Battling state employees
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.