Published in Dawn on May 26, 2019.
The ever-expanding global textile industry, worth $2.4 trillion according to an estimate, spins countless tales of woes of the workers it employs in millions. We are familiar with stories of abuse suffered by the lower-tier, or blue-collar workers, in many countries, including Pakistan. White-collar or middle-management workers have their own tales to tell, though on the surface their world of work is ‘white’, and not ‘blue’. But corporate greed knows no bounds or colour.
A young educated woman who just resigned from a textile marketing firm told me of a five per cent monthly cut from her salary under the ‘security fund’ her firm keeps in case a worker ‘leaves without notice or commits a mistake’. She, a marketing executive, drawing Rs 60,000 a month, was lucky to get the amount refunded. There had been cases when her firm did not refund the amount to managers and executives with 10 to 20 years of service! The firm does not pay gratuity, provident fund, medical benefits or bonuses, she said. It deducts workers’ contribution for the EOBI, but does not hand over the EOBI card to the employee. She had to submit documents for her case from scratch at the EOBI to maintain her registration.
Though white-collar workers fare better than their blue-collar colleagues in terms of wages and work environment, they suffer from job insecurity, lack of social protection, and long working hours (without the benefit of overtime pay). Hired under short-term contracts, they are deprived of statutory entitlements and subject to peculiar conditions like ‘security fund cut’. As the job market is constrained and unemployment among the young cohort high, educated young people often have no choice but to submit to the whims of the corporate sector.
This category of labour is excluded from the definition of ‘worker’.
Worldwide white-collar workers are facing issues due to structural changes in the global economy and production system. Globalisation has shifted blue-collar jobs to less-developed countries in the last three decades and now increasing automation is leading to a rise in the number of white-collar workers. The corporate world has come up with tactics to squeeze white-collar labour. Hiring on contract through third-party service providers prevails. Contract workers earn less than permanent employees. A study in Germany found engineers on contract arrangement earning 18.4pc less than permanent workers, technicians 18.5pc, and IT experts 22.1pc.
Realisation of the need to organise white-collar workers — professionals and managers — in developed countries has increased in this decade. Historically, trade unions have mobilised blue-collar workers. White-collar workers did not see the need to join or form unions as they did not face the issues that affected blue-collar workers. Things have changed and white-collar workers in several countries are trying to organise themselves to raise a collective voice against unfair labour practices and health and safety issues which include stress, burnout and fear of expressing grievances in a corporate culture that awards toeing the line and keeping silent. Global unions such as IndustriALL and UNI are helping professionals’ unions in Europe. IndustriALL organised the White-Collar World Conference in 2017, where 28 affiliate unions from 18 countries around the world discussed strategies to mobilise young professionals.
In many countries outside Europe, including Pakistan, white-collar workers are excluded from the definition of ‘worker’ in labour legislation and denied the right to form association and collective bargaining. In some European countries, the distinction in labour law for blue-and white-collar workers is being increasingly questioned. As boundaries blur, the distinction between the two types is considered obsolete and discriminatory.
Last year in Finland, some 3,000 managerial and professional staff in the paper industry, united under Trade Union Pro to give a call for a countrywide strike against wage revision. This led the Finnish Forest Industries to retract its unreasonable proposal and the wages were raised. In European countries and North America, industrial unionism is a norm. In an industrial union, all workers, irrespective of the geography of a country and regardless of skill or trade, become members of a single union, giving it strength in voice and numbers.
Of course, it would be preposterous to think about white-collar workers’ mobilisation in Pakistan, where just about 2pc to 3pc of the blue-collar workforce is unionised, and the formation of industrial unions is hindered by weaknesses of a fragmented, divided labour. Analysts see the formation of a countrywide industrial union in the textile sector as a first step towards reawakening the labour movement. Such a union should embrace the workforce in the entire textile chain — from cotton pickers to workers in ginning mills and looms, garment factories and home-based workers.