Missing trade unions

Published in Dawn on June 16 2014

FOR the cynic, or for a gleeful employer, the trade union is a dying breed, perhaps already dead; for a die-hard optimist, the trade union — like a phoenix — is arising from its own ashes. But dead or alive, trade unions are definitely evolving into newer shapes. Driven to the wall in the current cut-throat, neo-liberal, capitalist era, trade unions are fighting precarious employment and multinational corporations by banding together across the globe.

However, it is not the first time that trade union bodies are coming together. Major international trade union federations had emerged in Europe and the US after the Second World War to claim their rights from the state and national capitalists. Now their adversaries are the powerful multinational corporations and financialised capitalism. Since the beginning of the 21st century, international trade union federations are realigning themselves as global unions and reaching out to workers across continents.

The Council of Global Unions, established in 2007 as a platform for ‘solidarity, mobilisation, joint advocacy and campaigns’ is an alliance of the 11 largest trade union federations, each with global outreach. Just one of the council’s members, the IndustriAll Global Union, founded in 2012, represents 50 million workers in 140 countries. Pakistan is also one of the affiliate countries and 11 trade union federations from Pakistan are affiliated with this global union.

IndustriAll has come up with a new instrument to safeguard workers’ rights. It brings the MNC to sign an agreement with the affiliate trade union body committing itself to complying with labour standards, including the right to collective bargaining. Until now, facilitated by IndustriAll, global framework agreements have been signed with 41 multinational companies protecting the interests of the workers in different countries.


The 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an independent legally binding agreement, signed by over 150 apparel corporations from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, facilitated by two global trade unions, IndustriAll and UNI, is another example of the success of the power of global labour solidarity.

Are the benefits of trade union transformation at the global level filtering down to the local unions in Pakistan? It does not seem to be the case. Trade union density has always been low and is continually declining. There are several reasons for the erosion of trade unionism in Pakistan. Foremost is the disabling legislation and repressive tactics imposed by the state and the employers that make union formation and collective bargaining extremely difficult.

A significant factor contributing to the weakening of trade unions in Pakistan has been globalisation of the economy which has pushed millions of workers into insecure and temporary contractual employment with low wages, poor health and safety conditions and lack of social security benefits.

The worldwide corporate attack on the right to organise and bargain collectively is a fact acknowledged by the International Labour Organisation. The latter believes that precarious employment can only be reduced through the promotion of collective bargaining. A research conducted in 51 countries, covering a period from 1989 to 2005, revealed that income inequality was lower in the countries with a high union density.

Employers in Pakistan use several tactics including harassment, threats and dismissal of workers to weaken or curb union activities. A policy adopted by formal private-sector establishments is to convert non-management employees’ position into management cadre as labour law bars officers from trade union activities. Other crucial factors undermining trade union movement in Pakistan include internal fragmentation within unions, lack of an educated cadre and committed leadership, ethnic and sectarian divide and co-option by political governments.

According to the 2014 International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index of the World’s Worst Countries for Workers, Pakistan is ranked near the bottom at four on a scale of one to five. Workers in countries with the rating of four have reported systematic violations of labour rights. “The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat,” the survey states. In its third World Congress held in May 2014, the ITUC identified Pakistan as one of the 24 countries at risk “experiencing a profound failure to guarantee laws that ensure fundamental rights for all workers”. The ITUC, a global union, has 176 million members with 325 affiliates in 161 countries including Pakistan.

In Pakistan less than 3pc of the workers in the formal sector are organised. Officially, the formal sector accounts for only 27pc of employment. According to the latest available official data, in the year 2008 there were only 1,209 registered trade unions reporting, with a total membership of 245,383.

As formation and registration of trade unions under the Industrial Relations Act is restricted, workers in the informal economy register organisations under the Voluntary Social Welfare Agencies Ordinance 1961. Established on the pattern of traditional community-based, voluntary organisations, workers’ associations have come to play an important role in the labour movement. From hawkers and vendors to workers in small-scale manufacturing and services sectors, the workers come together to pursue collective interests.

Notable in terms of activism and struggles are the workers’ organisations in brick kiln, power looms, glass bangles and the fisheries sectors. Transport is another sector where workers have united in different associations and unions. A powerful labour struggle to emerge in the last decade is of non-unionised agricultural workers under the banner of Anjuman Mazarain Punjab. The benefits of alliance with global unions will accrue when trade unions in Pakistan develop and pursue strategies to connect with non-unionised membership-based organisations and individual workers in the informal sector.

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