The Labor Right Index (LRI) has given Pakistan 51 points out of 100 that covered a total of 115 countries across the globe. The index gauges labor standards in terms of minimum wages, general working hours, annual leaves, public holidays, parental leave, right to strike, child labor etc.
Essentially, it proves to be beneficial for the workers to attain full rights and exposes the state’s policy and practices to ensure those rights. Experts say the poor ranking of Pakistan among the regional countries calls for effective policymaking and implementation of labor laws in letter and spirit.
Pakistan became a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1947 and has ratified 35 ILO Conventions. The eight fundamental conventions that have been ratified by Pakistan include measures against forced labor; against discrimination in employment/occupation; the right to unionize; right to collective bargaining; on minimum age; on equal remuneration; on the abolition of forced labor and against worst form of child labor.
Observers note that the conventions are never fully implemented and require immediate attention so that the workers can enjoy a reputed status established by the UN under ILO. In several other countries, these conventions are considered as “human rights standards” and their violation is a serious human rights abuse. The tripartite Consultation among government, employers and employees has also been neglected that gives way to the employers to exploit workers on their whims and desires especially in the informal sector of the country.
There are numerous other conventions that are not ratified by Pakistan that cover the workers safety at hazardous places and under harmful environment for instance in mines and exposing one’s body to radiations. Lack of ratification has endangered the lives of workers who are earning their livelihood by putting their lives on stake. According to one estimate, one in 25 workers faces an occupational accident and due to the absence of unions and social protection, the affected ones are not given their due compensation.
Recently, Pakistan has been assessed by European Union for GSP+ status that demands the provision of equal rights and protection of workers in one of its 27 conventions. The labor laws enforcement will give Pakistan the opportunity to increase trade and help its economy survive. It has now become crucial for the state to adopt the standards governing the security of workers and grant them labor rights.
“Over 3 million people are still living under the modern slavery in Pakistan and over 2 million children are working as child laborers,” said EU Ambassador in Pakistan Androulla Kamrina. “Similarly, unionization rate of workers is very low at under 5 percent,” she added.
Analysts say local workers have especially suffered amid business downturn due to Covid-19. Various workers have lost their jobs and succumbed to unemployment, thrusting themselves into poverty.
The Chairman of the Labor Qaumi Movement expressed his resentment on government’s lack of political will and its negligence towards the labor woes. He said that the government supports wealthy industrialists, but there is a lack of political will to provide better opportunities and protect poor workers. “As per GSP+, all workers should be given social security cards but so far hardly 10% of the workforce in Pakistan have them. While the world has moved from minimum wages to a living wage, we are still being forced to take to the streets to demand a minimum wage,” he said.
Human Rights experts suggest that the government can work with ILO to improve its performance and mitigate the problems that affect the efficiency of the workers. ILO can engage with international donors and development banks to provide economic assistance to Pakistan in those areas where it needs financial uplift. It can also help in policy formulation and implementation for achieving better economic and social status of workers.
Rights groups reiterate that through willingly abiding by the conventions laid forth by ILO, Pakistan can raise its ranking on the Labor Rights Index (LRI). For it to happen, the country should introduce labor law reforms and pass legislation on issues that hinder the progress of this community. The employment of workers should be ensured through skills training and their performance should be monitored through introducing key performance indicators.
“When the unemployment rate is so high, the bargaining position of the worker is naturally compromised. Employers prefer contractual labour,” said Habib Junaidi, president of the People’s Labour Bureau in Sindh
“They created multiple paper companies to avoid labour laws and divide the workforce. To mask their entrepreneurial inefficiencies in the market, they squeeze the wage bill that is already less than the global standards in most sectors.”
The Labor Expert Group launched under Ehsas Programme is lauded as a positive initiative taken by the present government, but observers say it should strive to put more energy on resolving issues such as granting social protection and security to the workers who are prone to various health hazards.
Rights groups also point to the fact that child labor is still rampant in the country and wasting the potentials of children working in fields. According to a report, about 11 million children in Pakistan perform domestic tasks and work in agriculture. Others are stuck as bonded laborers in the brick industry. The government has yet to drive them out of slavery and place them in education institutions.
Activists further say that increasing the minimum wage of workers is a prominent issue that needs quick resolution. The wages are not defined at the time of hiring the employees and they are paid less for heavy works. The recent increase in the minimum wages has proved counterproductive and needs further amendment. There is no proper policy framework defining the working hours of laborers also. They work as per the requirements of the owners and receive less compensation. Analysts maintain that the government through tripartite convention can remove the sufferings of workers who have lost their health and family life due to working for unlimited hours.
Pakistan ratified the Labor Inspection Convention in 1953 that it vowed to follow but could not keep up with. The lack of compliance has brought results in the form of abuse of labor rights that is exhibited by the factory owners. Analysts maintain there needs to be a systematic approach to deal with this issue. The government has been urged to organize labor inspections under regular monitoring to provide relief to the workers and create a healthy working environment for them at workplace.
“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,” said analyst Syed Mohammad Ali, the author of ‘Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan’.
“Recent increases to the minimum wage are still not enough given the rising inflation rate. Moreover, many informal sector workers, which comprise a significant proportion of our labour-force, are being paid much less than the official minimum wage.”
Rights groups say the unionization of laborers is indispensable for their peaceful growth and prosperity. They reiterate that once a union is formed, it works like a democracy that allows the workers to perform under safe environment and enjoy the rights given to them by the established standards.