Modern Labour

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2016

The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. — Antonio Gramsci

THE old world of the labour movement started unravelling in the 1990s when finance and production went global, kicked up by unbridled capitalism. In the new system of production, traditional labour relations — characterised by long-term employment, job security and workers’ representation — fell apart. In developing countries, union density plummeted. Was it the end of organised labour? Or, have new forms of labour solidarity started filling the vacuum?

Employers and governments, the two power­­ful stakeholders, may be disappointed but the reality is that the labour movement around the world is reinventing itself. Due to industrial restructuring, union membership is declining but labour, now fluid, is gaining in allies.

Wealth and income inequality, unleashed by globalisation and the new world order, have led to an expansion of the ‘working class’. Self-employed, part-time and contract workers, unemployed youth, citizens questioning in­equa­­­lity (such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and the World Social Forum), marginalised groups, political conflict-driven migrants and refugees are swelling the numbers of the victims of the new economic-political structure and distorted labour relations.

But would this large number of diversified groups coalesce into a unified labour movement? Most likely not. But, say analysts, labour has taken on the challenge of globalisation and, as stated by sociologist Ronaldo Munck, “… generated a whole range of innovative responses as well as a steadily increasing flow of critical analysis”.

These innovations cut across local, national, regional and global levels and include the formation of global unions and federations, social partnerships with multinationals, alliances with informal workers, trade unions supporting migrant-led associations, the emergence of the International Peasants Movement and other global justice and solidarity movements.

In Pakistan, labour density is less than 2pc and that too is in disarray. The term ‘trade union’ stands discredited not only by employers and the state but also by the public. The minuscule segment called ‘trade unions’ is fast retreating in the face of revived privatisation. Informal workers’ unions confront a strong backlash from the state as is evident in the recent treatment meted out to the leaders of the Okara peasants.

How, in this dark scenario, can we hope for the re-emergence of labour solidarity in Pakistan? To answer this, you have to go to the grass roots and search for new sprouting. The power loom workers’ movement in Punjab, their alliance with brick kiln workers, Lady Health Workers’ struggle across the provinces, military farms peasants’ resistance, trade unions’ efforts for survival, rights-based community service groups’ eagerness to partner with labour groups and millions of unheard voices against unjust terms and conditions of work provide ground for an alternative vision of labour solidarity.

These diverse responses indicate a vibrant labour resistance at the lower tier of informal employment in key sectors — textile, construction, agriculture, health.

The workers at the middle occupational tier — with slightly better terms and conditions, equipped with technical or administrative skills — are also reeling under globalisation. They acquiesce, have no collective agency or strategy to connect with, but gain from the energy of lower-tier workers.

For even formal-sector workers employed in remunerative banking and finance and technology sectors, working conditions are precarious. Mostly on contract, they are required to put in long working hours and put up with the whims of employers.

Speaking of work hours, the brave new world of labour has come full circle back to 200 years. In 1817, the demand for the eight-hour workday was first raised in Britain. It took decades of struggle for workers in different countries to achieve this right. On May 1, 1886, workers in Chicago took to the streets in their thousands demanding the eight-hour workday and suffered state repression on May 4. In 1889, May 1, being observed today, was declared international Labour Day, symbolising workers’ resistance and solidarity across the globe.

Though there is no revival of workplace organising in Pakistan and the alliances between workers and other social partners are fraught with internal divisions and petty competitions, circumstances still require serious examination of the labour question.

What is currently needed is articulation and analysis of trends in labour resistance and acquiescence. Discourse on the topic, at the moment scant in Pakistan, would facilitate labour to reflect, strategise and innovate. Labour studies should be made part of aca­demic courses in disciplines such as economy, political science, sociology, anthropology and history. Currently, there is no centre of excellence in labour studies in any of the universities in the country.

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