Workers in FATA

Published in Dawn November 28th, 2016

FOR decades, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) presented an image of its people as fierce, loyal to tribal customs, and living under the harsh colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), 1901. Later, this image was replaced with that of the militants and religious extremists at war with the state and amongst themselves.

Far from the area, we somehow failed to imagine them as ordinary people like ourselves going about life, struggling to earn a livelihood and dreaming of a better tomorrow — but in a war-torn region whilst yearning to be free of the FCR.

The recent news of workers being prohibited from mining in Mohmand Agency as punishment for not maintaining peace in the area under the collective responsibility clause of the FCR provides a glimpse into the harsh conditions dominating labour in Fata. There have been very few livelihood opportunities in the region to begin with, and the mining of marble and coal comes next to subsistence farming and livestock rearing.

According to one estimate, a workforce of 30,000 is engaged in the mining sector in Fata; more than half of this labour toils in 2,000 marble mines and 500 marble factories. Most of the factories are located in Safi, Mohmand Agency, where the ban was imposed recently.

The already meagre livelihood opportunities have greatly shrunk since the military operation began in the area. According to a 2015 assessment done by the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Unit of the Fata Secretariat in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 95 per cent of the displaced families who returned home to Bara Tehsil, Khyber Agency, reported damaged or totally destroyed livelihoods; 93pc were burdened with debt taken to tide over the displacement crisis. Agriculture, once the primary source of livelihood, is no more: now, 40.1pc of the households here eke out a living from non-agricultural, low-wage labour.

As the country’s labour laws do not apply to Fata, the terms and conditions of work are even more precarious there than in the rest of the country. In 2013, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor proposed extending the Workers Welfare Fund Ordinance, 1971, to the area for the benefit of local workers and their families, but it was not done. Per Fata’s official website, 158 laws have been extended to Fata over the years. Only two relate to labour: the Mines Act, 1923 (applicable only to tribal regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and the Employment of Children Act, 1991.

The country has paid a huge price for letting the people of Fata suffer under the FCR and not integrating it in the national mainstream for the past 70 years: left to its own devices and to the mercy of political agents, the tribal region turned into a haven for militancy and extremism. The impact of the ‘war on terror’ on the people has been immense in terms of human and material losses and the displacement of population. It seems it has also shaken up a system rotten to the core — people have become politically conscious and demand access to rights as citizens.

The government constituted the Fata Reforms Committee in November 2015 after MNAs from Fata presented a bill in parliament to amend Article 247 of the Constitution. The report submitted by the committee in August 2016 proposed “concurrent and parallel actions” during a five-year transitional period that include the rule of political agencies, the retention of the jirga system and the replacement of the FCR by the Tribal Areas Rewaj Act.

It is clear that the government wants to keep the status quo. There is consensus among all stakeholders that the best option is to merge Fata with KP. How can this merger take place if Fata is to remain under the FCR?

While reading the report you wonder how the proposed so-called changes would benefit the common people, ie the workforce. What you read between the lines is the preservation of the role and rule of jirgas, the maliks, the elites and the political agents, and the continued disempowerment of the people. The report has rightly received criticism from several circles.

The debate generated on Fata in mainstream political discourse offers an opportunity to trade unionists and human rights activists in the four provinces to mobilise opinion for the empowerment of people living in the mountainous region. KP has a number of trade unions and informal workers’ groups in several sectors.

As Fata may eventually be part of KP, it is time workers’ unions and groups start consultations with different sections of labour in Fata and initiate the process of induction. Also, it is time to get rid of the word ‘tribal’ people from our nomenclature. The people residing in the valleys and the mountains are citizens of Pakistan, and that’s it.

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