Bat­tling state em­ploy­ees

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Umair Javed

LAST week, some com­men­ta­tors posited the no­tion that over­staffing and the em­ployee wage-bill, in gen­eral, were not re­spon­si­ble for PIA's trou­bles. Some oth­ers ar­gued that the right to protest against un­friendly labour prac­tices (such as opaque pri­vati­sa­tion) is fun­da­men­tal to any func­tion­ing democ­racy. One does not have to be a so­cial­ist to recog­nise this right - a right found in most civilised states; nor does one have to be par­tic­u­larly sym­pa­thetic to the cause of PIA em­ploy­ees in par­tic­u­lar to ap­pre­ci­ate the gen­eral prin­ci­ple.

To put it bluntly, ar­gu­ments for state-own­er­ship based on pride (of­ten found in us­age of the phrase 'sell­ing the fam­ily sil­ver') or some no­tion of days when it was teach­ing other air­lines how to fly are hol­low. The air­line is a disas­ter and caters to those with the re­sources to fly. I can see why some would want to re­di­rect all the con­tin­u­ous govern­ment largesse to the Rail­ways - a pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion cen­tral to the so­cio-eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and up­lift of coun­tries the world over.

How­ever, as stated ear­lier, the right to protest re­mains, and given how heav­ily the odds are stacked against the unions, they would do well to come up with a turn­around plan that can demon­strate their com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing the in­sti­tu­tion. This would in­crease their chances of putting up a cred­i­ble fight against the nar­ra­tive pushed by the govern­ment and the ob­serv­ing, largely un­sym­pa­thetic pub­lic. The cri­sis of pa­tron­age-based em­ploy­ment is ac­tu­ally part of a much broader labour mar­ket cri­sis.

At a broader level, th­ese protests, along with those be­ing car­ried out by elec­tric­ity dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany em­ploy­ees, raise an in­ter­est­ing is­sue about the fu­ture of pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ment and the labour mar­ket in Pak­istan in gen­eral. Given the pre­pon­der­ance of pa­tron­age pol­i­tics in the coun­try, it is no sur­prise that sarkari naukris are handed out in the political process. It is cen­tral to the political strat­egy of can­di­dates and par­ties, and is thus cru­cial in help­ing them se­cure their con­stituen­cies and bases of so­cial sup­port.

More im­por­tantly, the pa­tron­age around pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ment does not only re­volve around hand­ing out jobs, but also in pro­tect­ing those job ob­tain­ers from ac­count­abil­ity and over­sight. As sev­eral well-re­searched pa­pers in the pub­lic health sec­tor have pointed out, political pa­trons make work­place shirk­ing pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas. Doc­tors and paramedics don't show up, and are given im­mu­nity from sanc­tions by political rep­re­sen­ta­tives who ex­er­cise sway over de­ci­sion-mak­ers.

This trans­ac­tional el­e­ment of do­mes­tic pol­i­tics - ex­chang­ing jobs and im­mu­nity for political sup­port - is cen­tral to why pub­lic ser­vices are gen­er­ally in such ter­ri­ble shape in this coun­try. But cru­cial to un­der­stand­ing why this is so preva­lent would re­quire us to un­der­stand why pub­lic-sec­tor jobs are so cov­eted in the first place.

Imag­ine a sit­u­a­tion where a politi­cian came to a set of vot­ers (or the leader of a set of vot­ers) and promised a widely avail­able com­mod­ity (such as wheat in cen­tral Pun­jab) in ex­change for their sup­port. Chances are it wouldn't work. Now imag­ine some­thing far more scarce, and thus much more de­sir­able - like em­ploy­ment. It makes good sense for those on the re­ceiv­ing end to en­gage in a trans­ac­tion of the lat­ter kind.

The cri­sis of pa­tron­age-based em­ploy­ment is ac­tu­ally part of a much broader labour mar­ket cri­sis that Pak­istan has faced since the 1960s. Out­side of the minis­cule em­ploy­ment in ad­vanced ser­vices (bank­ing/tele­com/in­sur­ance), a few MNCs, and what­ever large-scale man­u­fac­tur­ing is left in the coun­try, state or pub­lic-sec­tor cor­po­ra­tion em­ploy­ment is the only one that guar­an­tees rea­son­able com­pen­sa­tion, post-re­tire­ment ben­e­fits, job sta­bil­ity, and as­set-based perks such as dis­counted land al­lot­ments. It is the only sure-shot way of ob­tain­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity for sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions in an un­cer­tain, stag­nat­ing econ­omy.

To un­der­stand the mag­ni­tude of this scarcity, one has to con­sider that the rest of the job mar­ket con­sists of mostly in­for­mal, low-skilled jobs with lit­tle chances of pro­gres­sion or on-job learn­ing. Th­ese are clus­tered in the petty man­u­fac­tur­ing, con­struc­tion, or distribu­tive ser­vices (retail/whole­sale trade, trans­port, stor­age) sec­tors, which now ac­count for up­wards of 70pc of to­tal ur­ban em­ploy­ment in the coun­try.

The white-col­lar elite and middle class of this coun­try scoff at pa­tron­age pol­i­tics around job dis­tri­bu­tion, and per­haps their anger is partly jus­ti­fied. It takes a toll on ef­fec­tive ser­vice de­liv­ery, and that hurts ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially the poor­est.

But what many con­ve­niently for­get is that a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of this white-col­lar de­mo­graphic came into be­ing be­cause their pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tions ob­tained dig­ni­fied em­ploy­ment in pub­lic cor­po­ra­tions, the civil ser­vice, or the armed forces.

I'm sure some did it through some force of ' merit' - what­ever that may be - but many more (in­clud­ing my own) re­lied on a good word of an ex­tended fam­ily mem­ber, or an ac­quain­tance, or a pa­tron of some kind as well. That logic is be­ing re­pro­duced to this day, and a much big­ger pop­u­la­tion is sim­ply en­dur­ing the con­se­quences.

This govern­ment, in its re­form cru­sade, wants to ex­pand the state's fis­cal breath­ing space by get­ting rid of dead weight.

On pa­per, this seems like a rea­son­able thing to do, (even if one could ar­gue that largesse show­ered upon high-rank­ing civil and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials should go out the win­dow first). In this process it is bat­tling the unions by por­tray­ing them as anti-de­vel­op­ment, when it should be think­ing about the rea­son why th­ese bat­tles ex­ist in the first place.

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