KARACHI: Trade is inextricably linked with labour rights in the world today. If you want to promote trade, you must ensure that human rights and labour laws are being followed.
These views were expressed by Zulfiqar Shah, joint director of Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), at a panel discussion jointly organised by PILER and Institute of Business Administration (IBA) on Tuesday titled, 'Business and Human Rights: Opportunities and Challenges'.
The moderator, Zeenia Shaukat of PILER, said that to compete internationally, each country strives to achieve the lowest cost of production. Hence, many countries promote trade by 'closing their eyes'. Company owners do not invest in things like work environment to cut corners and the labour suffers. She said that compromised building structure played a role in the Baldia Factory fire.
Sindh Assembly snubs governor’s objections, passes laws anyway
Need for a state policy
In Pakistan, there are around only 337 labour inspectors to cater to the need of the whole country, said Shaukat. She added though that many companies outsourcing their production try to leverage the exporter by asking it to implement certain laws. These brands in turn are forced by their consumers to do so. She said that the impact of these efforts is low, however, compared to what a state policy may bring. She asked Shah if it is possible to bring ethics into trade and if any efforts in this direction have indeed proved beneficial.
In response, Shah discussed the impact of Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). He said that Pakistan became a part of this in 2014 and since then has gained duty-free access to the European market. This essentially means they have received a discount of 10 to 15% in selling their products.
Becoming a member though is conditional upon things like compliance with the convention on basic human rights and labour laws. Thus, Pakistani companies had to improve the conditions for the labour working in their factories.
Talking about the Modern Slavery Act 2015 that the United Kingdom adopted, Shah said that companies based in UK have to annually file a declaration that all their outsourced production units do not use bondage or slavery. Thus, he added, to increase trade Pakistan has to ensure labour laws and rights are implemented.
Labour Laws must address women workers’ issues
Talking about the daily realities of these efforts however, Abira Ashfaq, a lawyer, researcher and activist who has worked closely with home-based women workers, said that these have little impact. She said that when Pakistan signs international conventions, it puts pressure on the government to develop laws in relation to it. She said that the devolution of labour to provinces has brought progressive laws. "Sindh is ahead in creating progressive law but not their execution," she added.
For Ashfaq, these laws mean nothing to the women in the informal sector. She said that people should also refrain from saying that law is there, but no implementation, because it undermines the problem. "The laws are not designed for implementation," she lamented.
Pointing to one of the main hurdles, she said that till the council stipulated in the Sindh labour law is formed, workers can't be registered and can't avail the benefits. She asked why this bureaucratic hurdle was put in place if not to discourage the workers. She said that the organisation and infrastructure was in place for workers to go get themselves registered, then why could they not do so directly. "We merely do paper work to gain things like GSP," she alleged.
Shaukat then asked one of the panellists what was stopping businessmen from ensuring laws were being followed given their close link to better trade opportunities. Zubair Motiwala, an industry leader, said that industries are doing this; they have been compelled to do this. He said to gain the opportunity for example to work with Wal-Mart, one has to meet a social compliance standard and so companies are doing that. He said that Baldia fire was a political incident and not caused by lax building regulations. According to Motiwala, due to the economic conditions prevailing in the country, meeting low costs becomes difficult. Citing terrorism, gas hike and electricity shortages as the issues, he said that the business community was trying hard to stay afloat. He added that the importers are attracted to Pakistan when it offers cheap products.
Shah, disagreeing with Motiwala's claims, said that the problems do not really affect big companies like Gul Ahmed that follow these standards. It is the informal sector and the unregistered workers who suffer and they were the ones under discussion. These conditions persist even in the formal factories, he added. Talking about the Baldia fire, Shah said that 1,500 workers worked in the factory but only a mere 150 were registered. Facts were being hidden by companies to meet standards, he alleged, adding that just a few days ago ,labourers fell to their death while working on a building in Karachi. For Shah, this incident occurred in the fast growing construction industry where there is money to ensure standards are met.
Taking his point further, Ashfaq said that Walmart was the worst employer which manages to sell its products at the cheapest rates by exploiting labour. She added that gaining a chance to do business with them was not "a badge of honour". "We should be making them implement laws, standards."
Referring to Motiwala's comments, Ashfaq further said that Pakistan seems 'attractive' to the exporters because, "it is a race to the bottom". She added that the labour laws are not made to cover the workers at the lowest end.
Motiwala said that Pakistan fails to maintain a competitive edge because we do not do value addition to our products. He said that state policies are also important in boosting trade. He added that they played a major role in Bangladesh that now manages to produce the same products as Pakistan, but at 21% less cost. "How can you ensure compliance when you are incapable of selling your product?" he questioned.
In response, Ashfaq said that one should not break the problem into a dichotomy of dreamy aspirations of human rights or gritty business deals. Rather, both need to be worked out together.
Answering a question on why there was a gap in law and implementation, Gulfam Nabi Memon, former official of the labour dept, said that all laws are designed for implementation. He added that home-based workers are a completely different category and this new group does need new laws. He added that under Sindh's labour law, registration is being processed in the absence of the council. He negated Ashfaq's idea that the bureaucratic hurdle had a huge impact or that it made it impossible to implement the law.
Commenting on child labour in the country, he said that the last survey was conducted in 1996 and soon another survey will be conducted. He said that first steps had been taken in this regard and the government would be collaborating with the UNICEF.
Labour laws are an important isuue in the country. For Ashfaq, women are the worst-affected as they make the major portion of the informal economy. She said that women in the formal economy too suffered mainly because of harraasment. "Sexual harassment has to be seen as an economic issue," she said.
In the end, the speakers all agreed that there was a lack of political will to address the issue.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2019.