Contract labour system behind decline of unionism

Karachi: Growing contract system of hiring manpower in industries, mill and other sectors is the main reason of downfall of trade unionism in Pakistan, and the situation is feared to go further deteriorated in future due to the policies of globalization, liberalization of economy and privatization.

The owners of industries and trade are worried about minimizing their costs to maximize their profit margin and they opt to hire contract labour, because it is cheap and free from obligations of social security cover and other payments as per labour laws. However, the contract labour system is a brutal exploitation of workers and usurping their basic human rights, says noted human rights attorney and president of Lawyers of Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA) Zia Ahmed Awan.

He said for last three decades the trade unions is witnessing serious set-backs in Pakistan and saving a few industries, mostly government-run entities, there are no genuine trade unions in most of the industrial sector in the country. He said not only mills and industries but banks and financial institutions are hiring contract manpower through outsourcing. He said the trend would go further strengthened in future as liberalization of economy has become a buzzword in Pakistan like other developing nations. The employers prefer the third party contract labours as they are even cheaper to the labours hired on the minimum wages, though minimum wages in Pakistan are too low. These contract labours are daily wagers and they are not given any facilities including healthcare and safety, insurance, social security, pension and old-age benefits.

Zia Awan said the political parties have also ignored the plights of working class and mostly elected parliamentarians themselves belong to industrial and feudal class and they serve to safeguard the interests of the elite class instead of pro-worker lawmaking. He demanded from the government, political parties, academia, media and other sections of civil society to give a serious focus to the problems of labours. He said strengthening of labour and student unions is also vital as they provide alternate political leadership to the nation. He said the downfall of trade unions in Pakistan is one of the reasons why today we do not have influential and charismatic labour leaders. He said in Pakistan there are many labour-related laws and mostly they are confined to the legal books lacking practical implementation at the workplaces. He said the LHRLA has been raising voice to stop violation of basic human rights including labour rights in Pakistan for last two decades.

Manzoor Razi, chairman Railway Workers Union said in Pakistan Railways the trade union culture still has very deep roots. He said there are also trade unions worth their salt in Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Karachi Port Trust (KPT), Pakistan Steel Mills, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and some private industries. He said after the privatization of Pakistan Telecommunication Corporation Limited (PTCL) and Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC) now K-Electric (K-E) their trade unions have become almost toothless. He said after the fall of Soviet Union, the trade union culture that used to be politically lead by Left-Centered political parties has sustained an irreparable loss. He said now in many urban industrial cities and trade unions are going under influence of ethnic and religious elements, which is a harmful bid to divide the labour class. He said the lack of unity is the main reason of the downfall of trade unionism in Pakistan. He said in Pakistan the labour movements are limited to their own industry or sector without support of the whole labour movement. He said in past the struggle of workers of KESC failed because they had got no support of labour unions of other sectors and even labour unions of electricity generating sector (Wapda) did not join hands with the KESC workers. He said similarly now the Wapda workers are fighting their lone fight against privatization and there are slim chances of its success unless it musters support from trade unions of other sectors. He said in the final count it the matter of leadership. He said in Pakistan trade unionism is facing problems because there is a dearth of committed, able and brave leadership. He said to revive the trade unionism in Pakistan we need a new bred of loyal and fearless leadership.

Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Sindh chapter amir Dr Merajul Huda Siddiqui said no society could prosper without giving rights to its workers. He said the Islamic teachings and the constitution of Pakistan also stress on stopping exploitation of workers and giving them their full rights. He said one cannot escape from the brutal realities of globalization but it is no excuse to usurp the rights of labours. He said the worker class enjoys their due rights even in the leading capitalist countries and the Pakistani elite class should not be allowed to exploit the workers. He said his party is against the contract system of labour as it is based on exploitation. He said strengthening trade union culture in Pakistan would also augment the political culture and help improving a soft image of the country. He said labours should also have to show unity and solidarity and purge black sheep in their ranks and files.

Academia also supports the culture of trade unions and collective bargaining agent to defend the rights of employees. Prof Manzoor Hussain Khuhro of Sindh Professors and Lecturers Association (SPLA) recalled his student days, when labour unions and student unions used to lead the political movements. He said the trend of hiring contract workers and employees would lead to destruction of socio-economic fabric of our society. He said labour is the most important factor of production and no economy could grow on sustainable basis till the rights of workers are fully taken care of.

He called for revisiting the policies at governmental level to check the onslaught of contract and daily wage labour and outsourcing of labour departments. He demanded powerful laws and their strict implementation to save labour class from the brutal exploitation of profit-hungry entrepreneurs. He said though in the government-run educational institutions teachers are united under well-organized associations like the SPLA but in private sector school there is inhuman exploitation of teachers, who work for meagre wages without any social security cover and moreover they are now practically allowed to form their trade unions.

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