Jan 31, 2011

Labour woes

Pakistani capitalist still flouts the laws on minimum wage of the labour
By Adnan Adil

These are trying times for the Pakistan labour as hundreds of thousands of industrial labourers have lost jobs owing to severe energy crisis and hyperinflation of food prices for consecutive three years that have undermined the real wages. The labour laws are not being implemented and there is a practical ban on the trade union activity as labour leaders are being booked on criminal and terrorism charges for conducting union activities.

During the last three years, more than 500,000 labourers working in the manufacturing sector have become jobless with the closure of factories and mills owing to acute shortage of gas and electricity. The labour in the Industrialised regions of Punjab, including Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Multan, are the hardest hit due to the suspension of gas supplies to the factories for three to four days per week during the winter season. This is happening at a time when food prices have skyrocketed by 50 to 100 percent and more than 80 percent of the country’s population living in poverty or below the poverty line is gasping for the survival.

Politicians are playing to the gallery by making politically correct statements and manipulating print and electronic media to present their humane image while the fact is their actions are strangulating the working class. Since 2008, the economic policies the federal and provincial governments have adopted are elitist in nature and reflect the skewed priorities in favour of the big landlords, big traders, industrialists and the upper middle class at the cost of the labour and the poor. One example is heavy taxation on essential food items, such as Rs23 per kilogramme sales tax on edible oil and 15 percent sales tax on sugar.

Another example is the scandalous increase in the prices of sugar where the government colluded with and facilitated big sugar industrialists and traders to fleece the consumers at will on the excuse that international prices of sugar had gone up, thereby justifying the rise in the domestic prices of the commodity. In contrast, the same business class that charges international price for its product pays its labour only a fraction of what the labour is paid in those countries, for example Brazil which is another big producer of sugar, with whom the comparison is made. Moreover, the Pakistani capitalist flouts the country’s laws on minimum wage for the labour and makes it work in inhumane working conditions in violation of the international labour laws as enshrined in the ILO conventions, which the state of Pakistan has ratified but not implemented.

All the government policies and actions -- taxation measures, spending priorities, and legal enforcement -- are heavily skewed to the disadvantage of the working class. The government has money to build luxury projects, including motorways, flashy airport terminals and parliament lodges and to sustain over one-billion-rupee per month loss to the national airline but it does not have funds to launch public transport, build decent bus stations, public schools and low-cost houses for the working class. Similarly, legislation has been made to the detriment of the labour. More than 70 percent of the 53 million labourers work in the informal sector, which is outside the scope of any labour law. Thus, the employers have been given a free hand to exploit and oppress these workers, including farmers, fishery workers, home-based industrial workers and domestic servants. They have no social protection available to themselves, howsoever meagre they may be, including old-age benefits under the EOBI scheme and the medical facilities under social welfare hospitals.

While the politicians belonging to all the major parties, the PPP, the PML-N and the MQM, make tall claims about the welfare of the people and the plight of the poor, they have not introduced a single law in the national or provincial assembly to the benefit of the working class. Instead, the legislation has been introduced to harm the interests of the labourers. Under the 18th Amendment, all matters relating to the labour have been transferred to the provinces thus putting the future of more than half a dozen labour federations and big trade unions working at all-Pakistan level in limbo.

These trade unions work at organisations like Wapda, Civil Aviation Authority and Pakistan Railways. Workers of these organisations are working throughout Pakistan and have one central labour union. With the portfolio of labour transferred to provinces, it is not clear what would be the method for the registration of workers’ federations and big trade unions formed all over the country.

Although labour laws apply only to the formal sector, they too are not implemented. No mechanism exists for their implementation. More than 80 percent of the industries are not paying the fixed minimum wages to their workers. A majority of the labour is working on contract basis, which deprives them of registration with the labour department and some social security benefits. As a result, only five percent of the total employed labour is registered with the social security institutions like EOBI.

In 2003, a draconian step was taken by the provincial governments, banning labour inspections of factories and mills though it was provided in the Factories Act 1934. This policy was in violation of ILO Convention No. 81 which is endorsed by the Pakistan government. This restriction is still in force in Punjab province. Practically, a restriction has been placed on the formation of trade unions at factories and implementation of the labour laws, in blatant violation of the Constitution and the ILO Conventions.

One excuse presented to justify the bar on labour inspections was that labour inspectors indulged in corruption and were receiving bribes from the owners, thus harming the environment for private investment. However, labour leaders maintain that in the presence of a registered trade union at a factory, labour inspections are helpful in the enforcement of relevant labour laws such as payment of minimum wages to the labour, issuance of social security cards, granting of EOBI facility, monthly and annual vacations to the employees, education facilities for the children of the labour, toilets at factory premises, fair price shops for the labour and concessionary food at factory’s canteen for the labour. Ban on labour inspections has deprived the industrial labour of all these facilities in most cases.

The Punjab Labour Department has discouraged the registration of labour unions since the induction of PML-N-led provincial government in 2008. Between 2008 and 2010, only 14 new trade unions have been registered in the province and the workers who attempted to make unions were harassed in the name of security. All the office-bearers of the new unions were booked in criminal cases and they were expelled from the job. In Punjab, anti-terrorist legislation has been invoked against the office-bearers of at least three union workers during the last three years. The Punjab IRA-2010 raised the prerequisite strength of the labour at a factory from 10 to 50 to form a union, thereby depriving millions of workers at the small and medium enterprises of their fundamental right of the freedom of association.

Above all, a nexus exists between the administration, businessmen (or capitalists) and the politicians against the working class. Businessmen provide money to the politicians to contest the elections, line the pockets of government officers and influence the politicians to appoint pliable officers on the plum positions. In return, politicians and government officers help businessmen to mint money by exploiting the labourers at will and sell their goods at exorbitant prices to fleece the common man. The statements and posturing of the politicians is sheer falsehood to fool the public.

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