On Labour Day — gloom over the loom

Published: May 2, 2019
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The writer heads Pattan Development Organisation and can be reached at bari@pattan.org

The writer heads Pattan Development Organisation and can be reached at bari@pattan.org

Prime Minister Imran Khan recently said protection of worker rights was a legal, religious and moral obligation. He further said mere enactment of legislation for ensuring rights to workers is not sufficient, the real challenge was ensuring the laws’ implementation in letter and in spirit. After a long time, such a comprehensive statement has been made by any Prime Minister of our country.

On the occasion of Labour Day, the PTI government has announced ‘Mazdoor ka Ehsaas’ initiative for the well-being of workers. The PTI government also plans major reforms of labour legislation including the Punjab Occupation Safety &Health Act 2019, Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019, Punjab Minimum Wages Act 2018, Punjab Home-based Workers Act 2018, Punjab Workers Welfare Fund Act 2019 and Companies Profit (Workers’ Participation) Act 2019.

While the Prime Minister was committing himself to improving the working peoples’ lives by enforcement of labour laws in letter and in spirit, in Faisalabad some of his MPs were found shamelessly supporting those industrialists who have been denying minimum wages to their workers. For 30 long days, power loom workers under the banner of the Labour Qoumi Movement (one of the most credible and peaceful labour organisations) remained on the streets demanding compliance with the labour laws, including minimum wage rates. The workers were merely asking the Labour Welfare Department and the District Administration for the payment of wages according to the Gazette Notification 2017 and to ensure occupational safety and hygiene. They were just reminding the authorities that under their nose, laws of the land are being violated. They were also telling them though indirectly about SDG8 (Decent Work), SDG1 (No Poverty) and SDG2 (Zero Hunger). Provision of suppressed wages and forcing workers to work under hazardous conditions mean sabotaging Pakistan’s progress on SDGs. While workers, through their struggle, are assisting the country to achieve progress on SDGs.

Finally, the loom workers through a peaceful strike managed to build sufficient pressure on the District Administration and the Labour Welfare Directorate (which very often act for the owners’ welfare) of Faisalabad to bring owners to the negotiating table and reach an agreement. The agreement was signed in the presence of officials. After a couple of days, the owners refused to honour the agreement that they had signed themselves. Allegedly committing a double crime. First, they violated the Gazette Notification 2017 and then, backtracked on the signed agreement. The District Administration which had guaranteed its implementation instead of punishing the violators — the owners, started supporting them. This caused huge rage amongst the workers. However, unlike the owners (who used fired guns in order to provoke the workers), the workers vented their anger by having a sit-in in font of the Deputy Commissioner’s office, which continued for three days. The PTI MPs instead of siding with the workers, preferred the cause of the oppressors. In other words, defying their leader’s call.

A protesting labour leader voiced contradiction in these words — why some laws are being implemented vigorously and others not at all? And why some (powerful) enjoy impunity, and others (marginalised) are punished even if they demand their legally enshrined rights through peaceful means? What does it mean? Why state officials often side with the powerful even when they are at fault?

The late Prof Hamza Alvi, a world-renowned Pakistani scholar and activist, in his seminal work The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh argues that the post-colonial state is overdeveloped. It not only serves the interests of the propertied classes but also mediates their competing demands and interests. Since, the publication of his paper in 1972 the Pakistani state has continued to prove Alvi’s thesis right. What is happening in Faisalabad is happening all over the country. The constitutional articles (i.e. 3, 25, 25-A, 38 and many more) and the laws that the ruling classes had framed for the uplift of marginalised classes are nothing but just lollipops for the working people and to fulfil international commitments.

When I heard Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement about implementation of labour laws in letter and in spirit, it gave me hope and gloom simultaneously. Hope because Mr Khan is sincere, serious and carries huge conviction — a rare quality. Gloom, because the propertied classes are deeply entrenched, and many of his party leaders are big landlords, industrialists, businessmen and above all belong to political dynasties and most of them are corrupt and callous. They abhor unions and organised workers. Therefore, they may not like Imran Khan implementing the labour laws in letter and in spirit. Especially when there is hardly anyone from the working classes in the party hierarchy. And if there is anyone, he is highly likely to have been marginalised there too.

On top of this, the working classes are badly disorganised and lack committed leadership. Rather, majority of trade union leaders lack vision, strategy and courage to challenge the wrongdoings of cruel owners. Consider this, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recently released its annual report — ‘State of Human Rights in 2018’. The report quotes an International Labour Organisation study which shows that only 2.3% workforce is unionised. Moreover, the Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan People’s Party have little interest in the labour issues. In this context, the Prime Minister seems to be alone. Therefore, he deserves full support of and pressure from the working people in order to implement the labour laws.

The existing more than 7,000 trade unions and 1,390 Collective Bargaining Agents could be mobilised and involved under a well thought-out strategy for the implementation of labour laws. Moreover, workers have representation in local councils and they are in thousands. They could also be involved in the process. Those civil society organisations which are working have the expertise and experience in mobilisation of marginalised people. They could add a lot of value to the whole process. Mr Khan could translate this huge social capital into a force to fulfil his vision.

As I have written in one of my previous articles, women- related laws have been enacted just to please the international community/donors, and then their implementation is continuously ignored just to please the clergy. This is also true as far as working classes are concerned. The only difference is business interests replace the clergy here. Subordination of women and workers are two sides of the same coin. Issuance of hefty statements on the occasion of May Day must be followed by concrete measures and actions End the decades-old practice of dual appeasement. This will end gloom over loom. And help the country to earn more foreign exchange.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2019.

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