Crushing the working class

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE power crisis in Karachi has now begun to paralyse life in this metropolis. The immediate factor responsible is the KESC management’s failure — or is it unwillingness? — to negotiate an agreement with its workers.

I will not go into the details — 4,500 workers were recently put in the surplus pool while 6,000 untrained men were reportedly recruited on contract. KESC’s troubles are symptomatic of the bleak state of the labour sector in the country. With the national economy in the doldrums (having recorded a growth of less than three per cent this year) expectations are not high. We know who is being hit by this economic catastrophe.

A report by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) published a few months ago gave a human face to the economic crisis when it painted a bleak picture of the labour market succinctly summing up the appalling condition of the people. After all, the huge majority of our population comprises workers and their dependents — there are 51.78 million workers 15 years and above — and nothing sums up the state of the economy and the sufferings of the people better than the state of the labour class.

Take the case of Latif, a construction worker, who has been out of job for nearly three years. Initially, he would go and sit on the pavement in front of Empress Market in Karachi with his tools lined up before him waiting for a builder to hire him to polish the floor of an under-construction house. Despairing of months of fruitless waiting that was an expensive exercise for him — he had to spend on his bus fare to reach Saddar — he stopped looking for a job.

Piler’s report was relevant in describing the plight of people like Latif. It said that opportunities for decent employment are shrinking, wage inequality is growing and the labour market is dominated by a rising share of informal and vulnerable employment. The dilemma of the KESC workers is a good example. According to Piler, nearly 62 per cent of the labour force falls in the category of ‘vulnerable’. It has inadequate earnings, is denied social security and has no “effective representation through unionisation”. The KESC’s move to sideline the legally recognised collective bargaining agent in the negotiations amounts to being a slap in the face of the concept of unionisation and labour rights. Most vulnerable are the informal workers whose number has been on the rise. What has pinched most are the stringent conditions imposed by the IMF which has got the government to withdraw subsidies on food and fuel and to reduce the budgetary allocations for the social sectors. As a result, 45 million people in Pakistan have become food-insecure. Military expenditure has increased to Rs249.8bn while the expenditure on health and education has slid to Rs5.9bn and Rs22.6bn respectively.

There has been a growing feeling that the armed forces swallowed up those massive resources and could not even provide protection to the people. Had enough been spent on the education of the workers’ children we would not have had terrorists lurking behind every bush.

Anyone can see that the workers’ hands have been tied, making it difficult for them to struggle for their rights. Last week, three organisations, Piler, Sungi and Muttahida Labour Federation joined hands to hold a national conference in Islamabad to share the stakeholders’ concerns over the lacunae in the labour policy and labour laws that have deprived the workers of their rights. It was felt that the 18th Amendment provided the provinces the opportunity to rectify the wrongs that exist in this sector.

What emerged clearly, as pointed out by Karamat Ali, the director of Piler, was that throughout Pakistan’s history, the country’s economic structures have been delinked from human rights that the constitution guarantees. As such, workers’ children have not been provided adequate and quality education by the state while no social protection exists for them.

The conference came out with a number of recommendations that included the formulation of inclusive laws especially a trade union law (that has until now been clumped with other provisions in the Industrial Relations Act weakening labour’s right to association and collective bargaining). It also asked for these rights to be extended to workers in agriculture, the fisheries, small industries, mines and quarries, home-based work and domestic service who have so far been left out in the cold.

Some specific demands were made. One demand was for employment bureaus to be set up at the district level, others for increasing the number of labour courts to expedite the disposal of cases and the establishment of human resource centres and training institutes. Are the provincial governments interested in doing this? It would require them to generate resources, set up new institutions and make new laws. Hypothetically, the provincial governments now have control over this sector and if the political will exists, matters can be improved. For some time now, the concept of corporate-sector responsibility has gained ground but this has not really improved the condition of workers and their family. Corporations that skim off some of their profits to help social causes could instead have inbuilt mechanisms to provide social security and training to workers and education to their children — as a matter of right, not as charity, They need to recognise that labour that is happy and well provided for performs better and is more productive.

16 thoughts on “Crushing the working class”

  1. one sided column,you can not get a single responsible worker in whole of Pakistan, they only work when being watched, and always exaggerate about their skills, this I am saying after an experience of almost 35 years in Spinning Mills,please quote a single organization going well and have a union in Pakistan.

    1. Mr. Najam Yusuf sahib,

      If what you say is true then your textile mill workers need better motivation.

      That can and should be done___happy workers are more productive in the workplace.

      Yes, worker unions may lead to worker arrogance. but, Sir, management has to think about why this happens and take steps to manage the conflict.

      Is there any doubt that in the 35 years of your valuable experience, your spinning unit made enough profit to survive and to prosper.

      Thank God, in this way your children also prospered and got a super-education.

      DID YOUR SPINNING MILL IN 35 YEARS start a school for its workers?

      No or Yes ?

      You mean to say you came across not a single worker who was sincere, so you could help his sons and daughters through a decent school education ?

      1. Sir, Najam sahib,

        Our hospital had a mali___gardner. Duglu Ram.

        Duglu Ram was a shirker. He was a poorly motivated gardner.

        We helped his son to become a plumber.

        The plumber has a son, Ram Krishen. Ram Krishen came to my home in Std 11 and Std 12 to learn Mathematics and a bit of Physics. He got into an engineering exam. entrance test. He did

        very well !!

        Ram Krishen will be an engineer in a year or so.

        As an employer it is our bonden duty to uplift the lives of the labour force___even if they do not seem to deserve it.

