Workers, pandemic and president

Will the President, please, rise to the occasion?

Dr Pervez Tahir May 01, 2020
A Radio Pakistan file photo of President Dr Arif Alvi.

For the formal sector workers, every May Day for the past two decades has been worse than before. But today, in the midst of the corona pandemic, is the worst of all. From strikes and lockouts, it is now the world of lockdowns. Complete, partial or smart, the labour is still smarting from the wounds. In the Rs1.2 trillion relief package announced by the Prime Minister over a month ago, an amount of Rs200 billion was earmarked for labour. A lot of concern has been expressed by the Prime Minister himself about the unregistered workers. In trying to figure out how to reach out to them, as many as 80% of the lot, the registered workers have been subjected to avoidable suffering. The latest decision of the cabinet to ask Special Assistant on Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Dr Sania Nishtar and Industries minister Hammad Azhar to devise a mechanism to disburse Rs75 billion to labour, adds insult to the injury. The quickest transfers were to the richest and the poorest, the former comprising the claimants of tax refunds in the Federal Board of Revenue records and the latter included those already registered in the Category One of the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme (the erstwhile Benazir Income Support Programme). In both cases, registration served early decisions. A similar beginning could have been made with the registered 20% labour.

Employers are eyeing the Rs125 billion left out of the amount of Rs200 billion to pay the wages of the formal workers. They are also asking the government to utilise the funds of the various social protection windows and to suspend employers’ contributions during the pandemic. There is little chance that they will avail the concessional credit line offered by the State Bank to avoid laying off workers. The Sindh government’s attempt to legally force the employers to keep their workforce employed is unlikely to succeed without federal cooperation. Instead of working through the employers, the Federal government should access the workers through the Employees Old Age Benefit Institution (EOBI), Workers Welfare Fund (WWF) and the respective Employees Social Security Institutions of the provinces.

Working with these institutions during the pandemic will have the advantage of generating useful learning for moving eventually towards the time-tested system of universal social protection through a single agency with just two tasks — unemployment benefits and pensions. The health of the workers is better left with the public health system, itself seizing on new opportunities. Chapter 2 of the Constitution provides the “Principles of Policy” for the establishment of the Riyasat-e-Madina. Meanwhile, Article 38 on the “Promotion of social and economic well-being of the people” bears repeating, especially these subsections: “(b) provide for all citizens, within the available resources of the country, facilities for work and adequate livelihood with reasonable rest and leisure; (c) provide for all persons employed in the service of Pakistan or otherwise, social security by compulsory social insurance or other means; (d) provide basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, housing, education and medical relief, for all such citizens, irrespective of sex, caste, creed or race, as are permanently or temporarily unable to earn their livelihood on account of infirmity, sickness or unemployment.”

The disregard of these constitutional provisions has been facilitated by unconscionably ignoring Article 29(3) requiring the President every year to “cause to be prepared and laid before the [parliament] a report on the observance and implementation of the Principles of Policy”. The last such report was presented in the year 2015-16. Its shoddy contents displayed an utter disrespect to the welfare messages of the Principles. Will the President, please, rise to the occasion?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2020.

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