By Iftikhar Ahmad

The article was published on 2 May 2018 by the The Express Tribune.

This timing of this Labour Day is crucial. The incumbent governments’ tenure is about to end and there would be special messages from the executive on how committed they are in promotion of workers’ rights. 

However, before we are blinded by these special supplements and advertisements, let’s consider some basic facts about the state of workers rights in the country. Workers rights are a neglected field for the federal government as indicated by their non-inclusion in recently approved SDG national framework by National Economic Council. 

While it is time of elections, there is a need to bring forward the facts about state of workers rights in Pakistan and urge political parties to address these issues in their manifestos and implement these, once in power.

Labour Day was observed this year several weeks before the tenure of the incumbent government was supposed to come to an end. On this day, we read messages from the federal and provincial governments about how committed they are to rights of workers in the country, the regard they have for workers’ dignity and the tribute they would like to pay to the concerted struggles of workers and employers. However, hard facts listed below paint a different picture.

The incumbent government would like to tell you that under Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it plans to implement nationally appropriate social protection systems for all and promote worker rights in the country. It would quote provisions from the Constitution entrusting the state to provide a ‘minimum standard of living’ to the citizens. Similarly, aspirational excerpts from the Vision 2025 and the forthcoming five-year plan shall be quoted.

However, the fact is that the Social Protection Framework document has been pending approval of the Council of Common Interests for months. The framework suggests that Pakistan needs to spend 3.9% of its GDP to meet the cost of a ‘basic social protection package’ for its people. Target 8.b of the SDGs also recommends states to spend a specific percentage of the GDP on social protection measures. Interestingly, the Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act of 2005 required the government to ensure pro-poor (social and poverty alleviation related) expenditure to at least 4.5% of the GDP. This provision was struck down under the Finance Act of 2016! Only a small percentage of the formal sector workforce is registered with social insurance institutions like the EOBI, provincial employees’ social security institutions and workers’ welfare fund.

Pakistan has the 10th-largest labour force in the world, however, the labour force participation rate for women is one of the lowest in the world, comparable only with Arab states. There is no national level anti-discrimination law, except some tweaks by the governments of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, sanctioning equal treatment on the ground of race, religion, caste, creed, marital status, disability, trade union membership, residence or place of birth in employment matters.

Though Pakistan enacted its anti-harassment legislation eight years ago, the menace is rife both in the public and private sectors. Various studies indicate the percentage of harassment beyond 80%, however, the complaints submitted to the ombudsmen at the federal and provincial levels are fewer than 500.

Although legislation prohibiting child labour has been enacted by all the provinces after devolution, nearly four million children were engaged in child labour, as estimated through the Labour Force Survey 2014-15. Of these, nearly half were engaged in hazardous work. Most are engaged in the rural economy. The child labour legislation is not consistent with the compulsory schooling laws.

On the other hand, the Global Slavery Index estimated that there are 2.134 million individuals engaged in various forms of modern slavery in Pakistan. Punjab and K-P, while enacting new legislation to abolish bonded labour in the country have sanctioned Peshgi (advance). Peshgi, in its current form, is considered to be the root cause of bonded labour in brick kiln, domestic work and the agriculture sector. There are no laws to counteract internal trafficking of persons for forced labour or prostitution in the country. Domestic work is not regulated and children as young as 10 years old are found working in other’s home for a life claimed to be “better than the village life.” The Tayyaba case is a case in point.

The LFS 2014-15 indicates that the incidence of occupational accidents is 4% for the overall economy which means that every 25th worker in the country faced occupational accidents. The ratio has been higher for male and rural workers. Despite the Supreme Court’s hearing of a suo-motu case on workers’ health and safety for more than four years, only Sindh has enacted occupational safety and health legislation. Health expenditure as a percentage of the GDP is still less than one per cent. Construction and mining sectors have the largest incidence of workplace accidents, while domestic work has been the most hazardous work for children in Pakistan.

Worker rights cannot be protected and promoted without first creating an enabling environment. Such an environment is the result of the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. More than 40% of the 61 million labour force works in the agriculture sector and thus out of legislative purview. Of the non-agricultural workforce, only nine million (27%) are in the formal sector. However, the state excludes various types of formal sector workers from purview of industrial relations legislation and thus deprives them of the protections available under labour laws. The exclusions include civil servants and other public-sector employees, except employees of public-sector enterprises like railways, PIA, Wapda, etc, teachers and healthcare workers. Those from the informal and agricultural sectors are already excluded. A recent ILO study determines the total number of trade unions at 7,096 and their total membership at 1.4 million. Trade union density, calculated as a ratio of trade union members to total employees in the country, is nearly 6%. Trade unions are in a better position to protect and promote worker rights once they attain the status of a collective bargaining agent. There are only 1,390 unions with this status. It means that there are thousands of workplaces and millions of even formal sector workers without the right to bargain collectively. Interestingly, there is no data on involvement of women and youth in trade union activities. Trade unions are nearly extinct in the garment sector.

In March 2018, the National Economic Council, headed by the prime minister, approved a national SDG framework along with certain prioritised goals and targets. Trafficking in persons, youth employment, child labour, safe and healthy work environments and trade union rights do not make to this prioritised list of national SDGs. It is no wonder then that promotion of worker rights do not find any place in the hefty one trillion PSDP for the last eight years.

While the federal and provincial governments may try to appease their constituents by announcing some labour policies or other welfare-related measures at the end of their government, let’s not forget that political parties’ manifestos and labour policies are only aspirational documents. As voters and workforce of this country, we have the right to ask political parties to include these issues in their manifestos along with plans for remedial measures and implement their manifestos in letter and in spirit.