Implement labour laws

Published: April 27, 2014
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The writer is a social activist who heads the Pattan Development Organisation. The views expressed here are his own

The writer is a social activist who heads the Pattan Development Organisation. The views expressed here are his own

On March 24, The Express Tribune published a photo with this caption — “Hands that build empires — Sughra Bibi, a brick kiln worker makes 1,000 bricks in 14 hours in a day and earns just Rs 500 to feed her family of four”. It depicts the gap between prolonged hard work and the meagre wage that a large majority of our working people suffers from. This causes a huge gap between consumption and income.

As reported in newspapers on April 15, the Supreme Court observed how could ‘families survive on (the) minimum wage’? The problem is that a large majority of workers don’t even get the minimum wage. In spite of repeated orders of the Supreme Court, bonded labour persists and the ruling parties are not serious enough to implement their own laws, including the minimum wage and orders of the apex court.

Because of this shameless negligence, it is highly likely that the Punjab government would fail to achieve its much-touted target of 100 per cent school enrolment. Think this. As mentioned above, due to a gap between consumption needs and wages, working parents have no option but to force their children to work. This subsequently keeps their children away from school. No wonder, currently, in Punjab alone about four million children are out of school. Those who go, drop out. Some donors are generously providing funds for primary education, but they seem to be addressing the issue from a wrong angle.

Moreover, since most factories are not registered and their workers don’t get social security and Employees Old-age Benefits Institution (EOBI) cards, they are deprived of all kinds of financial support from the Workers Welfare Fund, i.e., free medical treatment, death, marriage, education grants, etc. As most employers have not registered their workers with the EOBI, they are deprived of receiving pension and unemployment benefits too. Because of low calorie intake, poor hygienic and hazardous conditions the working people are extremely vulnerable to diseases, death and injuries. In order to cope with these shocks and stresses, they are forced to borrow money and very often, the employers would lend money to them. These loans virtually transform workers into slaves. In order to pay back these loans, the burden of work increases and working hours prolong. The children have to share this additional burden too. This further reduces the likelihood of their enrolment in school.

According to one estimate, there are about two million such families in Punjab alone. Almost all the families who work for brick kilns, carpet and power loom factories and on agriculture farms suffer some form of slavery. Sadly, the majority of non-school going children come from these families in Punjab.

Three questions arise from the above discussion. Firstly, why do the employers violate labour laws with full impunity? Why don’t the employers pay the minimum wage and not issue social security and EOBI cards? And thirdly, why does the Punjab government let its writ wither? Let’s take the last question, first. Generally speaking, most employers appear to be pro-PMN-N — the incumbent. Taking any action against employers will erode its support base as they control a large number of voters through kinship networking, jobs and favours. And they financed election campaigns of the nominees of the party, too. In return, the ruling party does not take any action against them. The visible manifestation of this occurred in Faisalabad when most MPs, including some ministers, came out openly in support of brick kilns owners. The ruling party is determined to sacrifices rule of law to keep its support base intact.

In this context, the holding of an international labour conference in Lahore this past week looks like the need of the hour. One hopes that the government took concrete measures prior to the conference in order to establish its sincerity about labour rights.

Immediate measures: Appoint judges for the National Industrial Relations Commission.

Implementing the minimum wage in all 51 unskilled trades and punishing all those employers who are violating the labour laws, i.e., depriving workers of social security and EOBI cards, practising child and bonded labour, not providing safety and hygiene standards and failing to form anti-sexual harassment committees, etc. A long-term measure could be to replace the labour department by establishing a labour commission, which is independent of government influence and has district level offices.

Punjab government is holding the labour conferenceA large majority of workers, their associations and civil society organisations seriously feel that the in order to gain tariff-free access to markets of the rich countries and to hide oppression of the working people. The government must ensure adequate wages and working conditions as prescribed in our constitution and law, if it is really serious about benefiting from the GSP Plus status. As reported recently in some newspapers, the civil society has formed a Labour Action Committee in this regard, which has articulated the above-mentioned demands.

The implementation of labour laws in letter and in spirit will not only liberate Sughra Bibi from torturous labour but also millions of children from forced labour and help achieve 100 per cent school enrolment in Punjab. Will Shahbaz Sharif listen?

Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • aphtab
    Apr 28, 2014 - 2:15PM

    Labour laws are not only about minimum wage or medical and old age benefits. These laws also deprive the employer of their right to terminate the services of a worker. It gives workers the right to form unions and the right to strike with the ability to inflict heavy losses on the investors. With guaranteed minimum wage, not linked to performance, and protection against termination, the worker does not need to work. The workers are further protected by labour department and labour courts. Those employees who do not fall under the pale of labour laws, their salaries are determined by market forces. Supply and demand of a particular skill determines the salary level. As these employees are not protected under the law, therefore they work hard to meet the requirements of the job and also continue to strive to improve their skill level to improve their market value. Fixing minimum wage is counterproductive. If the employer cannot afford to meet the minimum wage, he will either circumvent the law or reduce headcount to keep the fixed cost at a level which keeps him competitive. The dynamics of operations of kilns are entirely different and problems related to it cannot be addressed through implementation of laws. It requires educating the workers who take advance payments and end up working as slaves to repay the loans.

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  • ahmer
    Apr 29, 2014 - 12:45PM

    I was shocked to hear that in the capital city there are numerous companies including multinationals especially Chinese Subcons for mobile service providers who give consultancy contracts to their employees who have been working for years with them on the tasks of daily routine and not consultancy type of work. they are extremely underpaid and over taxed as they miserably fall under the category of services which is subject to 6% tax at least. these companies do it just to save costs of social security EOBI, health insurance, life insurance etc and definitely without any time limits for work as they are “consultants” . this modern form of bonded labor usually comprises of the telecom engineers of different disciplines. some body should look into it.

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  • Yusuf
    Apr 29, 2014 - 1:03PM

    Only way we can improve condition of workers in Pakistan by having a rational living wage and a rational taxation on industries. Both go together. Pakistan is High Taxation country with many taxation to comply. It leaves small profit and what is left small to share. We need electricity, natural gas and water for industries and business to work properly. Worker rise against investors and Not put forward their demands with the local and federal government. A company need peace to get ahead, to survive in local conditions. There must be a conducive environment for both entrepreneurs and workers to perform. High taxation is impeding growth and Pakistan growth rate is poor. We need to raise standard of workers by lowering local and federal taxation and promoting entrepreneurs. We need a strong social security system with modern hospitals.

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