Illusion or Reality?

Published in Dawn on February 20 2018

THE low priority accorded to labour is reflected in the timing of the release of the Sindh Labour Policy 2018: a morsel of hope thrown to the people just before the next round of voting begins in July. So egalitarian is the document that you’d think had the government come up with it a few years earlier, the province might be treading the path towards an economy “where assets and incomes are distributed equally” and society is “free from exploitation” as the document spells out the aims of the policy.

The fact that we, the people, excel in surviving on the government’s promises and our own grit, and keep hoping for a better future, was validated by the sentiments of the employers’ and workers’ representatives who played a key role in developing the labour policy. The workers’ representatives are happy that the policy is ‘rights-based, participatory and inclusive’ and embodies the principles outlined in the country’s Constitution and international conventions.

The employers’ spokespersons are proud that the tripartite process they initiated in May 2016 to prepare the draft policy has finally achieved its objective. They are now drafting amendments to key labour laws to be presented to the government in a week so that the laws are reformed — the top priority in the policy — before April. “If there is a will, there is a way” is their motto. “The government is not resisting: it is open to our suggestions,” I am told during a break in a seminar organised by the Employers’ Federation of Pakistan for wider dissemination of the policy among its constituency and to discuss issues and challenges in its implementation.

The credit goes to the Sindh government for it has committed to making labour laws applicable to all areas of the province inclusive of special economic zones, export-processing zones, free trade zones, and to all workers be they formal, informal, “contractual, home-based, domestic, seasonal, etc”. The policy document vows to safeguard rights of vulnerable sections — mine workers, women, child labour, bonded labour and special persons, though it has skipped migrant workers. A strong point of the policy is the importance it has accorded to the strengthening of trade unions, the tripartite mechanism and labour inspection system — three pillars of sound industrial relations “fair to employees and employers”.

The policy also spells out specific institutional arrangements to ensure implementation of labour laws. A standing committee on industrial relations, with equal representation of employers, workers and the government, will be set up to oversee the province’s labour inspection system. Tripartite committees are to be formed in the eight industrial zones in Karachi. The government has already asked employers and trade unions to submit nominations for these committees. A labour market information system is to be introduced within the labour directorate. The policy also acknowledges the importance of wage determination through tripartism and commits to reviving the minimum-wage board. Social protection also figures prominently and the policy document promises to make it universal and institute a one-window arrangement for the contributors to and the beneficiaries of labour welfare institutions.

It all sounds impressive but the tasks are daunting and you wonder if the Sindh government can deliver on its promises it finally made to its workforce after it gained autonomy eight years ago. Since the passage of the 18th Amendment in 2010, none of the provinces deemed it fit to develop a labour policy and address the issues pertinent to industrial relations. Though Sindh took the lead in organising the first provincial tripartite conference and has come up with a labour policy, the province has a weak labour directorate in terms of capacity and resources. It is difficult to envisage the implementation of such an ambitious policy in the absence of a matching fiscal and administrative infrastructure and the prevalent culture of nepotism and corruption. Effective implementation means a paradigm shift in the way government institutions are run in Sindh.

Continuity is key to effective implementation. Would the present chain of command be there even if the PPP remains in power? There is a likelihood the document may be thrown into the dustbin. This can be avoided through an implementation plan with tangible outcomes and a time frame to be pursued without political interference.

A sound labour policy is the first step towards balancing economic efficiency and productivity with equity, justice and welfare of the society. Unless promptly translated into laws, operating rules and guidelines, the labour policy will remain a hollow document. It is hoped that Sindh’s new labour policy with its commitments to democratic values and labour rights does not prove to be a mere façade like past labour policies.

View this article on Dawn’s website

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