Three-Way Dialogue

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2017

IN a society where the culture of dialogue is on the retreat and forces of intolerance ascendant at every level and in all relations, be it social, industrial, political or personal, you tend to hold on to small blessings such as the first Sindh Tripartite Labour Conference held seven years after the devolution of labour.

Aside from the pomp, its resemblance to a PPP jalsa and the two-page advertisement in newspapers, a couple of creditable aspects of the conference organised by the Sindh government need to be noted: it did have representation of the three partners in equal strength (state officials, labour activists and industrialists) and the organisers first gave the mike to labour and employers who blasted the state for its inefficiency and lack of political will and put forth a number of recommendations.

The labour demanded that the state activate the tripartite bodies, make the system effective, abolish the National Industrial Relations Court, remove restrictions on unionising and include informal sector workers in the labour welfare schemes. The employers’ representative reminded the government that the 13 labour laws enacted by the province need to be revised as these were a hurried, cut-and-paste job.

The industrialists offered to train labour inspectors in the province and prepare, with tripartite consultation, policies for three sectors — industry, agriculture and mining. It was shared that the government constituted six committees on issues pertinent to labour which made recommendations and presented a road map for implementation; hence a task force be instituted for effective implementation.

Needless to say, the state officials were not pleased with labour’s litany of complaints or the employers’ invocations and told them to change ‘the narrative’ and look at the labour ministry’s achievements (which were listed in the two-page ad in newspapers on the day of the conference).

Adhering the state’s oral culture, no written programme or background material on the conference was shared with the participants who came from all the four provinces to attend what the ILO representative termed a ‘mega event’.

Tripartite social dialogue is considered a key component of smooth industrial relations and productive economy. The process involves consultation, negotiations and consensus on policy issues among three partners — the state, employers and workers — under institutional mechanisms. Though the state has established a number of tripartite mechanisms, it does not confer legal authority on these to enforce implementation on recommendations that come out of the meetings. The role of tripartite consultations is not ensured in the Constitution, nor in a specific law.

Tripartite bodies set up over the period of 70 years include the Tripartite Labour Confe­rence, Labour Standing Committee, Advisory Board, Productivity Council, Minimum Wage Council, provincial minimum wage boards, health and safety councils, National Steering Committee on Bonded Labour and the National Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Lack of a legislative framework has led to diminishing frequency of these consultations. The first Pakistan Tripartite Labour Conference and the Standing Labour Committee were held in 1949. During the earlier decades — 1950s and 1960s — the meetings convened quite regularly and 17 tripartite conferences were arranged by the government between 1949 and 1969; four conferences were held in the 1970s.

Since then, over a period of 37 years, only four Pakistan Tripartite Labour Conferences were organised (1980, 1988, 2001, 2009). After the passage of the 18th Amendment, 2010, national-level mechanisms were abandoned, and the provinces, it seemed, have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The belated holding of the first Sindh Tripartite Labour Conference indicates these mechanisms can still be salvaged.

Tripartite mechanisms need to be revived in earnest by the provinces and made effective through legal empowerment and genuine representation. A missing element among all three social partners is their neglect of gender representation despite a significant component of women in their constituencies, particularly in labour. There was no woman in the conference, except for the ILO representative, among the 15 speakers on the dais representing the Sindh government, the employers and labour. All social partners need to bring out women to speak up on the issues.

An essential prerequisite of effective consultation is the capacity of the participating representatives to understand the point of view of the other partners and analyse complex issues on the agenda (ie wages and income policy, employment dynamics). Sadly, most government departments, inclusive of labour, do not have even a critical mass of capable officials to bear the burden of their incapable colleagues. It is time the Sindh government gave up its policy of recruiting politically favoured candidates of questionable capacity to various posts and of ignoring merit altogether.

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