The forgotten worker
ACCORDING to All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA), around 30 percent of the country's textile units shut down this cotton season owing to the energy crisis, the high cost of doing business and erratic government policies. The Economic Survey of Pakistan estimates that there are 3.5 million jobless people in the country. However, the latest estimates of an independent research organisation, the Institute of Policy Reforms, put the number at 5.3 million, which implies that 32 million people are affected from unemployment because an earning hand on average feeds a family of six people.
As the state has no system in place for providing subsistence allowance to the unemployed, there is no alternative to
the work for mere survival. As a result, the women of these families work as domestic servants, and the children turn to shops, factories, farms or workshops for abysmally low wages. Estimates of child labour in the country vary from 10 million to 12 million (ILO and Unicef figures). Around 8.5 million people, mostly women, work as domestic servants.
Business owners and industrialists have exploited this situation to their benefit by forcing labourers to work longer than eight hours a day, in some cases 12 hours a day, and paying them less than the officially fixed minimum wages. In 2015, the Punjab and Sindh governments set the minimum wage for unskilled workers at Rs13,000 a month, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government Rs15,000 and the Balochistan government Rs10,000. However, most of the labourers did not benefit from this.
Labour unions say only 15 percent of the overall labour, including formal and informal sectors, is getting minimum wage. Violation of payment wages acts and compensation acts is rampant. Labour inspectors in Punjab say that they have strict orders from higher authorities to not check minimum wages.
These days, after a hiatus of more than a decade, labour inspectors in Punjab have started inspecting factories - only to check the conditions of the buildings and child labour. This is because several accidents at factories brought the issue of unsafe working conditions in sharp public focus and the government is under pressure from the European Union to ban child labour in return for GSP Plus status.
In November 2015, a factory manufacturing polythene bags in Lahore's Sunder Industrial Estate collapsed, killing 45 labourers and injuring dozens. It came out that more than 500 people, including 100 children aged 12-15, used to work at the factory. Most of them were receiving a wage of Rs200 per day for 12 hours a day. Only 18 workers were registered with the social security department - in stark violation of labour laws.
When a labourer does not get minimum wage or compensation in case of injury or accident under the relevant laws, he has to present his case for adjudication to the provincial labour department. These cases remain pending for years. If a decree is issued, it is not implemented by the employer.
If a labourer appeals for the implementation, his case remains pending sometimes for more than a decade. Poor enforcement of laws can be gauged from the fact that there are only 1,850 factories in Lahore that are registered under the Factories Act what to speak of more than 7,500 small and medium-sized units operating in the city's residential areas. Further, employers show most labourers working for them as hired on contractual terms. This contractual labour in the organised sector is deprived of any kind of social protection and other benefits. No more than three percent of the total labour force is registered with the social security departments.
A corrupt bureaucracy, politicians and businessmen see to it that labourers do not receive even what is legally due to them. Most industrialists have strong connections with members of the provincial and national assemblies and influentials from ruling parties. That is why they remain immune from labour laws. Corruption is also rife among the officials of the labour departments.
This scribe recently visited a Lahore factory that manufactures electronic goods such as fridges, air conditioners etc and employs nearly 7,000 workers. Of these workers, only 450 were registered with the social security department. Reportedly, when the labour inspectors visited the site, a ruling party's politician ordered the inspectors to not step inside the factory.
In order to deny the labour their legal rights, private businessmen do not allow formation of trade unions at workplaces. Unions are the most effective way for labourers to get their due rights. Although the law makes it mandatory for a workplace with 10 or more workers to have a trade union, not more than one percent of such workplaces in the country are unionised. Even the export-oriented mills and factories have formed fake trade unions to dupe importers from the West. If some activists make an effort to form a labour union at a workplace, the nexus of industrialists, politicians and the police make a horrible example of them. Some union workers have even been booked on charges of terrorism while others have been threatened of' 'police encounters'.