Governments in Pakistan have traditionally been reluctant to the point of resentment when it comes to sharing information that ought to be available to the public anyway. As impressive and imposing they may appear to the naive, legislations like articles 19(A) of the Constitution or the Right to Information (RTI) Acts are of little help when it comes to getting information from public bodies. Missing, ineffective or debilitated, information commissions lie at the heart of this malaise.
However, even in this gloomy ‘information shielding’ scenario, something remarkable has begun to happen. Unlike scores of other sleepy and ineffective commissions, the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) at Islamabad is creating new traditions of excellence and professionalism. Despite its shortcomings of staff, resources and office space, it has demonstrated how a handful of committed individuals can make decisions that can impact the lives of millions. Many reluctant public-sector organisations are, for the first time, being compelled to cough out the information that they so jealously keep hidden in their archives.
The recent saga of how the RTI was used to enhance the illegal low wages of contracted janitors of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is an inspiring case study. It demonstrates how ordinary citizens and a responsible information commission can come together to bring changes even in the most unwilling bureaucratic systems. A civil society group, Citizens for Equal Rights, took up the matter of janitors receiving less than minimum wage with the CAA. Using their right to information, the citizens demanded copies of the contracts that defined the wages of CAA’s contracted janitors. When, despite numerous letters, complaints and e-mails, the CAA failed to do so, the matter was referred to the PIC.
The PIC promptly and professionally heard both sides and decided that the CAA had no reason to deny the requested information. In a landmark decision, the CAA was directed to provide the group the contracts under which the wages were paid to the contracted janitors. The CAA promptly complied and provided a copy of its janitorial contract to the applicants.
A study of the contract revealed that while the CAA paid close to Rs20,000 per person to the contractor, a janitor received a monthly amount of only Rs15,000. This amount was a blatant deviation from the minimum legal wage defined by the federal government. Equipped with this information, the Citizens for Equal Rights wrote to the CAA and demanded immediate compliance of minimum wage for all its contracted janitors.
The CAA acted promptly and undertook a number of salutary, humane and praiseworthy steps. The third-party contractor was fired and the same manpower re-employed on a retainership basis by the organisation itself. Most importantly, the CAA raised the monthly wages of its janitors to Rs25,000 and agreed to do the same for janitors working at all airports and locations.
The CAA’s actions are laudable. It provided the much-needed relief and dignity to a class that for long has lived a life of extreme misery, poverty and wretchedness. This exemplary step is also a strong message for all those organisations in Pakistan who continue to pay less than the legal minimum wage to their employees — an act that can only be categorised as cruelty, exploitation and modern-day slavery.
Finally, this success story is a tribute to the PIC, who’s meaningful and judicious decisions have opened a new chapter of hope and possibility for the people of Pakistan. There is much to learn and emulate from this example, both for citizens and other information commissions. In a scenario of painfully slow and expensive judicial processes, one hopes that effective information commissions and a responsible citizenry will become the next best option for accountability and change in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2020.