May 1, 2009

Hoping against hope

It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming May Day would bring the promised good news to Pakistani workers or they would continue to suffer in misery
By Shujauddin Qureshi
Pakistani workers have been suffering hardships for decades due to various reasons, such as increased working hours, low wages without any proper health and safety conditions, increased trend of contractual employments, and restrictions on joining trade unions. Though successive governments have pledged to provide relief to the workers, none of them has fulfilled its commitments in the regard. The ruling PPP government is expected to announce the country's sixth labour policy on May 1, to coincide with the International Labour Day, in an attempt to provide better working conditions to labourers in the country, as also promised in the party's 2008 election manifesto.
Pakistan's first labour policy was announced in 1955, but it remained only on paper. The second labour policy was announced by Ayub Khan in 1959. The third labour policy was announced by Yahya Khan exactly a decade later. The same year, the Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) 1969 was enacted to introduce legislation guaranteeing freedom of association and right to collective bargaining to the workers. The ordinance also had provisions regarding the welfare of workers and minimum wages for them. This was done mainly to fulfil obligations as a signatory to various International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions. The IRO 1969 was followed by the West Pakistan Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers Ordinance 1969 and the Workers Welfare Fund Ordinance 1971.
The fourth labour policy was announced by the country's first civilian prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972. It is important to note that both the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif failed to announce any labour policy during their two tenures as the country's prime minister. The fifth (current) labour policy was announced by Pervez Musharraf in 2002, after a lengthy consultative process with representatives of both employers and employees.
However, the final policy did not include the promised benefits for the workers. It may be recalled that the spade work for this labour policy was done by then-Minister for Labour and Oversees Pakistanis Omer Asghar Khan, who held a series of meetings with both labour unions and employers. However, he parted ways with the government before the announcement of the final policy in Dec 2001; hence, the benefits promised to the workers were missing.
Moreover, the fifth labour policy was followed by the notorious IRO 2002 that virtually ruined the labour movement in the country. It is for this reason that trade union activists criticise the present labour laws as have been drafted to benefit the employers only. The previous government further added to the miseries of the workers by amending many labour-related laws -- the Factories Act 1934, Shops and Establishment Ordinance 1969, West Pakistan Industrial and Commercial Employment (Standing Orders) Ordinance 1968, Workers Welfare Fund Ordinance 1971, and Employees' Old-age Benefits (EOBI) Act 1976 -- in the Finance Bill 2006.
The amendments to the Shops and Establishment Ordinance increased daily working hours for the labourers from eight to 12, and abolished their compulsory weekly holiday. The amendments to the Factories Act removed the bar on female labourers from working in factories before sunrise and after sunset; the employers may now force them to work two shifts at a time, up to 10pm.
The amendments to the Standing Orders Ordinance introduced a new category of 'contract worker', who will not be entitled to compensation for overtime, and raised the ceiling on overtime from 150 to 624 hours a year for adults and from 100 to 468 hours a year for juveniles. Similarly, the amendments to the Workers Welfare Fund and EOBI restricted their scope. For example, registration with the EOBI was made compulsory for only those establishments employing 20 or more workers. In short, these amendments snatched the fundamental rights of the workers.
Although the present government has already adopted some measures for the welfare of workers, such as increasing the minimum wages of unskilled workers to Rs6,000 a month and replacing the controversial IRO 2002 with the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) 2008, trade union activists doubt its seriousness. "Even the minimum wages are not being implemented throughout the country and most workers still get salaries between Rs3,000 and Rs4,000 a month," says Zulfiqar Shah, joint director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler), a Karachi-based NGO working on the rights of labourers.
The abolition of the IRO 2002 had been a major demand of labour unions and federations throughout the country, because the "black" law had curtailed many of their liberties. For example, under this ordinance, the state had withdrawn itself from monitoring the implementation of labour laws through suspension of labour inspection in industrial and commercial establishments. This had made the Labour Departments of the provincial governments inactive. Though there is a lot of corruption in these departments, the regular inspection of factories was a major deterrent.
Moreover, the IRO 2002 did not recognise the right of agricultural labour to form unions. Similarly, the powers of the National Industrial Relations Commission (NIRC) to grant immediate relief to sacked / retrenched workers were abolished under this law. Earlier, if any worker was sacked and a case was filed with the NIRC, he or she could get stay order until the case was decided. However, under the IRO 2002, sacking of the workers had been made easier for the employers, because no immediate relief was available to the former from the NIRC. Besides abolition of the labour appellate tribunal, the powers of labour courts to reinstate sacked workers had also been curtailed in the IRO 2002.
Although the draconian law has now been replaced with the IRA 2008 through an act of the parliament, the workers are still unhappy. "We want the government to grant unconditional right to the workers to form trade unions irrespective of the nature of their jobs, because the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees this right," says Farid Awan, general secretary of the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation, Sindh Chapter.
Talking to The News on Sunday, he tells that in the tripartite meeting held in Feb, the government had shared drafts of three laws -- the Service Conditions Act, Health and Safety Act and Industrial Relations Law -- that were to be part of the new labour policy with representatives of the workers and employers to seek their input. "We have already submitted our recommendations to the government and hope the same would be incorporated into the forthcoming labour policy," Awan says.
With sky-rocketing inflation and increasing commodity prices and transport fares, the living conditions of the workers are deteriorating with each passing day. In Pakistan, the majority of the workforce is employed in the non-formal sector, where labour laws do not even apply. So, these workers are not considered as labour force and are denied the rights due to them.
The labourers in the agriculture sector are also not covered under the existing labour laws, thus the majority of the workers are denied institutional benefits. Similarly, the labour working in brick kilns and power looms is not entitled to receive any facility from state institutions. Since all the abovementioned categories of workers do not have the right to collective bargaining, they cannot claim health and other benefits either.

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