Monday, July 28, 2014

Trade Unions: Dying Breed

Majyd Aziz

Trade Unions in private sector in Pakistan, by and large, can be aptly described as in-house unions, pocket unions, or fill-in-the-blanks unions. Radical labor leaders have gradually been eased out and there are more moderate and sensible workers’ representatives now who base their future on practical economic solutions, who adhere to the concept of industrial peace, and who utilize human skills of negotiations and consideration to hammer out agreements rather than resorting to strikes and other anti-labor tactics to achieve their objectives.

Today, efforts are being made by social and human rights activists to send out motivating signals to the “dying breed” to learn from the global initiatives undertaken by various labor federations who, in recognizing the effects of globalization on the working class, are banding together in an effort to resuscitate the terminal patient. Interestingly, the various global unity groups, having a focused agenda, have not been able to bring about a renaissance within the disarrayed and disorganized labor movement in Pakistan. Although these global programs do have members and linkages in Pakistan, nevertheless there is no display of a trickle-down effect among either local unions or the general workforce. 

Some activists cite the 2014 International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index of the World’s Worst Countries for Workers, that depicts Pakistan as ranked near the bottom at four on a scale of one to five. ITUC identified Pakistan as one of the 30 countries at risk “experiencing a profound failure to guarantee laws that ensure fundamental rights for all workers.” Notwithstanding this penchant many activists have for highlighting only the negativity against Pakistan, the Index also includes USA, Argentina, Hong Kong, Indonesia etc in the same category. What these activists also fail to underscore is that in the bottom at five are those countries that do not guarantee rights and in this list of the worst countries in the world to work in and where workers have effectively no access to these rights and are therefore exposed to autocratic regimes and unfair labor practices”, ITUC has included China, India, Bangladesh, UAE, Turkey, Greece among such 32 countries.  It should be noted that China, India and Bangladesh are Pakistan’s regional competitors, especially in textiles.

How is the survey for Global Rights Index done? According to ITUC, it “sends the questionnaire in an electronic and word format to its affiliates asking them to share it broadly with their membership. Furthermore, five regional meetings are conducted with regional human and trade union rights coordinators where the questionnaire is disseminated, explained and then filled out. In addition, the ITUC contacts unions directly by phone and email when it becomes aware of violations to confirm relevant facts. Violations are only recorded if unions can provide relevant facts. Anecdotal references and mere statement of opinions are avoided thereby increasing the reliability and comparability of the information.”

Pakistan is not the only country violating many of the labor rights. However, what some activists complain that “the government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat” is nothing but opprobrium usually heard at May Day rallies. The employers or the governments are not principally responsible for the union movement to lose steam. The business dynamics have changed, especially when a massive inflow of migrant workers started coming into urban cities like Karachi, Faisalabad and Lahore. The power of union leaders proportionately diminished when laborers accepted the conditionalities of working as contract workers rather than so-called permanent employees. Their concern was the current paycheck rather than gratuity, bonus, leave encashment, etc. Nowadays, workers don’t want to hear about EOBI, Social Security, NIRC, etc. Furthermore, with more entrants in the labor market, the bargaining power of the laborer correspondingly reduced too. Unskilled workers are available at even less than the guaranteed minimum wage as ordained by the government. 

Pakistan faces another labor problem too. While skilled or technically competent people are also in demand in foreign countries, there is scant scope for the unskilled, with low literacy quotient, to obtain higher paying jobs. The housing sector would be the new booming industry in Pakistan and the dilemma is that there are few skilled workers even in this sector. The trade bodies related to construction and housing, such as ABAD, do not have a game plan to deal with the expected upsurge, especially in low-cost housing. To make matters worse, even the fifty plus industries that depend on housing and construction are also deficient in developing or having a skilled workforce. Here too, even the unions have not demonstrated any attempt to encourage unskilled workers to learn new skills.

Fortunately, today there are some moderate and erudite labor leaders who are well-versed in labor laws, who are involved in intensive lobbying for amendments in various labor related legislation, and who have a respectable command of the working environment. However, certain work-related issues often escape their focus. There is limited attention towards motivating workers to enhance productivity, to maintain hygiene at workplaces, to improve punctuality, to ensure education and health for workers and families, and to promote the orientation of safety and disaster management procedures. Sadly, there are some labor leaders who still continue with their trite litany about “appointment letters” and inflation or resort to long-winded rhetoric even at focused meetings. 

The power of trade unions, as stated above, has diminished primarily because of the labor leaders themselves and less due to employers asserting their influence or the government turning a blind eye. The salvation for labor probably lies in per force implementation of 27 Conventions, that also include labor related, if Pakistan is to enjoy the fruits of the EU GSP Plus status for the next decade. What labor leaders seemingly failed to achieve, European Union will ensure that laws, rules and conventions are assured, understood and implemented. Winston Churchill, the great statesman very rightly said that “some see private enterprise as a predatory target to be hunted, others as a cow to be milked, but few are those who see it as a sturdy horse pulling the wagon.”

(Part 2 of 2-part series)

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