Saturday, March 25, 2017

Pakistan - Where is the voice of the working class?

Amir Hussain

“This is none of your business. It’s our money and we are the ones to call the shots here”. This was the condescending response by a senior representative of a well-known name in the hospitality industry upon my curiosity regarding the reasons behind the forced resignation of one of the workers.
Such resignations are not an exception; the corporate sector in Pakistan has been embroiled in controversial and coercive practices vis-à-vis compliance of labour laws. So the gentleman clearly spoke the mind of the corporate world. Barring a few, who have a history of investing in human welfare, in general the corporate sector in Pakistan exercises unrestrained power over its workers. The worker – whose surplus labour is the only means of corporate profit – becomes an alien in the process of production of goods and services. This disengaged, overworked man/woman has recourse to no one in a world made up of an exploitative nexus between profit, politics and probity.
The tragedy does not stop here, Barely five minutes after my conversation with the industry man, I got a couple of threatening calls from anonymous reporters. The calls pretty much implied that I should mend my ways and stay away from the business of writing against these business giants. These anonymous reporters, apparently on the payroll of this corporate giant, tried to impress upon me that they were well-connected and embedded in the world of opulence and affluence. They must have used similar gimmicks with their benefactors in this corporate entity by showing their connections in the media and their ability to quash news items and reports of corporate misdeeds.
All they wanted to do was to show their benefactors how efficient they were. Perhaps, they saw this to be an opportune moment to do this. To them, I was a novice in the field of journalism and, thus, could be tamed easily. But I am neither a novice nor an ordinary reporter who would heed their calls. All I was interested in doing was to highlight the issue of workplace exploitation and violation of labour rights in Pakistan.
I had wanted to write about this issue to highlight the plight of the workers of Pakistan. A column on this would be different from an ordinary news report which narrates an event as it unfolds at a certain moment. In my case, reference to this specific incidence, though provocative, is significant only because it provides some insight into the working of the corporate sector in this country. This is obviously not an isolated incident; there are a number of such incidents on a daily basis but they remain unnoticed, unreported, and even if they make it to a news story they are understated. They are not scintillating enough for our mass media which finds such stories too boring and too insipid for commercial viability.
A news item, debate or a report featuring labour rights is not fancy enough to help improve programme ranking so no one would dare venture into such live debates on our TV shows. Thus, the daily challenges faced by our poor workers will never make it to the mainstream discourse of politics and economy.
Today, Pakistan’s working class figures nowhere in our political calculus of democracy, freedom and enlightenment. Even worse is the fact that voices of the working class have gradually been vanished from our popular discourse. Just to recap, in the 1960s and 1970s Pakistan’s working class used to assert its presence through vibrant movements, complemented by a dynamic left-leaning intelligentsia and through a critical policy discourse on politics and the economy. These alternative critical discourses were also reflected in social policy formulation and practice, including attempts at nationalisation and land reforms. Today, our virtual world of seminars, webinars and workshops on economy, politics and culture or any other domain of public interest is punctuated by informed and sophisticated discussions. But such discussions hardly mention labour rights, working class priorities and downward accountability of the private and public sectors.
A clear majority of Pakistan’ population – 70 percent – constitutes the working class, whose only hope to progress and out of poverty is availability of decent working conditions governed by a universal framework of labour rights. The adoption and implementation of universal labour laws in both letter and spirit is the precondition to ameliorate the current exploitative nature of the worker-employer relationship. There is a growing informal sector in Pakistan which accommodates a sizeable number of the working population out of its 95 million of potential workers.
This informal sector is not documented in the national statistics of economic growth and planning but it indirectly complements the poor economy by creating employment and reducing dependence on the state to feed a growing population. However, this is the most exploitive form of work and, in case of domestic labour, remains unaccounted for. Women and children are the most adversely affected segment of the working class since they do not have access to political means nor do they have the wherewithal to make their voices heard at policymaking level. Even the formal sector, which provides employment to only 20 percent of workers, is not well developed and the condition of the working class there is not much better off than in the informal sector.
In the corporate sector alone, workers are laid off in violation of labour laws and there is no way of speedy justice for the poor worker to safeguard his/her rights against termination. There have been working class movements in this country but they did not get much media attention. This is so perhaps because our media is too obsessed with sensationalism and is in a cut-throat competition to attain high rankings to attract business.
Pakistan is a signatory to 38 International Labour Organization’s conventions. This means the state is obligated to undertake punitive actions against those who violate labour laws in their conduct of business. These rules, though, are not being enforced. At times, the problem lies in the lack of awareness of labour rights as enshrined in these conventions, as well as the lack of affordable infrastructure to dispense justice against the exploitative nexus of political power and the corporate sector.
Article 11 of the constitution prohibits all forms of slavery and forced labour while Article 37 (e) makes provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work. A clear majority of workers even in the formal sector are excluded from legal and social protection – in complete violation of labour laws and constitutional provisions.
On the one hand, the country’s existing labour rights framework –comprising well over a hundred ordinances, acts, rules, regulations and statutes – is fraught with several problems, incoherencies and incompatibilities with the fast-evolving economic and political realities of the country. On the other hand, the state has failed to develop a comprehensive social protection programme while the traditional systems of social protection are being dislodged with the transition from agri-based to service-based economic structures.
National legislation vis-à-vis labour rights must be harmonised with international labour laws, with a strict compliance system to ensure that workers’ rights are protected against exploitation, harassment and discrimination on the basis of colour, creed, class and religion.

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