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Jobless left to fend for themselves

January 06, 2013

Raja, a plumber, clutching a dirty small bag of tools, was haggling with a prospective customer over rates to fix leaking pipes. On free days, he hangs around a hardware shop in the commercial area of Delhi Colony, a lower income locality adjacent to posh Clifton and Defence Housing Society in Karachi, in search of work.

Normally he has appointments all lined up for a day. He has regular clientele of some fifty odd families who call him over on his mobile when needed. On an average, he earns about Rs2000 a month from plumbing. It is beside his salary of Rs10,000 that he gets every month from a Sindh government department. He was inducted there young after sudden death of his father in a road accident. He told Dawn that his was a dormant department and most other employees on menial post like him do not report to office regularly.

Raja 30, a high school graduate, married with two children, however, looked restless. He bemoaned the rising cost of living. He aspired to own a plumbing shop one day that could earn him enough to live independent of the joint family and send his children to a good private English medium school.

Raja was an exception as he held a secured job and a marketable skill to capitalise on. Majority of his equals lacked a stable job and earned less. Many worked under casual arrangements. Others were self- employed, sometimes struggling all their lives in absence of skills, training and access to affordable capital to set up businesses properly.

The Pakistan Peoples Party projected ‘employment’ as the first of its five- point manifesto at the time of last elections in 2008. Other four included education, energy, environment and equity. At the end of its term, it does not have much to put on the table apart from, may be, ‘Benazir Income Support Programme’ that could be projected as a programme of social security net, providing targeted subsidy to the poorest of the poor.

Some PPP leaders reached said the party was too busy defending democracy to focus on putting the economy on rails. “With all our failings we did succeed in completing the term, while moving towards the next elections and a peaceful transfer of power. We have laid the ground for democracy to socialise the gains of progress. I believe voters understand challenges we braved and will return us to power to deliver on our unrealised promises”, a key member of ruling team said.

The latest Pakistan Economic Survey declared the unemployment rate at six per cent of the total labour force of 57.2 million. It says, “Efforts are being made to develop an efficient, equitable and right based labour market that provides mechanisms for productivity growth and real wage increases”.

Political economists dismiss the claims of the survey as irrelevant, arguing that more than half of the total workforce depends on informal economy for its livelihood.

“From push cart garbage buyers (kabari) to vegetable and fruit vendors (subzi/phul waley) and those running tyre mending shops to small barbers (naees), shoe mending and polishing people (mochis) to workers related to construction activity (tarkhans), there seemed to be no dearth of self- employed people. Their earnings are uncertain from various activities that are typically petty in nature. They figure nowhere in official picture”, commented an analyst.

More fortunate ones with connections or proven skills get placement in manufacturing and services sector. “The teeming millions of job-seekers outside their workplace and weaker trade unions has reduced the bargaining position and made employed workers insecure and vulnerable”, another analyst commented.

“In a transformational economy, the employment scene is chaotic. People seemed to be adjusting to the changing demands of the labour market. However, in absence of manpower utilisation plan at different administrative levels, the demand and supply often mismatch, twisting the already complicated situation in both urban and rural Pakistan”, he said.

Another high ranking official in Islamabad close to the leadership was visibly irritated over the question. “We are aiming at making the government lean and clean. We need to shed deadwood from our commercial organisations to make them viable. The government is not a dumping ground for social failures. The government cannot do anything for people who are not ready to help themselves”, he said.

“Yes, it is our duty to facilitate the private sector to expand enterprises and establish new ones. People will be required to work hard to acquire skills and find productive placement. I, for one, do not know anyone from any class, willing to work hard, unable to find any job. Yes, times have changed, all job aspirants have to compete not only locally but internationally. Jobs will move to regions and countries that offer most productive workers”, he concluded, absolving the government of responsibility and ignoring disparity in opportunities in the economy.

Employment does not seem to be on economic agenda of the central or the provincial governments leaving people to their devices to fend for their families. Some half baked disjointed initiatives for educated youth such as one by the Sindh government recently was more of a political gimmick than a serious initiative to deal with the issue.

“In a market economy, the government aught to be shrinking and it would be the private sector that is supposed to be absorbing the workforce. However, in Pakistan neither the shrinking administrative machinery nor the failing state enterprises have the capacity to absorb idle manpower.

“The private sector, swamped with its own set of problems, does not feel obligated to invest in labour- intensive enterprises or in skill training to throw up employment opportunities. In an environment such as this, it must not surprise anyone if street crimes are on the rise or the rough organisations succeed in mobilising youth to their folds on the promise of a better tomorrow”, commented an economist.

No current research report is available on the job situation. A two-year old report launched in 2011 by the federal ministry of labour and manpower before devolution titled, “Pakistan employment trends”, made some generalised observations based on labour force survey data. It concluded that labour force participation rate has increased marginally in three years from 52.5 per cent in 2006-07 t0 53.4 per cent in 2010-11. The employment to population rate touched 50.4 per cent in 2010-11. In developed countries the average employment to population rate is reported to be over 65 per cent.