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Labour day: making laws effective

May 01, 2013

LABOUR unions in the United States feel proud that the ‘Labour Day’ or the ‘May Day’ was born in their country in 1986. Since then workers all over the world celebrate it on May 1 every year in sympathy of the striking workers who were killed by the Chicago police on May 3 and 4, 1886.

The newly formed American Federation of Labour had resorted to a nationwide strike on May 1, 1886, demanding an eight-hours workday. The strikers were being watched by the world with interest, as acceptance of their demand by American employers would establish a standard for them to follow. This incident resulted in the world labour movement adopting May Day as its international holiday.

Soon after the independence, Pakistan became an active member of the International Labour Organisation and ratified more than 30 of its conventions mostly related to working hours, safety and health and right of association etc. These conventions have directly and indirectly influenced the process of labour legislation in Pakistan.

The trade union movement in Pakistan, at the outset, was a continuation of social conditions and workers’ struggle going on in ‘British India’. There were two organisations of industrial workers, namely Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF) and All-Pakistan Federation of Labour (APFOL). They were successors of their Indian counterparts with similar names except substitution of the word ‘India’.

Initially there were relatively strong trade union currents among workers of railways, post, seaport, airports and in some cases the cement factories. However, the trade union movement remained suppressed during the period of military rulers. Except in the first PPP government, the trade unions could not play an active role even during the terms of the democratic governments.

The labour uprising and troubles generated in the 1970s were probably a reaction to the government controls exercised on the labour movement earlier due to which it remained dormant and subdued.

Besides the trade unions, situation of the other two stakeholders -- the government and the employers -- has also remained disappointing. The successive governments have remained so much entangled in encountering the political turmoil and multifarious other issues that labour matters ranked low in their priorities.

Amendments to the labour legislation have always been made on an ad hoc basis under political expediencies. Various governments did form commissions headed by the learned judges of the superior judiciary and others to simplify and consolidate the labour laws and to make them user-friendly. Unfortunately those sensible and pragmatic recommendations by the commissions were never made the law by the incumbent governments for unknown reasons. As a result, the employers are left to implement the same laws inherited from the pre-independence era.

Consequently, the progressive employers are compelled to make their own rules and policies to overcome the deficiencies of the state laws in order to manage their businesses efficiently. The only legislation worth noting, framed and promulgated in the post-independence period, relates to the labour welfare laws.

Devolution of labour matters has taken place under the 18th Amendment, in pursuance of which all the labour legislation at Federal level was to be converted as provincial legislation. However, with the exception of the Industrial Relations Ordinance, 2011 (Federal) and the Punjab Industrial Relations Act, 2010, no effort was made by the respective provincial governments to convert the number of other labour laws.

It is recommended that the next elected government should form a commission to make the labour legislation more meaningful and realistic. Since great effort in this direction has already been made previously, the new commission should consider adopting the draft acts made by its predecessors.


Is holiday needed in Pakistan? IS a national holiday on Labour Day (May 1) really important for countries like Pakistan? In cities like Karachi, labour is already facing critical challenges due to weekly strikes. They are equally allergic with national holidays in Pakistan. They are the biggest victims of these strikes and national holidays.

What is the benefit of a national holiday on Labour Day for our labourers? In this alarming situation with extreme poverty and rising inflation, their only interest is to earn as much as they can to feed their family. Besides, they are ready to work for seven days a week.

Seminars or symposiums on Labour Day at five-star hotels and supplements in newspapers will never feed a labourer’s family. This is not beneficial for labour. It is all artificial and the only formality for NGOs.

Recently I met my cobbler in the morning who was practically crying. He was seriously ill but all the same he opened his small cabin. I asked him as to why he was there when he was so sick.

He replied, “Bhai, my cabin remained closed for three days during the past week due to strikes and political violence. My daughter too is sick. If I don’t work, how will I buy food for my family?”

I insisted that he visit a doctor with me but he refused to go, saying he would be losing customers and a chance to earn money if he went there.

My appeal to the government is to announce “No National Holiday on May 1”, and my humble request to our political parties is to please stop calling for strikes.

Political parties must raise their voice and condemn terrorist activities through different mediums (specially our vibrant electronic media). They should realise that closure of business is the death of labour which is a huge disaster for society.

I urge our media anchors and columnists to please spread the word of strikes being disastrous for the country. Please support the daily wager who is our fellow citizen and a human like us.