One good thing to come out of the recent spat between workers and management at a popular chain store here in Pakistan is the momentum it has seemingly given way to. Meaning, that for the time being at least, labour rights have come once more under the spotlight. We must not lose sight of this.
Labour rights and trade union activists have long slammed the use of third-party vendors, a practice that prevails in most of Pakistan’s industries when it comes to hiring low-wage earners. They are right to do so. For this fails to safeguard workers’ rights, enabling firms to escape investing in the social protection of labour on the basis that they, on paper at least, are not the direct employer. The fallout being that compliance on minimum wage, social security and pensions in accordance with industrial relations laws slip by the wayside.
The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics estimates that Pakistan’s national workforce stands at around 60 million. Only some two million are registered with provincial Labour Departments, which affords them access to social protection for their labour. It is not hard to do the maths. This leaves a whopping 58 million without adequate compensation as per the law for services to industrial units.
There should be no misgivings about the way forward. State institutions, like the National Industrial Relations Commission and Labour Departments, will need to take the lead in ensuring that the law is respected. They may do well to seek the participation of labour rights and trade union activists to redress the situation.
Activists have also pointed to the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s 2013 judgment in Fauji Fertilisers vs NIRC. The Apex court had ruled that any person employed at an establishment through a contractor should be considered a direct employee of the said establishment. Thus those companies flouting their responsibilities do so in contravention of this important precedent.
We have the letter of the law on industrial relations that specifies certain safeguards incumbent upon the employer. We also have the spirit of the law as enshrined in the aforementioned ruling by, quite literally, by the highest court in the land. All that remains is for us to have these implemented in both letter and spirit. What are we waiting for?*