Every year, May 1st is celebrated as Labour Day all over the world. On this day, like other countries of the world all government and private organisations, educational institutions and markets in Pakistan too remain closed. Different political and labour organisations‚ particularly the labour wings of political parties and professional bodies organise programmes to highlight significance of the day and rights of the workers. But, the abuse and human rights violations that labourers face in Pakistan have been deplorable for decades. And, unfortunately, the day had never been helpful to change the socio-economic conditions of the working-class. So, giving the labour its due rights and complete implementation of Pakistan’s labour laws is still an unfulfilled dream.
When it comes to electioneering, all mainstream political parties make tall claims that if they come into power, they will make unrelenting efforts to give labour their due rights. They promise to raise wages, expand social security and facilitate employment creation through privatisation. Unfortunately, all these claims end up in smoke and the blue collar workers are still living in abject poverty and inhumane conditions. Almost all previous regimes completely ignored labour class which is the driving force for economy. Ironically, labour agenda which all political parties boast to have for ameliorating the condition of labourers are devoid of a genuine representation of workers’ interest.
Unfortunately, the dominant thought among ruling elites is that these workers are only charity-seekers. That’s why they religiously celebrate the day but when it comes to actually making reforms aimed at making the living conditions for this class better, then mum’s the word. Their celebrations remain limited to either giving long sermons and lectures in seminars arranged in five star hotels or big universities or attending meeting and processions only to get media coverage. The events organized on this Day, which started for commemorating a noble cause, ironically have assumed a ritualistic value as no measures are taken to alleviate the sufferings of the labour class.
At present, Pakistani workforce is grappling with a lot of problems. The might of a deregulated and unregulated market system and an unaccountable employer are further adding to the gravity of their already pitiable condition. This has been the result of a neo-liberal policy pursued by the state gradually since independence, and more fiercely after entering the Structural Adjustment Agreement with the IMF in 1988. In addition, the withdrawal of state from the workers’ rights agenda has resulted in a disenfranchised workforce that enjoys no access to any of the constitutional provisions on workers’ rights including Freedom of Association (Article 17), Prohibition of Forced and Child Labour (Article 11), Right to Equality (Article 25), and (provision of) Secure and Humane Work Conditions (Article 37).
It is also to be noted that movements for the rights of skilled and unskilled manpower working as labour in Pakistan have failed miserably because these always lacked a unified purpose and vigour. This has been caused by numerous causes; the first one being the absence of educated and motivated prime movers to provide the ideological edge to this workforce. Due to lack of patronage and effective leadership, they have been successively exploited by the state, labour representatives, governments, public and private sector employers and political parties. Unlike United Kingdom, France, Germany and very recently Poland, Pakistan’s labour organisations are yet to play any formative role in the political and constitutional evolution of the country. They never were and still remain outcasts and outside the system.
Unfortunately, the dominant thought among ruling elites is that these workers are only charity-seekers. That’s why they religiously celebrate the day but when it comes to actually making reforms aimed at making the living conditions for this class better, then mum’s the word.
Another big cause behind the powerless status of the millions of Pakistani workers remains widening informality and an exclusionary institutional regime towards workers rights. Informed academic analyses suggest that more than ninety percent of Pakistan’s workers are categorized as informal workers. This informality restricts the application of fundamental labour rights on workers since they are not registered with state’s institutions regulating labour. Moreover, the state institutions too are incapacitated in implementing workers rights. Labour inspection remains most minimal in the two major economic hubs, Punjab and Sindh.
Due to the dominating practice of contract labour, the welfare and security of labour has been transferred to the contractors who remained unaccountable for their actions. These contractors hire workers in all sectors (agriculture, industrial, services, construction) and not only extract a price from labour for employment, they hold the key to job security of the workers firing them when convenient.
The social security regime is neither universal nor efficient in terms of delivery. Less than 5 percent of the workforce is covered by social security schemes such as the EOBI, PESSI and others. Employers evade registration of workers to avoid the compulsory monthly social security payments. Agriculture and home-based workers are never covered and the government does also not make any effort for their coverage under social security.
It is important to mention here that a society which repeatedly fails to innovate and breed new ideas, the absence of strong and effective labour organisations opens wide spaces for exploitation and absence of effective pressure groups. This is manifested in a diverse and fractured representative structure along ethnic, political, ideological and sectarian lines besides limitations imposed by legislative, regulatory authorities and welfare infrastructures.
The working class is the driving force of our economy, but our attitude towards it is callous to say the least. There is a dire need to sensitize people about the atrocities faced by this vulnerable section of our society. Though it’s a welcome step that after Pakistan got GSP Plus status, which may help the country in increasing the access of Pakistani textiles and other exports in the markets of the European Union (EU), the government has made a flurry of efforts to meliorate the miserable lives and working conditions of the labour, yet still a lot is still to be done. The government must also address the deficits in state’s laws and institutions for labour rights.