Dec 13, 2010

Missing the point

Exclusion of labour inspections from labour laws will continue to affect the labourers

By Aoun Sahi

Kasur Perveen, 23, a resident of Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore, has been working in a factory on Multan Road since 2005. Even after five years she does not have a letter of appointment or any other written document to prove that she is an employee of the factory.

With five years of experience, she is not getting even 50 percent of the minimum wage announced by the prime minister. "I think none of the workers in the factory has received an appointment letter. My first salary was Rs1,500. Five years later, I get only Rs3,000. I have to work for at least 10 hours a day to get this salary".

Besides the unresolved issue of maternity leaves, there are no separate toilets for women in the factory. "The working conditions are very poor. Getting injured while working is a common phenomenon and as the factory does not provide us health facility, in a majority of cases, labourers have to take care of it from their own pocket," she says. Perveen does not see even a ray of hope that things would get better. "During my five-year stay at the factory, I have never seen a government official coming to the factory to observe the plight of labourers."

Perveen is one of over 20 million labourers working in the Punjab province who are deprived of even their basic rights and are forced to work in poor conditions. Working conditions in the industrial sector in Punjab were never exemplary but they have deteriorated badly ever since the abolition of labour inspection in 2003.

Inspections were stopped following an executive order issued by then Chief Minister Punjab Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi under the provisions of the Punjab Industrial Policy, 2003, which aimed at "developing an industry and business-friendly environment" to attract investment. Physical inspection of factories was stopped through an amendment to the Punjab Factories Rules, 1978. Inspection of workplace by labour inspectors was replaced with a declaration form with the direction to the employers to furnish information pertaining to the implementation of labour laws in their units. But only around 10 percent factory owners have ever submitted these declaration forms to the labour department.

Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Industrial Relations Bill 2010 on December 8. The act once again disappointed millions of labourers in Punjab as it has not restored labour inspection in the province. Labour unions allege that the government’s decision had drastic consequences for industrial workers in the province. "Mian Shahbaz Sharif, who otherwise hates all those steps taken by former chief minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, has kept this policy of him," says Hanif Ramay, general secretary of the Muttahidda Labour Federation (MLF).

According to him, not a single industry has complied with labour laws since labour inspections were stopped. "It is because no government official is allowed to enter the premises of a factory to inspect working conditions. I am not saying that labour inspectors were doing a great job but they were at least keeping a check on factory owners to ensure implementation of some basic rights," he says.

Proper application of labour legislation depends on an effective labour inspectorate. Labour inspectors examine how labour standards are applied at the workplace. He advises employers and workers on how to improve the application of national law in such matters as working time, wages, occupational safety and health, and child labour. Labour inspectors bring to the notice of concerned authorities loopholes in labour law. They play an important role in ensuring that labour law is applied equally to all employers and workers.

Pakistan is signatory to ILO’s Labour Inspection Convention, 1947. Ramay believes that lack of labour inspection has given employers a free hand to employ a worker without a letter of appointment and sack him at will without paying him his dues. "The workers are forced to work longer hours without any financial compensation for the overtime. Nobody gets the minimum wage. The safety standards at the workplace have deteriorated and the workers are denied medical treatment and financial compensation in case of permanent injury or death in an industrial accident. The conditions of female workers are even worse," he says.

The abolition of labour inspections is a violation of human rights and labour laws, like the Factories Act, 1934. Pakistan is among the countries that spend less than 1 percent of the national budget on labour administration. According to ILO website, some studies show that the costs resulting from occupational accidents and illnesses, absenteeism, abuse of workers and labour conflict can be much higher. "Labour inspection can help prevent these problems and, thereby, enhance productivity and economic development," writes W. V. Richthofen in his book titled, Labour Inspection: A Guide to the Profession published by ILO in 2002.

"Labour inspection is the main instrument to ensure implementation of 8 core conventions of ILO. Our constitution ensures a decent livelihood to all citizens but our rulers are not interested in providing decent livelihood to people," says Zulfikar Shah, joint director Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), an NGO engaged in research, training, and advocacy in the areas of labour rights and labour legislation, etc.

Zulfikar says the Punjab government led by industrialist elite is unlikely to restore labour inspection in the province. The employers have always been suspicious of labour inspections and consider official monitoring of standards as an obstacle to increasing the profit margin. "In Pakistan, profit margins of industrialists are considered to be the highest," he says, adding that "labour inspection mechanism has always remained ineffective and weak. Still, inspection was some kind of a check on employers who were forced to maintain at least the minimum level of safety standards at the workplace. But now employers are free to do whatsoever they want to do with labourers", he says.

Unfortunately, Punjab is not the only province where labour inspection is banned. It is also banned in Sindh. "This is against the law which asks for ensuring humane and safe working conditions. So, inspection is important for labour protection," he says, adding, "in the WTO regime lack of implementation of labour laws can affect exports and foreign investment. Our government has been requesting the EU to get Generalised System of Preferences-plus status for Pakistan which will help exporters to compete in European markets but on the other it is not trying to improve labour conditions in the country. Our rulers need to know that non-compliance of labour laws can be a huge obstacle to export our goods to Western countries even with GSP-plus status," he warns.

Labour Minister Punjab, Ashraf Sohna, who belongs to the PPP, admits that labour inspections are vital for decent working conditions and to prevent workers’ exploitation by the employers. "Even I am not allowed to enter a factory to observe the working conditions of workers", he says. Sohna blames it on the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who he says, has done nothing to restore the rights of labourers and takes side of industrialists.

Sohna says he has written many times to the chief minister on the need of restoring labour inspection. He admits that Punjab has more than 20 million labourers working in different sector, but only 0.7 million of them are registered and have been getting benefits of social security.

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