Coolies on Contract

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2016

“…Every acquisition that is disproportionate to the labour spent on it is dishonest.”

— Leo Tolstoy

BRONZED-FACED, wearing faded red shirts with a number stitched in white, soaked in sweat, coolies old and young sit astride a pavement under the scorching sun, waiting for passengers to arrive at the Karachi Cantonment Railway Station. A few balance loads of luggage on their red turbans as they walk briskly towards the platform. A precarious livelihood, you might say. Indeed it is, and worse: coolies have to pay a 30pc commission to their contractor from their meagre daily earnings, plus a monthly fee of Rs750 — sans any workplace facilities.

Yet the contractor is not satisfied: he wants his cut raised to 40pc. Sounds outrageous?

This is the bitter truth of contract labour in Pakistan. Its diverse manifestations, hidden and ambiguous employment relations, exploitative terms and conditions, and co-opting by the state, render the ills of contract labour invisible. The coolies, highly visible in railway stations, are at the bottom tier of contractual labour. Unskilled, hailing from marginalised communities, they are not counted among the 85,000 employees of Pakistan Railways.

The contracts to supply coolies are auctioned by the railway authorities. Terms and conditions of the contracts are known only to the contractors and state officials, and not shared with coolies. The contractors extract profits, exorbitant and disproportionate to the effort put into labour management, from the sweat of coolies.

It is not just contract labour, but the entire world of labour, which is kept in secrecy. When one visits the official website for Pakistan Railways, one finds ample details of physical infrastructure, capital investments, operations, services, and all kind of systems — but there is hardly any mention of its workforce, of those who keep the wheels of this huge public utility turning. What the terms and conditions, skills and experiences, benefits and entitlements of labour are is never shared.

So, how do contractual workers confront the injustice meted out to them at the workplace? Through collective bargaining. After many failed attempts at dialogue, it is only through collective resistance that workers advocate for their rights. There is no union of coolies in Pakistan. None of the many trade unions of the railway employees have inducted coolies into their ranks — because coolies are on contract.

Nonetheless, large numbers of coolies went on strike recently in Karachi to resist their contractor’s unfettered greed. Unfortunately, the state is also complicit in sabotaging labour rights; not only were the coolies beaten by the contractor’s henchmen, they were also subsequently detained by the police. An FIR was registered against them on fake charges. Currently on bail (courtesy a group of young activists), the coolies, out of work, are now embroiled in a court case.

Earlier, up until 2000, Pakistan Railways operated a different kind of contract system. The coolies were given individual licences, and were required to pay an annual fee to their contractor, rather than have daily cuts from their earnings. Since there is hardly any reliable research available on the coolie contract system, either old or current, it is not possible to be specific — yet it can be inferred that the earlier system was less exploitative.

In Pakistan, there is no specific law to regulate the terms and conditions of contractual work. Although the definition of ‘worker’ (outlined in the Factories Act, 1934, and the Industrial and Commercial Employment Ordinance, 1968) includes both workers who are employed directly, and those employed through an agency, employers often subvert these laws through different tactics.

In Indian railways, coolies fare much better. The coolie obtains a licence directly from the Indian Railways authorities to earn a living as a porter, which is awarded under the following process: vacancies for porters are announced in the media, interviews are held by a panel, and then the selected candidates are given their licences along with certain terms and conditions.

While coolies do not receive facilities of pensions, gratuities, or insurance, they are entitled to certain privileges such as travel passes for themselves and spouses, outpatient medical facilities at railway hospitals, free use of trolleys, and access to coolie shelters for rest. It is important to note, although minimal, these privileges were not presented on a silver platter — they came through the collective struggles of a strong coolie union in India. Indian Railways recently renamed the post of coolie — which implies a colonial slur — to the Hindi word ‘sahayak’ (helper).The word ‘coolie’ is derogatory, and does not reflect the image of a modern railway which India wants to portray.

Pakistan Railways is also aspiring to improve its image; through privatisation. It is time railway unions ally together as a united force, taking into its fold all workers, both regular and contract (and including coolies), and prepare for strong collective bargaining.

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