Standing amidst the uneven terrain of an under-construction building near Karachi’s Parsi Colony, a budding mason, Akhter Hasan, sobs for the loss of his brother who breathed his last at the same site four months ago.
Hasan started working in place of his brother after his death, since someone had to eke out a living for the family. “We are a family of six and it is extremely difficult to make both ends meet every month as I work from morning until dusk and get measly Rs 250 as daily wage,” says Hasan.
Although the official minimum wage set by the government is Rs 13,000 per month, Hasan only gets Rs 6,500 for 26 days he works at the construction site.
On Sundays, he heads out to Hyderabad and helps at a men’s saloon for supplementary income of Rs 1,500 each month.
Like Hasan there are many labourers who are paid much less than the minimum wage set for unskilled workers, but no one cares.
The minimum wage a local labourer earns remains a debatable issue in Pakistan, as the world observes Labor Day today (May 1) to commemorate the Haymarket bombing at a labour demonstration in Chicago on May 4, 1886.
According to the Minimum Wages Ordinance, 1961, the lowest wage rate for unskilled and juvenile (14 years to 17 years) workers is Rs 13,000 per month for the period, June 2015 to May 2016, in the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan as well as in the federal capital, Islamabad.
Far from following the law of minimum wage, the contractors who hire labourers on low compensations defend their actions quite convincingly.
“We need over 200 workers for the timely construction of an average high-rise building and if we comply with the minimum wage law, how can we earn profits,” said Ghulamdin, the head contractor at the same construction site. “Compliance with the minimum wage law will not allow us to hire as many workers as needed, since we are short on budget,” he added.
The contention between the two parties is well-rounded from both sides: the contractors or the hiring side has money constraints while the labourers have to run their households.
Senior economist Muzammil Aslam is of the view that the demand of work is much greater than the opportunities available which creates a lapse. “It is government’s responsibility to ensure payment of minimum wages to workers,” he opines, adding that business owners must bear the drop in the margins and ensure compliance of the minimum wages law.
According to the economist, it is impossible for the government to ensure payment of minimum wages. He attributes the lapse to the non-payment of tax in the county, observing, “Out of 200 million people only 850,000 pay their taxes. Without a complete data of tax-payers, the government cannot ensure regulation in the market.”
Aslam believes that the check and balance authority should be transferred to the local government to make certain that the minimum wage law is followed.