City and the migrant labourer

Published in Dawn on June 30 2014

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspective deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” — Italo Calvino

CONCEALED within a leafy neighborhood, crushed between 1,000 to 2,000 square-yard bungalows, in Jamshed Town, Karachi, invisible to the world of comfortable living, exists an enclave of narrow alleys, haphazard and shabbily constructed one or two-room dwellings of the city’s migrant workers. Called Bano Colony, this surreal settlement, with upper storeys jutting out here and there, reminds one of the narrow labyrinthine alleys in Shagai, one of the katchi abadis in Mingora, Swat.

Inhabited exclusively by Pakhtuns, this enclave has two entry points: the east side leads to male-only living; the west end opens to family quarters. On entering the male-only section, for a second you feel you are stepping into the ruins of a demolished structure. Here the rent of one small, windowless room, shared by six (or more) males — minor, young, old — along with a communal kitchen, is Rs6,000 per month.

The family quarters’ rent varies from Rs6,000 to Rs8,000, often housing two families. The settlement has legal electricity and gas connections. Most of the children walk to the government school located in the adjoining neighbourhood. Fewer children, I am told, attend the madressah whose high walls enclose the west side of the settlement.

This is one of the hundreds of big and small settlements dispersed all over Karachi, inhabited by migrant workers who come to the city from higher grounds, from the plains, from the arid zones, from the hinterland of the country. Dreaming of a decent life for themselves and for their children, they enter the world of precarious work and live on the margins, except the margins are in the very heart of the city.

They are the city’s drivers, loaders, car cleaners, chowkidars, shop assistants, naan-makers, domestic servants, tea-boys and fruit vendors. The bulk of unskilled, low-wage, semi-permanent migrant workforce lives on the vagaries of the labour market. Deprived of citizens’ entitlements, stigmatised and stereotyped, shunned by trade unions, migrant workers suffer from social exclusion and are a part of informal labour that exists outside the ambit of the legal framework.

It is estimated that 50,000 migrants enter Karachi every month — despite the city’s notoriety for violence and crime — in search of a better life. With over 21 million people, Karachi is one of the 10 most populous cities of the world. Though Pakistan is urbanising as a country, urbanisation in Sindh is the fastest and stands out in marked contrast to the other provinces. According to the 2012-13 Labour Force Survey, Sindh has a 12.23 million labour force, of which the urban workforce is 5.86m or 47.91pc, in contrast to the 33.37pc urban work force in Punjab, 23pc in Balochistan and 19.22pc in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A population census is awaited since 1998 to determine the extent and scope of internal migration. Several studies conclude that rural to urban migration is due to extreme poverty and low human development indicators in the rural districts. Pushed out of their ancestral towns by poverty, the city attracts the labourers as they can eke out an income enough for survival after remitting the major amount to their families.

Internal migration is a low-priority area for policymakers, researchers and civil society all over the world although it is four times greater than international migration. In Pakistan, internal migration does not come anywhere on the radar of policymakers. Internal migration is not mentioned in the Labour Policy 2010. There is no law protecting the rights of internal migrant workers in Pakistan.

The state has never come up with specific schemes to integrate multi-ethnic migrant workers in the cities. Internal migration — integral to urbanisation and development — has been a missing element in urban policies. There is no civil society initiative exclusively for the benefit of internal migrant workers.

Among South Asian countries, India has the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979, aiming to protect the rights of internal migrants. The law lists the migrant workers’ right to equal wages, right to return home periodically without losing wages, and the right to medical care and housing at the employment site. Though the law is not implemented, it does set the standards for just work conditions for migrant labour.

Also, India has a number of NGOs working for internal migrants. Aajeevika Bureau, Udaipur, provides services to seasonal migrant workers. The Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action, Chittorgarh, helps migrant workers unionise. Labournet, Bangalore, facilitates the registration, training and placement of migrant workers. Rationing Kruti Samiti, a network of NGOs in Mumbai, enables migrant workers to access subsidised rations.

It is time the state in Pakistan responded to the challenge. Universal registration of all workers is the only way to realise the rights of workers. Universal registration of workers, enabling them to access social security benefits, is a doable option in terms of logistics as this registration can be linked with computerised identity cards, establishing the individual’s identity as a worker.

The National Database and Registration Authority is one of the country’s unsung achievements. None of the South Asian countries, including India, has been able to come up with a national registration system as yet. The concept behind the registration system should move beyond national security and population enumeration: it needs to be extended and linked up with rights-based entitlements for wider benefits for the citizens.

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