Navigating labour rights in Pakistan

Without labour, nothing prospers.’ —Sophocles

The marginalized classes in our society demand a more participatory, just, and inclusive government. It’s the state’s responsibility to establish parameters for enhanced human rights, particularly within labour policies. Pakistan’s history, marked by military dictatorships and fragmented democratic governments, reveals a persistent oppression of laborers. Despite some positive steps, governance remains in the hands of elite oligarchs, plutocrats, and corporocrats, reflected in labour policies and Industrial Relation Ordinances.

Six major labour policies in Pakistan, spanning from 1955 to 2018, were intended to address societal gaps for labour and ensure economic justice, egalitarian fairness, and democratic values. Unfortunately, these policies persisted through both military dictatorships and democratic periods, exposing a deeply rooted colonial mentality toward the labour class.

Historical Context: Pakistan’s creation aimed to provide a liberal democratic state for the Muslim minority of colonial India. Post-Zia era marked a departure from an Islamic state, aligning with human rights regimes established after World War II. Attempts to restrict democratic space in Pakistan involved bureaucracy, military, and religious groups, despite their initial opposition to an Islamic state. In 1951, Pakistan endorsed ILO Conventions, leading to a decline in unionized labour from 25% to 1%. Military dictatorships consistently suppressed workers and unions.

Major Labour Shifts under Different Governments: The Trade Union Act of 1926 provided freedom to form unions but restricted strike rights. The 1959 revocation denounced workers’ rights after the first military dictatorship. Policies announced in 1969 aligned with ILO conventions but failed to address fundamental issues. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s 1972 labour policy was progressive, yet subsequent military rule and democratic governments often curtailed labor rights. The 2018 policy expanded labor rights democratically.

Future Trajectories of Labour Policies: Pakistan must implement ILO conventions it ratified, setting parameters for new policies and labour law implementation. The state’s duty is to ensure these laws are universally acknowledged, as non-compliance risks sanctions. With Pakistan’s export-dependent economy, any misstep could result in substantial losses.

Issues in 2018 Labor Policy Implementation in Sindh: Since June 2016, the minimum wage for a worker has remained stagnant at 15,000, disproportionately affecting urban working-class segments. Women earn half of men’s wages, and agricultural workers are excluded from the minimum wage. The lack of reforms contributes to inequality and perpetuates an unfair system.

Precarious Work and Corrosion of Labor Rights: The rise of precarious work, marked by low wages and poor working conditions, disproportionately affects vulnerable groups. Public-sector unions have suffered, with threats, lack of pension rights, and the denial of the right to form unions. The garment industry, with 15 million workers, lacks a strong network for collective organization.

Labour Rights in Pakistan: Despite having one of the largest labour forces globally, Pakistan faces severe labour rights violations. Workers are paid minimum wages, required to work overtime without compensation, and lack social security and pension benefits. The Constitution prohibits bonded and child labor and upholds the freedom to form associations, yet implementation remains inadequate. Legislation like the Industrial and Commercial Employment (Standing Orders) Ordinance 1968 and the Punjab Shops and Establishment Ordinance 1969 provides a foundation for protecting workers’ rights.

Attention to people’s well-being, rather than just economic growth, is crucial. The focus should be on strengthening trade unions, establishing and expanding union rights, and removing barriers that hinder progress. A modern version of the 1926 Trade Union Act is needed, and a movement must mobilize Parliament to address longstanding issues in labour rights.

Sehrish Naz
Sehrish Naz
The writer is a freelance columnist

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