Like every other year, International Workers Day was commemorated by the Pakistani government yesterday with carefully crafted statements about its unwavering ‘commitment to the dignity of labour’ and the extension of ‘congratulations’ to Pakistani workers for their contribution to the country’s socioeconomic progress.
Of course, the Pakistani political elite’s commitment to workers’ rights evaporates the moment questions of resource control and distribution arise. Less than two years ago, the country watched as over 15,000 working class men, women and children — the bulk of them wage labourers in Islamabad’s vegetable market — were violently evicted from their homes in the I-11 katchiabadi. The protesting residents were charged with terrorism in a brazen example of class warfare in the name of law — a law never applied to private real estate magnates who continue to grab land and brazenly manipulate the state with impunity.
A few months later, workers of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) were shot dead by Rangers in Karachi for peacefully protesting against the planned privatisation of the airline. This was followed in April 2016 by the siege of the Okara peasantry and the arrest of its leadership under anti-terrorism laws simply for demanding a fairer distribution of land and agricultural output.
For all the government’s ‘unwavering commitment to labour’s dignity’, the truth is workers’ protest has been increasingly criminalised and targeted by the draconian security and legal apparatus of the war on terror.
In the meantime, the economic and physical conditions of Pakistani workers have continued to deteriorate. According to research by Kamal Munir at the University of Cambridge, real wages have seen either decline or stagnation since the 1990s, as essential social and agricultural subsidies were slashed, speculative real estate-based urbanisation was accelerated, and the hard-won workers’ entitlements of the 70s were gradually stripped away.
The terms of work have also worsened spectacularly as a result; a 2010 study of power loom factories in Karachi found that none had a formal contract; 90 percent were working 12-hour work days; 93 percent did not have paid weekly holidays; and 99.8 percent were not paid overtime wages. The abject state of workplace safety can be gauged from the fact that some of the bloodiest industrial accidents in Pakistan’s history — from Baldia Town to Sundar to Gadani — occurred in the space of the last five years. None of these incidents have been accompanied by any meaningful attempt at employer accountability or worker protection.
The well-being of workers has simply not been a policy priority for decades. In 2014, a young lawyer named Usama Khawar brought a public interest petition before the Supreme Court on the plight of labourers suffering from an occupational lung disease called silicosis. Hundreds working in hazardous conditions at stone-crushing factories in Punjab have lost their lives because of this terminal disease.
The case proceedings led to the ‘discovery’ of the fact that the number of sanctioned inspectors in the Punjab Labour Department — whose job it is to ensure worker protection laws are being adhered to — were the same since 1950.
The resource allocation reflects this apathy; even in 2016-17 the budget allocated to Labour matters in Punjab for a workforce of over 35 million was a mere Rs 187 million — a pitiable sum compared to the tens of billions in annual allocations for high-visibility mega transportation schemes in single cities.
Material working class concerns — from job security to public services — have all but disappeared from the mainstream political lexicon. The PML-N’s discourse is one of economic and infrastructural development financed by foreign investment, projected as a process that will lift all boats, without any discussion about distribution or workers’ protection. The rhetorical focus of the mainstream opposition led by PTI remains on elimination of ‘corruption’ — which is somehow framed as the Holy Grail that will automatically improve the lives of ordinary people — even though its articulation rarely extends beyond individual graft of political rivals.
In truth, these narratives amount to self-serving fantasy in a country where the collective power of the working class has been weakened so systematically over four decades. General Ziaul Haq started the dismantling of organised labour by banning strikes, commencing privatisation and casualisation and violently repressing workers, measures that resulted in a 20 percent drop in union membership during his regime. The governments that followed, however, did little to reverse such trends, continuing with neo-liberal policies to the point where today, less than 3 percent of the labour force is unionised and collective action by workers is actively stigmatised as a corrupt and illegitimate practice.
The vast majority of workers — from construction workers to teachers -now toil in the informal sector, usually at the mercy of unaccountable contractors, in a state of constant insecurity and precariousness, with non-existent wage protections, unregulated and hazardous working conditions and harsh restrictions on organising.
The world over, rates of unionisation — such as the highs of 65 percent in societies like Sweden — are closely correlated with economic equality. It is no accident then that inequality in Pakistan has continued to increase at a breakneck pace as organised labour has weakened. A 2015 study by Oxfam found that children born in poor Pakistani families in 2010-11 were less likely to break out of the poverty trap than those born in poor families in 1994-95.
Policy measures identified by experts as necessary to reduce inequality — such as land reform, progressive wealth and income tax enforcement, minimum wage implementation and the provision of public housing, education and health services as forms of social protection — are completely shut out of mainstream political discourse. The on-going Supreme Court case on the right to housing, for instance, on which the shelter and living conditions of nearly 50 million katchiabadi dwellers will depend, garners no attention in the mainstream press, allowing the government to successfully adopt delaying tactics to evade its constitutional responsibilities on shelter.
Instead of debating structural economic and political issues that actually affect people’s well-being, the obsessive focus of the political and media mainstream remains on individual moral corruption. This is convenient for elites who do not wish to upend the status-quo with discussions of redistribution.
The question of the rights of labour, however, is not a technical or moral one; it will not be addressed through growth-centred developmentalism or selective anti-corruption, nor by parties whose leadership is unanimously committed to the interests of the billionaire elite to which it belongs. The right of workers to a fair share of their labour is ultimately a class question; it will be addressed when workers are sufficiently organised to ensure the commitment of the state’s policies and its financial and administrative apparatus to the protection of their basic rights. This is what must remain the priority for those interested in workers’ rights beyond lip-service on May Day.
The writer is a researcher on gender, development and public policy and a political worker for the Awami Workers Party. He tweets @ammarrashidt