Demand to recognize right to unionization

Karachi: The International Labour Day 2013 has special significance for Pakistan that is moving to a fresh round of elections after completing the full term of a democratically elected government, said a statement of Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research PILER here Tuesday.

It said all mainstream parties contesting polls have announced their elections manifesto. Their agenda for labour is a critical indication of their future direction towards a pro people regime. Unfortunately, the labour agenda is as devoid of a genuine representation of workers’ interest as has been the policy direction of the previous government and the earlier regimes.

Nearly all manifestos promise to raise wages, expand social security, and facilitate employment creation through privatization. This suggests the dominant thought among ruling elites that sees workers as charity seekers. It also implies an agreement with the neoliberal line that gives the charge of workers welfare to the private sector.

Today, Pakistan’s workers battle an indifferent state, the might of a deregulated and unregulated market system and an unaccountable employer. This has been the result of the neoliberal policy pursued by the state gradually since independence, and more fiercely after entering the Structural Adjustment Agreement with the IMF in 1988. Sadly, despite the democratic interventions followed by a long period of military rule since late ’80s no change was ever made in this regressive structure.

The withdrawal of state from the workers’ rights agenda, steered by the neoliberal regime, comes with the price of 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. Less than 3 percent of the workforce is unionized, the bonded labour force comprises over 1.3 million of the population, over 3 million child labour work in Pakistan, and 45 percent of the working population – i.e. the agriculture workers earns an average monthly wage of Rs 5,649, much less than the minimum wage of Rs 8,000.

PILER said the biggest cause behind the powerless status of the 58 million strong workers remains widening informality and an exclusionary institutional regime towards workers rights. Though officially 73 percent of the workforce is working under informal arrangements, informed academic analysis suggest over 90 percent of Pakistan’s workers work for and 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. The recent tragedy of Ali Enterprises fire is the result of absence of labour inspection system and the unaccountability of the government as well as the employers in ensuring the safety and protection of workers.

Secondly, the structure of the state institution and laws itself seeks to disenfranchise workers. The exclusionary Industrial Relations Act IRA has ousted 80 percent of the country’s labour force from the ambit of the right to association. The Punjab IRA is applicable to establishments that have 50 or more workers. Since the bulk of establishments have a smaller number of workers associated with them, they have been given the license to deny the workers the fundamental right to association. Despite their autocratic and capitalist character, our colonial masters had a better track record of labour rights.

The PILER said the Trade Unions Act of 1926 freely allowed union’s formation to all except those in the armed forces. Unions were also free to establish political funds and participate in the political process. This Act was replaced by a regressive IRO 1969 which was replicated in later years.

There are no labour laws to cover agriculture labour which makes up 45 percent of the workforce. Until recently, the government of Punjab had officially banned labour inspection, which was resumed only after a fatal boiler blast at a Lahore factory in 2012. The Sindh Government’s labour inspection remains extremely poor despite Karachi and parts of Sindh being an industrial zone. Same is the case with Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

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 homebased workers are never covered nor does the government make any effort for their coverage under social security.

The anti workers regime has given rise to massive inequality, denial of social justice and absence of human rights. Apart from informality and denial of labour rights, workers in Pakistan remain economically weak and socially marginalsied. Provision of health and education services, present a dismal picture. Twenty five million children struggle for access to school primary and secondary both, while majority of the public turns to the private sector for healthcare. Access to shelter remains compromised in urban areas as 48 percent of urban population lives in slums.

Malnutrition stands as a stark everyday reality since over half the population is food insecure, with around ten percent battling with sever hunger. There is minimal access to social security by the rural and the urban poor except the lucky 3.9 mn families that can access safety nets such as the BISP. Rural population comprises 64% of the total population while 60% of these households are landless.

It is sad that year after year Pakistan marks the international Labour Day with the government members and political leaders making tall claims about changing the plight of workers. Yet, we see more of the same every year.

The PILER demanded that the new government must address the deficits in state’s laws and institutions for labour rights, particularly the right to unionization that remains at the root of the workers disenfranchisement today. Only a strong and engaging workers organization can facilitate Pakistan’s transformation from an exclusionary, narrow based state to a healthy democracy that upholds the values of equality and social justice.

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