Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2016
AS you drive down the Super Highway, past Sohrab Goth in Karachi, your eyes fall on mammoth excavators — huge truck cranes, bulldozers, loaders and cement-mixers parked left and right in the open katcha land. Around the dangerous-looking machinery you spot drivers and cleaners in faded shalwar kameez squatting and chatting, or resting on charpoys.
In between are patches of dust and bushes, raiti-bajri adda with mounds of gravel, stand-by trucks and junkyards full of rusted vehicles. The first thought that springs to your mind: ‘Construction business is booming is Pakistan!’ Indeed, the machinery, high-rises, upcoming residential schemes, underpasses and flyovers — all highly visible — are indicative of the 7pc growth rate of the construction industry and its 2.4pc contribution to the country’s GDP.
What remains invisible to the public eye, however, are the terms of employment for the 4.5 million workers in the construction industry who constitute 7.3pc of the total labour force of 61.1m. These low-tiered workers include masons, labourers, steel-fixers, scaffolders, plant and machine operators, fitters, welders, electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters, and tile-fixers.
As the industry generates seasonal or project-based work, they are almost all footloose workers from low-income communities in southern Punjab, Sindh and KP; shuttling from one project to another, living on on-site camps or in makeshift arrangements, and earning an average of Rs12,032 per month (according to the latest Pakistan Labour Force Survey).
Given the nature of the work, construction jobs in developed countries are some of the highest-paying due to the risks involved. Not so in Pakistan where the majority of workers have low levels of education and skills, and are unable to negotiate and claim entitlements.
The construction sector is the second-most dangerous sector (after agriculture) in Pakistan in terms of occupational health and safety. The number of workers who succumb to fatal accidents annually — in incidents ranging from falling from heights, being struck by falling objects and moving vehicles, to excavation-, demolition- and machinery-related accidents, electrocutions, fires and explosions — is not documented in the official survey.
The survey only notes the rate of occupational injuries, which has risen in the construction industry from 14.1pc in 2013-2014 to 16.3pc in 2014-2015. An increase in industrial accidents of 2.2pc in one year reflects harshly on the disregard meted out by powerful stakeholders (ie the state and construction tycoons) for the health and safety of their workers.
The state and the employers are also similarly unconcerned with the lack of schooling and low skill levels of the workers. No plans are in motion for universal, free education, let alone for the expansion of skills development. Globally, construction work is tagged as: ‘dirty, difficult and dangerous’. Work in this sector here has become increasingly unsafe. According to official data, the extent of informality in the construction industry has increased from 13.8pc in 2005 to 16.4pc in 2015.
The industry has a minuscule core of permanent employees while about 90pc of the remaining workforce is informal — with no healthcare, paid leave and social security. The industry operates largely through subcontracting and, according to the ILO, “the practice of employing labour through subcontractors has had a profound effect upon occupational safety and health”.
Subcontractors do not enforce the use of personal protective equipment. It is true that workers are reluctant to use safety gears due to ignorance and lack of training, but this does not absolve project owners and site management of their responsibility to provide safety training and implement safety procedures.
Another impact of the increasing informality in construction identified by the ILO is that it undermines collective bargaining agreements and contributes to the absence of labour unions. Of the three partners in the industry — the state as policymaker-regulator, the industrialists who invest in capital, and the workers who invest their labour — the state and the industrialists have mechanisms in place to safeguard their interests, to consult each other, and to plan strategies for improving profits and products.
In Pakistan the construction industry has several federations and associations, such as the Construction Association of Pakistan, or the Builders Association of Pakistan, who work collectively to protect their own interests.
Why can’t construction workers, or workers in any industry for that matter, be allowed to form their own associations — a constitutional right — in order to collectively safeguard their interests? The answer is that labour laws in Pakistan are deliberately designed to curb the formation of industry-wide unions inclusive of all workers, irrespective of skill, craft or occupation. Does this not sound unjust, mean, repressive and undemocratic? A government cannot call itself ‘democratic’ without giving space for the flourishing of democratic institutions at all levels of society.