whims and constraints of the proprietors.

Given how sub-contracted garment producers have to compete with other third world countries in the international production chain, the primary consideration for any domestic capitalist would be to reduce costs to the bare minimum.

There are two ways of doing it: 1) reduce your own profit margin, or 2) do away with first-world luxuries like minimum wagestandards, safety and health regulations, and humane working hours.

Needless to say, we all know how that story turns out.

Basically, we’re left with a context where regulation failure is an empirically provable fact, where greed and profit motive will trump any sense of compassion, and where a stagnant and non-competitive economy will push us towards greater informalisation.

The question of worker safety then becomes awkward. The question then cannot be answered by the language of ‘reform’ and ‘accountability’. The question then cannot be addressed through passionate appeals to factory owners, expedient state officials, and venal political party leaders.

If history is anything to go by, this question has been, and will only be answered by placing the worker at the centre of the political process. That is, without unionisation, without a representative form of labour politics, without organisational forums that can actually lobby for worker rights, working conditions in factories and sweatshops will never improve.

Many, especially those of the urban upper-middle class disposition, will scoff at this suggestion. Worker politics is a relic of the past, some would say. Others would argue that it creates barriers to ‘progress’ and ‘development’ and that unionisation is a nuisance (look at the railways) which prevents privatisation, and robs taxpaying citizens of efficient services.

Such dismissive reactions highlight a deep-seated belief that our existing political and economic processes can actually produce gains for everyone after some basic ‘tweaking’. What many miss out is that without collective action, in this case by urban labour, the existing incentive structure for business-owners, the state, and for political party leaders, is not geared towards worker welfare.

Recent studies by Lakshmi Iyer at Harvard, and by Ali Cheema at LUMS, show that incidence of public goods provision is significantly higher in areas where locals engage with the political process, and where there is a greater degree of collective action. Without taking too much liberty, one can easily see the inherent value of these studies for worker-related issues. If urban labour is organised in the shape of representative unions, which have traction in the mainstream political process, an incentive structure that places working class wellbeing as its end-goal can actually be created.

As far as I see it, and I could be completely mistaken here, our discourse on wages, safety, regulation, and working environments can go in two largely divergent directions.

We can either actively talk and work towards creating representative platforms that prioritise the welfare of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them like those who perished in the two fires, or we can sit back and pray that state officials, politicians, and factory owners magically grow a conscience and reform an inherently failing system.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Twitter: @umairjav