What is the state of work and workers on the 135th May Day falling tomorrow? The Covid-19 pandemic has seriously affected what Freud called the ability to love and work, his view of mental health. There is little pain of work and no pleasure in leisure, destroying the very foundations of neoliberal economics. In the land of Chicago bombing of workers, President Joe Biden signed an executive order last Tuesday to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The progressives continue their pressure to make it the national minimum hourly wage, which has stayed at $7.25 since 2009. Out here, the minimum wage is stuck at the pre-pandemic level of Rs17,500, estimated to be half of the living wage. For its lowest quintile in urban areas, the Household Integrated Economic Survey 2018-19 showed average monthly consumption expenditure per household of Rs23,515. Not everyone is employed and those who are, do not necessarily enjoy the minimum wage. According to the Labour Force Survey 2017-18, the latest available, 53.3% of the employed received a monthly wage of up to Rs15,000. At Rs11,884, the average wage for woman workers was even lower. Officials have no interest in enforcement and workers are too weak to bargain collectively.
The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics conducted a Special Survey on Evaluating the Impact of Covid-19. Surprisingly, it received little media attention. On January 8 this year, its results were presented at a meeting chaired by the prime minister on inflation. Prices, not the survey results, consumed most attention. However, the specially designed employment module of the survey provides the latest information on the working population, income from work, industry and occupation status and other sources of household income, before Covid-19 (January-March 2020) when the monthly index of large scale manufacturing had begun to increase although the annualised growth was still negative, during the first wave (April-July 2020) when the index touched a record bottom, and after (August-October), with the index looking up again. Before the pandemic, 35% of the population 10 years and above was in work. There was a drastic reduction to 22% after the pandemic. As large-scale manufacturing, specially textiles, recovered by using fiscal and credit incentives to fill the space provided by the slow recovery of competitors in the world market, employment recovered to 33%, two percentage points less than the pre-Covid level. With the largest concentration of working age population, Sindh’s workers suffered the most, experiencing a decline as large as 15%. In urban areas, the percent of those in work fell by a massive 19 percentage points. Nearly half of the working age population suffered loss of job or income, 74% of it originating in the informal sector. The working population in construction and manufacturing faced the highest percent of job/income loss — 80% and 72%, respectively.
The positive sentiment captured by the Special Survey has been overtaken by the recent peaking of the national positivity ratio to 10.77%. Following the third and the most devastating wave of Covid-19, the monthly index of large-scale manufacturing stopped its incline again. In February, the decline was of the order of 4.15%. Since then, restrictions have been increasing by the day. With the prospects of a complete lockdown in coming days, the news from the workplaces can only become worse. The vaccine rollout is far slower than the pace required for a country of 220 million inhabitants. Falling in the lowest quintile of income, workers without work will be hoping on this May Day that the Riyasat-e-Madina will not leave them high and dry.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2021.