Published in Dawn on June 6 2018
LONG-HAUL trucks, trailers and big intercity buses — the most noticeable vehicles on the roads, for their mammoth bodies and exotic art — are operated by workers who are the least visible and seldom talked about in Pakistan’s work sphere. It is their workplaces — roads, highways and motorways, bridges and infrastructure — that get all the attention. Policymakers plan projects, allocate resources, inaugurate sections of motorways; citizens complain of potholes, drive fast on newly built roads and dislike heavy vehicles plying the city’s arteries. All the while, transport workers — drivers, conductors, cleaners, helpers — go about their work shadowed by ‘informality’ and play their silent role in the economy.
The transport sector — road, rail, sea and air — is the fifth largest sector in terms of employment following agriculture, services, manufacturing and construction, and it employs six per cent of the total workforce. The sector is dominated by road transportation where workers struggle with low wages, long working hours, poor work conditions, occupational health hazards and lack of social protection. Highly informal and fragmented, the road transport sector is characterised by a weak regulatory framework and non-compliance with labour laws.
Aside from health and safety risks, such as accidents, exposure to dust and fumes, fatigue, musculoskeletal disorders, poor sleep, blood pressure, use of drugs and stimulants, and HIV/AIDS, road transport workers experience stress, humiliation and aggression at the hands of law enforcers and passengers. Besides, there is the risk of vandalism, robbery and vehicle theft where the consequences have to be borne by the workers.
The majority of road transport workers come from the rural areas, pushed out onto the roads due to diminishing livelihood opportunities and consequent rural-to-urban migration. Many tend to enter the sector when their income-generating activities as petty shopkeepers, tailors, goldsmiths, manual labour, cleaners, mechanics etc collapse under the pressure of contingencies such as prolonged illness or loss of assets, or of market forces in the absence of social safety nets.
Prior to devolution, the Road Transport Workers Ordinance, 1961, regulated hours of work and other conditions of employment. The Industrial and Commercial Employment (Standing Orders) Ordinance, 1968, was applicable to road transport services but excluded unregistered small and micro enterprises. The enactment of labour laws by the provinces remains haphazard. The Provincial Motor Vehicles Ordinance, 1965, was amended in Sindh as the Provincial Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2014. The Sindh Terms of Employment Act, 2015, and the Sindh Payment of Wages Act, 2017, include transport workers but there is no implementation of the law as the labour inspectorate lacks the capacity to inspect mobile workplaces. Meanwhile, the draft Sindh Road Transport Act, 2015, has yet to be finalised.
Ideally, regulatory and governance mechanisms of road transportation should be unified and integrated under a central policymaking authority as transport encompasses the length and breadth of the country. Unfortunately, even before the 18th Amendment, transport-sector governance suffered from a plethora of provincial and federal regulatory mechanisms working independently of each other. The confusion might increase as road transportation is expected to grow under CPEC.
The road transport labour force comprises male wage workers and self-employed operators owning a single or more vehicles purchased on loans from moneylenders on exploitative terms. According to the World Bank, 79pc are small entrepreneur owner-operators with one to five vehicles, 20pc own individually or jointly more than 10 vehicles, and only 1pc is composed of large companies with more than 100 vehicles. Due to flawed policies and neglect of the railways, the road network carries the burden of 96pc of freight and 92pc of passenger traffic.
The World Bank has assessed that modernising the sector requires reforms that would impact adversely thousands of non-farm rural and urban poor households. As the transport sector is dominated by one ethnic group, ie Pakhtuns, reforms are likely to create social conflict and would require mitigation, noted the World Bank. One wonders why policymakers cannot come up with worker-friendly reform strategies for the sector aiming for assimilation and transformation rather than uprooting and imposing a new system. The government should opt for ILO Recommendation 204 (transition from an informal to a formal economy) if it wants to address the informal nature of work in the transport sector.
Modernising the transport infrastructure and regional connectivity is a pillar of Vision 2025. But infrastructure is not just about erecting edifices. It entails governance, maintenance and sustainability. If it does not benefit all the stakeholders, it is as good as a dead horse.