Out of Punjab’s 30 million strong workforce, 0.8 million are formally registered. However, that does not guarantee them the social security and rights they are entitled to under Pakistan’s labour laws.
In July 2012, the management of an edible oil and ghee factory fired 12 workers when it found out that its workers were in the process of registering a union. Following the registration, the workers acquired a stay order from the labour court against their dismissal, but were nonetheless refused entry into the factory and also denied the outstanding dues owed to them.
Abbas Ali, a telephone operator with HBM Oil and Ghee Mills – the errant entity – had gone to the factory for his nightshift when the guard refused him entry. Ali was one of the more vocal members of the newly-formed union. He had said that a number of incidents of exploitation of his fellow colleagues at the factory had made them want to fight for their rights. One of his colleagues was fired after 12 years of service because he refused to work in a department where he had no expertise. Another colleague suffered from an asthma attack during work, but was not provided first aid or transportation for medical attention. As a result, the worker died.
“That is when we decided to take a stand, because we labourers have a right to justice too.”
The management of the oil and ghee factory has now filed a police case against seven workers involved in the union and nominated three on-duty workers under Section 408 of the Pakistan Penal Code, alleging that they have been involved in stealing oil from the factory.
When The Express Tribune contacted the factory owner, he refused to take the calls. Mian Mahmood, the managing director, stated that “the workers were fired due to disciplinary issues.”
“This is a familiar story,” says Niaz Khan, labour leader and general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan. “The labour department tries to help workers in such cases, but when the bureaucracy, politicians and industrialists exert their pressure, they are forced to think twice about the security of their own jobs,” Khan explains.
Khan himself has been nominated in fabricated cases in the past. In 2009, he was arrested because he helped employees at a renowned furniture factory in Lahore fight for their right to minimum wage. A sessions court had adjudicated that the case against Khan were concocted – as punishment, the judge who acquitted him was later transferred to the hinterlands of interior Punjab.
According to Khan, anyone who stands up for their rights is “made an example of.”
According to a survey of trade unions in Punjab, 19 unions were forcefully dissolved between 2009 and 2011. Officials of the Labor Education Foundation (LEF), who had conducted the survey, told The Express Tribune that in the rare case that a multinational corporation is involved, labour leaders were bribed with benefits to ensure that their colleagues’ demands were brushed aside.
Along with fake cases, concealing the actual number of labour employed is another tactic used by industrial units to prevent the formation of unions. By concealing actual figures, industries are able to exploit a loophole in the Punjab Industrial Relations Act, 2010 (PIRA 2010), which does not allow the formation of unions if the number of workers in a factory is less than 50.
“The law has limitations, which allows for repressive practices to continue,” says LEF Director Khalid Mahmood. “As per the PIRA 2010, the law allows an employer to undertake an agreement with individuals or groups of workers other than the ones who vote for a Collective Bargaining Agent – which is the elected body that is supposed to negotiate any kind of collective bargaining agreements with the employer. This allows for space to undermine the impact of trade unionism in the industrial sector,” says Mahmood.
If labourers and union leaders are to be believed, Pakistan is a system where workers are denied minimum wages, bribery is widespread, millions toiling in the factories disappear on official documentation, and protesters are sent to jails under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
“Unions are akin to forming a political party,” says Abid Hassan Minto – labour rights activist, renowned intellectual and senior lawyer. He believes that Pakistani society is intrinsically exploitative when it comes to granting constitutional rights.
“In this context, organisations of workers and people who can collectively bargain for their rights acquires an even greater importance.”
Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2012.