Labour: The biggest challenge

Reorganising the Labour Wing of a political party in Pakistan is like building a city on Mars. This is so because the cause of assertion collides head-on with deep rooted exploitative forces existing in every sinew of Pakistan’s society. While there is a law for everything, reaching the Mars becomes daunting through the maze of escape laws, contradictory procedures, compromised oversight mechanisms, lack of compliance, poor enforcement, capitalist greed, corruption and political expediencies. The willingness of doing the right is often compromised for short term economic gains called political maverickism. Therefore, the array of fundamental rights in Constitution of Pakistan and Pakistan’s international obligations are bypassed by the succesive governments, politicians and employers. The threat to not adjusting sails is political elimination.

In Pakistan, electoral politics revolves around money and not manifestos. Thus a small capitalist class assumes control and blocks purposeful reforms. Labour wings within political parties are not controlled by labour unionists or genuine labour leaders. The reason is that they neither have the money nor the wherewithal of engaging in expensive politics. Rather, the mantle is taken over by individuals who control contractual labour, exploit working conditions, form pocket unions and hobnob with employers to cut costs and increase profits. Above them are placed the feudal cum industrial elites. It is this unholy alliance that shapes the politics and labour conditions in Pakistan. Most prime movers do not even grasp the essentials of labour laws but are well versed in the many loop holes they exploit. Everything falls in line.

Breaking the stranglehold of this control for benefit of the labour in formal, informal and captive sectors is the biggest challenge for political parties. Labour leaders hanging around politicians and ministries are in fact the agents of misuse of labour. Well versed in escape clauses, they succeed in cajoling the most well intentioned politicians. Consequently, the quest for objective reforms becomes politically disruptive. This is what happened to Pakistan’s rising left in the 50s and 60s and after the much touted Islamic Socialism of Bhutto that crumbled into the capitalist mould. Thenceforth, all governments and legislations have worked towards the benefit of capitalism and liberalism. Labour, particularly informal and slave has been ditched into a bottomless dungeon where there is neither light nor relief but plenty of misery.

There is no doubt that Pakistan is an over legislated and over developed state ceding no space to innovation and compliance. A glance through labour laws, codes and Pakistan’s ratifications to international obligations indicate that there is no dearth of legislation. Yet laws contradict the constitutional obligations, law abidance and Pakistan’s commitments to international labour conventions. Most, it betrays the aspirations of the people of Pakistan.

A glance at evolution of labour laws in Pakistan explains the contradictions between the intentions, aspirations, facts and actions. Though the intentions are noble, the facts on ground prove an extremely inhumane scenario.

Pakistan’s legal framework for labour is inherited from the British colonialism from 1850 to 1947. Tragically, the existing framework is far worse. The evolution of legislative changes since the past seven decades is alarming. The laws and rules are retrogressive, anti-labour, pro capitalist and mostly to appease the overarching influence of international financial institutions. Dirty money plays a major role.

Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research, a civil sector organisation calls the government policy as ‘dual strategy’. “The state increasingly resorts to strategy of rhetoric in the matters of labour relations. In line with international organisations’ concern for ‘consultations with stakeholders’, the state gets the draft policies and draft legislative pieces prepared by consultants and shares these with civil society representatives. It then leaves the process halfway, bypasses stakeholders and comes up with restrictive legislations and rules enacted through gazetted notifications, bills, ordinances, or policy documents in other areas”. The same conclusions are also reached by Centre of Labour Research.

Article 3 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that, “The State shall ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation and the gradual fulfilment of the fundamental principle, from each according to his ability, to each according to his work”. Article 37 e further states that “make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work, ensuring that children and women are not employed in vocations unsuited to their age or sex, and for maternity benefits for women in employment”. Article 38 a states, “Secure the well-being of the people, irrespective of sex, caste, creed or race, by raising their standard of living, by preventing the concentration of wealth and means of production and distribution in the hands of a few to the detriment of general interest and by ensuring equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees, and landlords and tenants”. The fact is that conditions are regressive, inhumane and benefit the rich.
Pakistan’s official Dual-Strategy through restrictive legislations and rules enacted through gazetted notifications, bills, ordinances, or policy documents violates the basic constitutional principles of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work”, “securing just and humane conditions of work” and “ensuring equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees, and landlords and tenants”. This is the worse it can get.
In addition, Pakistan is also is a signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 that recognises the right to work, to freely choose employment and to have just and favourable working conditions, and the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principals and Rights at Work that pledges to ‘promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity’. Despite Pakistan’s ratification of Core Conventions, nothing has changed on ground. The situation is from bad to worse.
Through the reorganisation of the party, Imran Khan has taken up a very big challenge. Identifying the correct template would then become the template for executing the labour policies in the true spirit of the constitution and laws. If his party can accomplish even part of the reforms, it would have changed the tide in favour of Pakistan’s under and unprivileged labour classes. It will be a win win situation for everyone.
But belling the cat and facing lethal reactions by elites will be the biggest test. That is where the future could become hostage?

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