Tortured body of Bengali labourer underlines continued vulnerability of labour, ethnic minorities (Opinion)

On August 5, the tortured body of a labourer was found hanging from a tree in Karachi’s Machar Colony. The labourer had gone missing two weeks before his body was found.

The victim belonged to the marginalised Bengali community, and worked at a fish cleaning and packing factory at the Karachi Fish Harbour. He had an altercation with his employer, after which he went missing. The suspects subjected the victim to torture before stabbing him to death with a sharp-edged object.

Karachi the largest metropolis and commercial hub of Pakistan is also known as ‘mini-Pakistan’ by observers. This is a reference to the ethnic and religious diversity of Karachi’s population. Historians note that it has been a city of migrants for centuries.

Until the 1980s it also shared, along with Lahore, the status of the political pulse of the country, or at least of the urban parts of Pakistan. To succeed nationally, movements had to make a mark on the city, and currents that emerged in Karachi frequently influenced the national mainstream.

Observers say the very features of Pakistani society that are represented so prominently in Karachi are the ones that are often thought to challenge the coherence and stability of the nation state. Foremost are ethnic and religious sectarian heterogeneity. But analysts say there is also political fragmentation, economic disparity, demographic pressures, steady erosion of the state’s institutional capacity and the heavy footprint of international conflict.

There has been a steady escalation in violence in Karachi – led by political violence – since the early 1970s. Up until then political, student and trade-union activity was largely peaceful and violence was limited to isolated brawls that rarely led to a casualty. Karachi is the most ethnically diverse city of Pakistan. Karachi’s 2021 population is now estimated at 16,459,472. In 1950, the population of Karachi was 1,055,380. Karachi has grown by 365,686 since 2015, which represents a 2.27% annual change.

There are about 10 million Bengali and Biharis from Bangladesh as well. Karachi has 1-2 million ethnic Bengalis from Bangladesh, most of whom came during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Bengali community, whose strength in Karachi is estimated to be around two million, has a sizable number of people who either do not possess a government-issued ID or their CNICs have been revoked on suspicion of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951 stipulates that people who were residing in territories that now comprise Pakistan prior to Dec 16, 1971, would continue to be citizens of Pakistan, and their children would be considered citizens of Pakistan by virtue of their descent.

“The parliament mainstreamed the Federally Administered Tribal Areas but the plight of Pakistani Bengalis gets no serious consideration. We will have to make renewed efforts to bring our case to attention when the next parliament is sworn in,” Action Committee for Pakistani Bengalis Chairman Shaikh Mohammad Siraj.

Pakistan’s labour laws trace their origination to legislation inherited from India at the time of partition of the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The laws have evolved through a continuous process of trial to meet the socio-economic conditions, state of industrial development, population and labour force explosion, growth of trade unions, level of literacy, government’s commitment to development and social welfare.

Experts say that in Pakistan, labour is the most oppressed class. They work hard for the country to uplift its economy but in turn they do not get enough to live a satisfied life.

According to Labour Rights Index (LRI), Pakistan has overall scored 51 points out of 100 at the Decent Work Check tool. Pakistan lags behind neighbouring India, Myanmar, Iran, and China which have scored 69, 63, 69.5 and 71 points, respectively. However, it leads Bangladesh by three and Sri Lanka by 0.5 points.

Experts say a vibrant economy and sustainable development will be difficult to achieve if the government, employers and society fail the working masses by letting the exploitative systems perpetuate. One of the ways to contain the growing frustration and improve the lives of common Pakistanis is to empower workers and encourage the growth of unions.

Pakistan is estimated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to have the ninth-largest workforce in the world. The parliamentary body on law and justice seems reluctant to ratify ILO conventions regarding rights of informal workers. This hesitation is understandable given the logistical and on-ground challenges.

“Despite lofty claims of the current government to bring about meaningful change, Pakistan has no legislation to limit the maximum number of working hours per week or to mandate paid annual leave for at least three weeks,” notes analyst Syed Mohammad Ali, author of ‘Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan.’

“Pakistan needs to revamp labour inspections and systematically hold factories accountable for abusing labour rights.”

Analysts urge the government to set up rules and mechanisms to monitor the plight of workers and to punish infringements, even if implementation takes a longer time. They maintain that unless some regulatory attempt is made, the informal sector will not rectify itself on its own.

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