        1. Will Ram Krishen get a job in Pakistan;s shrinking economy? or will his background be helpful to the country?

  2. ” With the national economy in the doldrums (having recorded a growth of less than three per cent this year) expectations are not high. We know who is being hit by this economic catastrophe.”

    Even if by some miracle the GDP hits the fancy figure of 9% , economic growth can, unfortunately, still leave the poor poorer. In an open economy which is subjected to

    globalization-pressures the rich find it easy to prosper.

    The fashion of the post-cold-war economy is that labour has lost its bargaining

    teeth____one can employ labour ( of all categories ) on contract. So there are

    no permanent jobs, no health insurance, no provident fund, maybe no maternal leave.

    The solution is in economic recovery, job creation, educated and skilled labour.

    Does the ZAKAT system not cater to some of the state’s welfare and BEHBOOD

    ideals ?

  3. It was a pleasure reading your article
    Failure of policies aside (if any can be found at all); there is loss of direction, of vision, of dream, and of hope. And hope is what defines a nation and justifies its existence. The real question perhaps is, if we can realistically rescue the nation and make up for all the lost ground, and how.

  4. the distinction between the rich and the poor is that the former have all the play while the latter have all the work. in this country, there is a constant struggle between haves and have-nots and the distinction between them rests on two basis, the one lawful and the other unlawful. we are experiencing unlawfulness.

  5. Labor unions were formed to protect the rights of the individual workers. Alone, one worker could not demand anything, because he coudl easily be fired and not hurt productivity too much to find a replacement. When they banded together they could affect change cause you can't fire them all and still produce a product (make money). So they had to make deals which included decent pay and working conditions. They are not as important anymore because of labor laws protecting the people

  6. Unions have a substantial impact on the compensation and work lives of both unionized and non-unionized workers. This report presents current data on unions' effect on wages, fringe benefits, total compensation, pay inequality, and workplace protections.

    Some of the conclusions are:

    • Unions raise wages of unionized workers by roughly 20% and raise compensation, including both wages and benefits, by about 28%.

    • Unions reduce wage inequality because they raise wages more for low- and middle-wage workers than for higher-wage workers, more for blue-collar than for white-collar workers, and more for workers who do not have a college degree.

    • Strong unions set a pay standard that nonunion employers follow. For example, a high school graduate whose workplace is not unionized but whose industry is 25% unionized is paid 5% more than similar workers in less unionized industries.

    • The impact of unions on total nonunion wages is almost as large as the impact on total union wages.

    • The most sweeping advantage for unionized workers is in fringe benefits. Unionized workers are more likely than their nonunionized counterparts to receive paid leave, are approximately 18% to 28% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and are 23% to 54% more likely to be in employer-provided pension plans.

    • Unionized workers receive more generous health benefits than nonunionized workers. They also pay 18% lower health care deductibles and a smaller share of the costs for family coverage. In retirement, unionized workers are 24% more likely to be covered by health insurance paid for by their employer.

    • Unionized workers receive better pension plans. Not only are they more likely to have a guaranteed benefit in retirement, their employers contribute 28% more toward pensions.

    • Unionized workers receive 26% more vacation time and 14% more total paid leave (vacations and holidays).

    Unions play a pivotal role both in securing legislated labor protections and rights such as safety and health, overtime, and family/medical leave and in enforcing those rights on the job. Because unionized workers are more informed, they are more likely to benefit from social insurance programs such as unemployment insurance and workers compensation. Unions are thus an intermediary institution that provides a necessary complement to legislated benefits and protections.

    1. Mr. Ramesh Manghirmalani, you are correct.

      One may add that workers have a right to unionize.

  7. I feel the labours are not motivated – by the Government as well as the industrial leaders. The environment in the sectors is dismal and unfavourable – areas of work provided is not good enough. All the cost cutting is achieved in planning stage, development and even when operating the industry. Labour is skilled only if the management makes it so.

    Yes, I agree that our needs to be supervised and supervised closely. If the financial returns coupled with motivation by industrial leaders, the labour force can achieve miracles. I am involved with social work in one of the most under-privilleged area of otherwise giant metropolis, and I know how motivation brings success in what we try to achieve.

  8. I have read your write up on crushing the the working class. I have full sympathy with the labour particularly the daily wage workers. Should one be sympathetic to those working class who are involved in electricity theft. Kill people and burn public transport night before the strike is called in their sympathy, the only way the working class can go work and earn days wages. They thus take hostage due to their terror the majority of working class.

  9. Zubaida Mustafa in her Article “Crushing the Working Class”, made a
    very critical and comprehensive assessment of the appalling condition
    of unskilled labour force. She highlighted critical issues, forcefully
    projected suggestions made by National Conference of Labour
    Organizations. Ministry of labour and corporate Sector should benefit
    from her deliberations while they formulate policies. The Sindh Budget
    should cover education as a right, and the corporate sector should
    develop an inbuilt mechanisms to provide social security and training
    to workers and education to their children.

  10. "Had enough been spent on the education of the workers’ children we would not have had terrorists lurking behind every bush".

    The above line is the container of topic.

    In India there are too many laws and rules but still the overall condition of unskilled and skilled worker is stationary if not worse. Minimum wages act, Provident Fund, ESI (Medical facility), Pension scheme, Labour welfare scheme, Easy Loan, Home for EWS (Economical weeker Section or Society), Insurance at cheap premium, Labour Courts, Cheap Food are main Schemes or Laws to count but practically the deserving are being pushed away.

    The analysis done in this Post must be a guideline for future planning but it should have been posted on 1st May, 2011.

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