For Shahid Ali, a manual labourer toiling on the streets of Islamabad, essence of Labour Day’s message remains a mirage.
Passing a third consecutive day without work, he is not much optimistic for the occasion on May 1.
Among Ali’s other friends from the labourer community, the day holds no special significance too.
Over-time is a cherished benediction for these workers, while the thoughts of a day without work seem too grave, to say the least.
Ali awaits offerings of work while sitting on a roadside near ‘Peshawar Mor,’ as he eagerly cites every passing car, anticipating the opportunity to have something to take home late in the day.
“Sometimes, I do not find work for 15 straight days. I continue to wait; after all, what can one do?” he laments.
Having retired from active military service as a soldier 20 years ago, Shahid Ali moved to the capital, in search of employment opportunities. For a resident of Swabi, Islamabad was the nearest semblance of a ‘promised land of opportunity’.
“Work was good until something went wrong about five to six years ago,” he said, when asked about to reflect on the lack of opportunities of work.“There was abundance of work and fewer manual labourers. However, now the tables seem to have turned; the city is still growing, but employment opportunities have continued to shrink,” he said.
With six children to feed, Ali pulled out his elder son, Muhammad Asif, from school at the age of 19.
“Very few of the fortunate ones are granted the minimum wage of Rs7,000 fixed by the government. Some workers have struck deals with contractors who pay them at a fixed rate of fixed Rs300 a day but these are very few,” quips his father.
Days when the father and son land get paid Rs400-500 are considered to be the fortunate ones. Employers, however, never pay for expenses of food and travel. With a majority of workers relying on footpaths to sleep upon, hard days of toil extend to working for more than 10 hours a day.
Sometimes, circumstances are so dire that begging is resorted to.“The people who used to offer food in charity have also disappeared,” he points out. “More and more people continue to lose jobs and are turning to manual labour,” he said.
The government, on other hand, remains oblivious to the concerns of the workers. “The president does not even know we exist,” remarks Ali.
Living in tatters, working under exploitative conditions and without any recourse to the element of recreation in life, these labourers are far from realising the essence of the Labour Day celebrations.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2012.