By Zubeida Mustafa
THERE was a time when it was widely believed that Karachi’s roads were paved with gold. Anyone who came here could make a fortune — even if it was a small one.
This may have been true to an extent when the pace of industrialisation was fast and urbanisation slow. The trickle of labour from the countryside was easily absorbed into the formal employment sector.
The situation has now changed totally. This stark reality emerged painfully at a conference held earlier this month in Karachi.
Jointly organised by the Pakistan Study Centre and Piler (Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research), the event was designed to commemorate three decades of Piler’s fine work for the rights of labour.
The institute has toiled for (in its own words) labour education, training and research; organisation and mobilisation of workers; research and publications; advocacy and networking; and facilitating gender equality.
Today, in the age of globalisation when capitalism rules the roost, whatever had been achieved earlier, especially in terms of social security, has been dissipated.
Security means that one should feel protected — especially with respect to some basic rights such as health, education, shelter and employment. Can you expect a man to be optimally productive if he is nagged by anxiety all the time?
Will he be able to provide the next meal to his family? If his child falls ill will he be able to get him treated? Can he educate his children? When he goes to work the next day will he be sacked?
All efforts made by Piler and other organisations have failed to prevent further weakening of the feeble social security net and has made the situation critical. The growth of unbridled capitalism in a globalised world has worked against the workers’ interest.
Two reports by PILER, Expanding Informality and Diminishing Wages (2011) and Declining Decent Work & Emerging Struggles (2010) sum up the crisis powerfully in their titles. In simple words, the capitalist now has the upper hand, and labour which is the most essential component of the production process, is being forced to take a backseat.
As a result, contract work with no job security and measly remuneration is on the increase and the informal sector which keeps workers in isolation and does not allow them to organise themselves to fight for their rights is steadily expanding.
At the conference, the keynote speaker, Prof Jan Breman of the University of Amsterdam, gave an excellent analysis of the phenomena of labour and poverty in which he neatly weaved in the impact of migration on the labour market. According to him, “We are in the midst of a civilisational shift which marks the end of a long epoch of mankind dominated by peasant economies and peasant societies. Today, people are not only being driven out of agriculture … but are also being forced to leave their rural habitat in search of better livelihood elsewhere”. These people have become “footloose” on a massive scale.
Comparing this trend with the 19th-century transformation of European societies by the movement of labour from agrarian-rural to urban-industrial in a colonial nation-state setting, Breman pointed out how the difference in the pattern of migration in South Asia has placed workers at a disadvantage.
In our region, migration is no longer a one-time movement but an on-going circulation. That means workers do not settle in their place of work. Sometimes they come to take up jobs but leave their families behind and are constantly mobile.
As they put in long working hours and live in difficult conditions, they become, what Breman terms “non-labouring poor” — those who become worn out and disabled with age and ill health quite early in life, age 40. Without any old-age pension plan or social security cover to fall back on, they are consigned to the worst form of poverty.
Breman describes them as paupers, or the poor who have given up the struggle to cope. They cannot depend on their children who do not have the capacity to support their parents as well as their own families. Hence the assumption that in the east the close family network supports the elderly is utterly misplaced.
This comes as an eye-opener. Breman is of the view that the growth of industrialisation in Europe made labour a scarce commodity forcing the capitalists to grant labour rights which “made work and life in the urban economy more decent and dignified”. This meant higher wages, regulated work hours and better working conditions.
One major advantage that European labour of the 19th century enjoyed was that of education. By the end of the 19th century, literacy rates in Europe and America had touched 90 per cent.
On the contrary labour in South Asia was not provided education in a big way — neither under the British Raj nor under the post-colonial governments. Pakistan is the worst-off and a majority remains illiterate. Moreover, the slow industrial development did not create the demand for labour to give it bargaining power. Contrary to the trend in Europe, labour in South Asia has moved from the formal to the informal sector which has weakened unionisation and allowed the worst kind of exploitation.
What surprises Prof Breman is that the problems of labour are not on the agenda of public discourse here. He insists that social security should be the entitlement of the worker, especially the non-labouring poor. Will any conscience be stirred by his statement, “The moral status of a society is determined by how it handles its poor”?