Core and Periphery

Published in Dawn on December 31st, 2016

“People resist exploitation. They resist as actively as they can, as passively as they must.” — Immanuel Wallerstein

IN his world system analysis, Wallerstein speaks of a multiplicity of political systems which gives capitalists a “freedom of manoeuvre that is structurally based”.

This analysis explains how the system works when the core (rich) countries export waste to peripheral (poor) economies in the shape of decaying ships. It is the core (industrialist-state) nexus in the peripheral country itself which benefits at the expense of its peripheral (marginalised) labour. A follow-up of the disaster at the Gadani ship-breaking yard in Balochistan validates the premise.

The government’s response to the deadly fire during the dismantling of a ship has whittled down to compensation to the families of the dead workers, as indicated by the coverage of a meeting held recently at Gadani after another incident of fire at Yard No.60. A seven-member committee was formed to ‘distribute the cheques’.

No other point of the terms of reference for the committee was mentioned by the official who had given orders for arrest of the chairman of the Pakistan Ship-Breakers Association immediately after the November accident.

The whereabouts of the owner of the ship-breaking company, who brought the ship and had gone missing, were not divulged. Neither was the meeting told what happened to the contractor who was arrested or what was the progress of the case filed on behalf of the government at the Gadani police station on Nov 2. Regulatory measures and labour inspection were not even mentioned. Generalised comments were made on legislation to ‘ensure protection of labour rights’.

So it is business as usual at the ship-breaking yard, sans accountability — because accountability does not fit into the political systems of the peripheral country we live in.

In 2012, civil society’s activism and its take on holding the industrialists accountable for the deaths of 258 workers in the Baldia garment factory disaster did create a ripple for a while, as the owner of the factory was put behind bars for criminal negligence for some time but then set free on bail (later a person belonging to a political party was charged with arson).

Labour and human rights groups had filed two constitutional petitions in pursuit of accountability. The victims’ families were compensated by the government and the MNC after a long struggle. But accountability does not suit the system, hence safety and health conditions in the garment factories have remained precarious by and large. Sadly, social and political structures dominated by the core elite obstruct the rule of law and sustain the culture of impunity.

Expectations of improved labour compliance raised at the onset of the GSP-Plus trade regime have come to naught. It has been three years since GSP-Plus status was granted in January 2014 but the situation on the ground has not changed. In the first assessment of the GSP, released in early 2016, the EU had noted implementation of the ILO core standards “…remains a problem for all laws and policy areas in Pakistan. … Only about 340 labour inspectors cover the entire Pakistan and they have been accused of corruption and of collusion with employers.” The EU, in line with the core-periphery analysis, chose to put the blame on the weaker party (labour inspectors) and avoided holding the employers directly accountable.

In early 2016, the government embarked to reform the labour administration system under the ILO-assisted project, ‘Strengthening National Capacity for ILS Compliance in Pakistan’, and carried out an assessment of labour inspection in the provinces. The draft report, shared with few stakeholders in mid-2016, was an objective situation analysis reflecting on the grim status of labour inspection and presented valuable recommendations for a strong labour inspection system.

The assessment highlighted the role of the federal government as crucial for monitoring of implementation of labour laws in the provinces. The year has ended and there is no follow-up.

A two-year project, ‘Sustaining GSP-Plus Status by Strengthened National Capacities to Improve ILS Compliance and Reporting’, was also initiated in January 2016 with ambitious objectives, including facilitation of the “…labour laws reform process”. Apparently the donor-funded projects on themes of labour and human rights do not have any impact on the ground. Unless the will to change emanates from within the body politic, projects tend to work as cosmetics.

The federal government has failed to formulate a national policy, national system, and a national programme on occupational health and safety as required under the ILO Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187).

There has been no follow-up on the draft Sindh Health and Safety Act, 2015 and the draft Sindh Health and Safety Policy, 2015. The outcomes of the ILO-assisted Joint Action Plan for Promoting Workplace Safety and Health in Sindh (2013-2016) are not known. There probably is none.

There are no signs that the world system will change in the near future. The rich countries of hegemonic core are likely to continue dumping their waste to the periphery. Peripheral countries are left to devise their own strategies to survive waste and fight entropy.

Demonic, hazards-laden ships will keep coming to Gadani for dismantling and marginalised labour will continue to risk their lives and limbs. What both — the elite and the labour — can do is to make efforts to curb adverse impacts of this activity.

National regulatory frameworks should be in place, implemented through a strong regime of labour inspection. Accountability and transparency in the ship-breaking business must be ensured. Ship-breaking yards should be open to inspection by trade unions, human rights groups and NGOs working on environment.

View the article on Dawn‘s website: https://www.dawn.com/news/1305438/core-and-periphery

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