Labour and Hope

Published in Dawn on August 3rd 2018

The miserable have no other medicine/ But only hope. — Shakespeare

New legislative bodies are about to be installed at the centre and in the provinces, and amid controversies and misgivings, the common citizens are heaving a sigh of relief that the democratic process continues. Meanwhile, civil society groups, professional associations and collective forums are engaging in closed-door consultations with their members on how to advocate policies that matter the most to them in a setup and that have gone from bad to worse.

Powerful bodies, like chambers of commerce and industries, the employers’ federations, would have their own projections of the future policy and institutional environment, but the trade union bodies — greatly shrunk in number and strength — have nothing but hope to hold on to in their struggles.

Change of government is often viewed by social actors as a window of opportunity opening up to catalyse their campaigns. The situation is not akin to a ‘window of opportunity’ due to the deeply flawed sociopolitical structures in the country, but yet the workers’ representatives feel they need to put up the case for labour reforms with vigour at the federal and provincial level.

Change of government is often viewed as a window of opportunity.

Devolution of labour, it emerges, has led to further divisiveness among the trade unions in terms of goal-setting. Workers in the provinces seem to be preoccupied with immediate issues such as the different pace and lack of reforms in the adoption of federal laws, variations in the capacity of provincial departments, and unresolved issues of key labour welfare institutions.

Yet the trade unions are preparing to put up their demands to the incumbent governments hoping to further their struggle. “What is struggle if not hope? All struggles are based on hope,” says a senior trade unionist, Sultan Khan of Quetta. He thinks employment generation is the topmost issue in Balochistan. There is no industry in Quetta and the agricultural land is turning fast into concrete buildings. Quetta, one of the 10 poorest cities in the country, suffers from water shortage.

Also, Sultan contends, none of the past governments paid attention to population control, a critical issue of the country. Specifically, trade unions in the province are gearing up to push for a new draft of the Balochistan Industrial Relations Act, 2010, as it is based on the same restrictive framework as earlier laws. The Balochistan Mines (Amendment) Act 2011 also needs to be improved and the Mines Rules 1923 must be devised anew. The trade unions will also push for amendments in the IRA 2012, he says.

Gul Rehman, a senior trade union leader in KP, thinks that the main issue is of the rule of law. Labour laws exist but implementation is missing. There has been no increase in real wages for many years and the rising inflation makes it difficult for the worker to make ends meet. Rehman does not expect much from the second term of the PTI in KP. He thinks Imran Khan can do it but he may not address the workers’ grievances because he has not mentioned the trade unions even once in his entire election campaign. “It seems the PTI is not willing to accept the trade unions.”

The most marginalised workers of Anjuman-i-Mazarain Punjab sounded hopeful despite repression they continue to suffer and the complicated political scenario in the biggest province. The peasants’ movement has voted for those candidates who have stood with their cause, both from the PML-N and the PTI. Aqila Naz, from Okara, has said that the AMP activists met Imran Khan before the elections with their demand for land ownership rights.

The second demand on their agenda is the release of the AMP leaders from jail. Aqila thinks that though the PTI is believed to have the support of the army, yet justice for all and the rule of law is on the party’s manifesto. Hence the AMP is hopeful things may turn out in their favour.

The trade union bodies and the workers’ representatives in Sindh are happy at the continuity of the PPP government and hopeful that now they may succeed in pressurising the provincial government to implement the rights-based, participatory and inclusive Sindh Labour Policy 2018 announced in February this year. “It was the first time that the implementation committees formed by the Sindh government included representatives of the informal sector workers,” says Mirza Maqsood, a veteran trade unionist.

The splintered labour movement may also, perhaps, attend to the core issues beyond provincial agendas. May be it is time for labour spokespersons to seize the ‘window of opportunities’ and demand an inclusive framework for labour laws at the national level, a blueprint to harmonise laws across provinces, laws that cohere with the Constitution of the country and the international labour standards.

View this article on Dawn’s website.

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