Published in Dawn on December 31 2017
WORK on the high-profile China-Pakistan Economic Corridor appears to be in full swing since implementation began in October 2015. While a lot has been disseminated on the quantum of investments, loans and repayments, and potential contribution to the country’s GDP, there is lack of information on a key player — labour: the workforce that is building, and will be building and running the projects under CPEC.
Human labour is mentioned but mostly as ‘employment generation’ or ‘creation of jobs’, and hence pushed out of sight in the CPEC narrative. Even the muted and cautious debate on CPEC as a manifestation of Chinese economic imperialism focuses on socio-cultural impacts and remains silent on labour. Questions raised by several scribes in the media have yet to be addressed by CPEC officials.
According to various estimates, CPEC projects would generate between 400,000 to 700,000 jobs during 2015-2030. Apart from numbers and general assumptions, there is hardly anything on labour in the discourse on CPEC. One can view the categories and number of jobs (mostly professional, technical, administrative, skilled) in advertisements on a local website, and also learn about efforts towards skilling of the labour force by the Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority, Punjab.
Missing is the analysis of the impact of CPEC on prevalent practices and conditions vis-à-vis labour. How would CPEC, the biggest development assistance ever received by Pakistan, affect labour? Would such large-scale employment in a mammoth enterprise dent the aspect of informality of labour? Will trends in employment laws be affected by the incoming investment? How would labour respond to CPEC’s need for higher productivity? Will its projects offer an opportunity to our unorganised labour to reinvent itself?
On the face of it, the labour that is employed to work on the infrastructure and energy projects is being regulated under domestic labour laws which suffer from weak implementation. Several special economic zones coming up under CPEC are to be regulated under the Special Economic Zones Act, 2012 whose Article 30 makes all labour laws of Pakistan applicable to SEZs. The construction phase of the infrastructure and energy projects requires a large number of contract and subcontracted workers. CPEC’s official website lists eight infrastructure and 15 energy projects in various phases of completion/implementation. Project-specific details on the website do not include any information on the workforce.
Four energy projects (three wind farms in Sindh and one coal-based power plant in Punjab) became operational in 2017. Of the four rail-based mass transit projects, Lahore’s Orange Line Train Project is in the construction phase. Since construction began two years ago, there have been reports of about 100 on-site deaths and injuries. Causes of fatal accidents include falling from a height, electrocution, collapsing structures and fire at the makeshift residences of low-tiered workers. In early 2016, Chinese and Pakistani consultants met to discuss the higher rate of accidents. It was noted that the contractors were not implementing the health, safety and environment plan. Despite the concern of officials, nothing changed.
Similar to construction, energy transmission and distribution sector is also fraught with danger and strong safety measures are required. There has been no news of work-related accidents for CPEC energy projects because there is no mechanism for reporting and documenting accidents. In addition, energy projects are installed at some distance from settlements, hence away from the public eye, while the Orange Line is in the city, visible and within the media’s reach.
The majority of our workforce is poorly educated and unskilled. Employers and contractors do not ensure safety standards or provide safety training to workers. There seem to be no plans to improve and extend education. The literacy rate was stagnant at 58 per cent in 2017 as in the preceding year while gross enrolment rate declined by 3pc.
CPEC projects are in their early phase of implementation and the SEZs are in the planning stage. Though trade unions are fewer and weaker, trade union federations are aplenty, affiliated with international federations and with representation in many tripartite bodies. It is time they came together to discuss opportunities and challenges posed by CPEC.
Civil society groups and labour organisations should facilitate workers (as they did in the case of GSP Plus) to advocate for compliance in CPEC projects, demand transparency, raise awareness and campaign for universal education and skill training. CPEC officials should add a labour advisory group in the institutional framework currently comprising five working groups, and provide regular briefings on its policies on labour and healthy, safety and environment to allay public concerns.