A grim outlook for labour

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

RECENTLY Piler, which has been conducting useful research on labour issues, released its latest report titled Denial and Discrimination: Labour Rights in Pakistan. Written by Zeenat Hisam, this report sheds light on the labour sector in the country and provides valuable information for those looking into the status of workers and how the labour movement is faring.

What is most striking about labour rights in Pakistan today is the wide gap between constitutional provisions and legal obligations on the one hand and the situation on the ground on the other. If one looks up the Constitution and the ILO conventions to which Pakistan is a signatory, the impression — false of course — one gets is that the workers in this country have never had it so good.

Five articles in the Constitution specifically provide for labour-centric rights. They prohibit forced labour and child labour; provide for the right to form unions; ensure the right of a citizen to work and choose his profession; speak of equality before law; and provide for humane conditions of work.

Pakistan has also signed and ratified 35 labour conventions that oblige the government to adopt laws to ensure that the workers’ rights are duly protected. In that case, one needs to ponder why the status of labour in Pakistan is so dismal.

What is of greater concern is that the situation is gradually deteriorating and there is little hope that matters will improve in the coming years. Piler’s report paints a grim picture of what is happening on this front. The issue is closely related to politics — the progress towards a democratic dispensation — and the state of the economy. On both scores there is little to give rise to hope. Given the struggle for power that we are witnessing today one cannot expect Pakistan to be converted into a representative constitutional state where human rights are guaranteed — the victory of the judiciary in the Chief Justice’s reference case notwithstanding. Not only are the existing laws not implemented, many of them are trampled upon by powerful rulers.

Take the case of labour laws. Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and the ILO convention on child labour in 2001 and adopted the Employment of Children Act 1991 that banned the employment of children in 29 (later increased to 34) hazardous occupations.

Today Pakistan has 3.06 million child workers as compared to 2.12 million 10 years ago and many of them are working in industries classified as hazardous, such as carpet weaving, bangle-making, rag-picking and so on.

Similarly, bonded labour flourishes in spite of the laws and court judgments banning it. It is plain that labour laws can be fully implemented only when democratic political structures are introduced and strengthened. Thus alone will it be possible to enforce the existing laws.

How blatantly the Constitution has been violated to the disadvantage of labour is apparent from the move of the government to introduce changes in labour laws through the Finance Bill in 2006.

Through this piece of legislation, that is intended to facilitate the implementation of the budget proposals, the government increased the working hours, allowed employers to make women work till 10pm, added the contract worker to the definition of worker and limited the application of EOBI to institutions employing more than 20 workers. This was possible because the National Assembly has acted as a rubberstamp body and did not try to resist this move.

Similarly, to bypass the constitutional requirement of bringing the Industrial Relations Ordinance 2002 before the Assembly to be adopted as a law or be re-promulgated every four months, Article 270-AA was introduced through the Legal Framework Order and the ordinance was deemed to have become a law.

This devious approach was found to be necessary because IRO-2002 placed restrictions on labour rights and also checked the workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. These moves were possible because Pakistan was under military rule that gave the government the power to act arbitrarily.

Economic conditions in the country have also placed labour at a disadvantage and weakened its bargaining power. The unemployment rate in Pakistan has increased over the years. According to Piler’s report, in 1974-75 the strength of the labour force stood at 20.4 million and the unemployment rate stood at 1.9 per cent.

In 2003-04, the number of workers had more than doubled to 45 million and the rate of joblessness had jumped up to 7. 3 per cent. A large pool of unemployed workers looking for a job enables the employer to exploit the situation and keep wages low.

The growing incidence of child labour — from 3.4 per cent to 5.5 per cent of the labour force in the above mentioned period and 5.5 per cent today — also allows the employer to manipulate the workers since they are more vulnerable.

It is not clear how globalisation is affecting the labour sector in Pakistan. Since globalisation has allowed big business to shift its factories to Third World countries where labour wages are low — in India a worker earns only 20 per cent of his counterpart in America — jobs are moving to the developing countries. But it is unlikely that Pakistan will gain by the flow to the Third World of manufacturing and service jobs created by the wave of globalisation and technological development.

The poor state of education in the country disqualifies a preponderance of workers from many of the jobs thus created. In fact, jobs will be cut down further because of rationalisation and mechanisation that lead to capital intensive industries that are not labour intensive.

In this scenario, the future of labour in Pakistan is bleak. With the unions, the few that exist and make their presence felt, not making any effort to obtain facilities for education, training and skill enhancement for the workers, can one hope for the workers to become more competitive and thus improve their bargaining position?