Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2021
Mountains and valleys evoke beautiful images in the mind of big city dwellers, of peace and quiet, lightness of being, and the absence of the madding crowd. We presume the life of the people who live inside the fascinating landscape to be as blissful. Once you are there, it does not take much to realise that the people living at the edge — where the land merges into mighty mountain ranges — face immense hardship.
Mountain people depend on subsistence agriculture, wage labour, circulatory labour migration, tourism and mountaineering services for survival. Opportunities for government employment are limited. Most households survive on a combination of livelihoods. The people of Shigar and Ghanche districts, whom I met during a trip to Skardu, talked of many challenges. These included the absence of livelihood opportunities except tourism, scarcity of water, poor road networks, inadequate social infrastructure, climate change and frequent landslides.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2021
Standard employment, the long-term work arrangement with one employer, pension and benefits, is vanishing. The pandemic has made the process faster. Non-standard, exploitative forms of employment have existed since ages and remain the dominant arrangement in capitalist societies. The only difference is that another category called ‘gig’ has been added to the existing irregular, contractual, temporary or on-call arrangements. The unifying factor for non-standard arrangements is that none provides protection to workers. Gig workers constitute a significant number of those impacted by Covid-19’s economic fallout in the Western world and Asia.
‘Gig work’ refers to non-standard employment on precarious contracts with digital on-demand platforms. The nature of work varies on the basis of different types of IT-based work platforms. Crowd-work platforms outsource online clerical tasks (eg data entry, business consulting) to a dispersed crowd of workers. Location-based platforms (eg Careem, FoodPanda, AirLyft) allocate offline manual work, such as delivery or transport services, to individuals in a specific geographical area. Online tasks which require a certain level of education appear to be less exploitative than offline manual work.
Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2021
No aspect of labour economy is as divisive and as controversial as minimum wage. On one side are economists and employers who think minimum wage creates distortion in the labour market, leads to unemployment and lowers productivity. Add to this the anti-poor section who thinks the poor are lazy, illiterate and deserve low wages! On the other side are sociologists, political economists, pro-poor policymakers who think all human beings have a right to a decent living and thus need a wage floor to put their feet on the ground so as not to fall into the abyss of poverty.
Debate on minimum wage has intensified in the 21st century since the American economists challenged the classical view and presented empirical evidence that minimum wage increases do not have adverse effect on employment in Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage in 1995. Factors which impact productivity are workers’ education and skills and technology. However, these topics, worthy of greater debate in Pakistan, do not receive as much attention or ignite sentiments as does minimum wage.
Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2021
The key elements of neoliberal policies — free market, minimal state intervention and flexible labour — hinge on a crucial principle which, according to Noam Chomsky, is “undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy”. Yet, despite the crushing creed of neoliberalism that gives precedence to individual ‘freedom’ over collective agency, strong resistance to neoliberal hegemony is alive and kicking in the world.
One such voice you find at home is of the Anjuman-i-Mazarain Punjab where apparently ‘all is quiet’ since its general secretary Abdul Sattar Mehar was acquitted in September 2020 after four years of incarceration. The Anjuman’s struggle against corporatisation of farms is ongoing as successive governments have not granted them land ownership. It has been two decades since tenant-cultivators in Okara and the adjoining districts took control of the farms and stopped paying rent.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2021.
Just six months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, trade unions had reiterated the urgency of protecting workers’ rights on a global platform and warned against “an unprecedented level of income inequality, shrinking democratic space and an age of anger where corporations have too much power and people too little”. This was at the 100th conference of the International Labour Organisation held in May 2019.
Then came the pandemic which wreaked havoc on peoples’ lives and livelihoods across the board. In Asia-Pacific alone, about 81 million jobs were lost by December 2020. Cases of violations of workers and trade unions’ rights with regard to lay-offs, working hours and the payment of wages increased manifold.
Though trade unions have weakened globally in the 21st century, their role is still considered vital in promoting equity and stability in society and their participation essential in tripartite and bipartite social policy dialogues. Trade union density across the world varies from high (90.4 per cent in Iceland) to medium (43.2pc in Egypt) to low (12.6pc in India) and very low (2.3pc in Pakistan).
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2020
If you spend a few days in Hunza Valley, you are struck by its natural beauty. Karakoram’s unique mountain range, high peaks, glaciers, lakes, orchards, flora and fauna take your breath away at every curve of the road, every nook and corner. But what really wins your heart are its people: soft spoken, friendly, hospitable and educated. The literacy rate in Hunza is 97 per cent —the highest in Pakistan — and most of the young have professional degrees.
Women are empowered. You find them going about their tasks, with their heads covered and chins up, on the Karakoram Highway, running dhabasand resorts along with their husbands, managing orchards and maintaining households. You even find a classy café — Kha Basi — near Altit Fort, Karimabad, run by a team of 10 women! Hunza is a valley where women travelling alone or in groups of two or more feel safe. I thought: how wonderful, if you want to feel good about Pakistan, visit Hunza Valley.
Published in Dawn on December 29 2019
The recent verdict by a French court on ‘moral harassment’ of employees has set a major precedent in an era of turbulent global economic liberalisation. While the criminal trial against the French telecom exposes tactics of corporate culture — merciless downsizing leading to workers’ suicides — the verdict reveals the strength and role of trade unions in holding corporations accountable.
Cynics might ask what a First World dispute between managerial staff and employers has to do with Pakistan, a country where managerial cadre is deprived of the basic right to form a union, where trade unionism is no more than a weak whimper and labour disputes take years to decide. Well, it gives us hope — an increasingly rare commodity these days — that the verdict might make corporations across the globe rethink ‘corporate social responsibility’.
Published in Dawn on November 26 2019
Our mutual value is for us the value of our mutual objects. Hence for us, man himself is mutually of no value. — Karl Marx
There’s quite a bit of information available if you wish to learn about the state of our country’s various industries. The origin, growth, material assets and level of technology, capital investment and revenue generation, production, sales and profit margin, constraints and challenges, vision and policies of each industry are documented, debated and analysed.
You may also find some academic research on a specific industry. What would elude you —almost entirely — is any clue about the workforce itself: those who manufacture the product and make the industry. The narrative of industrial growth, stagnation and decline seems to be without a human face.
Published in Dawn on July 3, 2019.
IN this age of globalisation, multinational corporations hold a vital place in the world’s port industry as 80 per cent of the global trade is handled by maritime transportation. Ports the world over are now increasingly being developed and operated by the MNCs for container terminal services in an environment of deregulation. With the privatisation of ports and globalisation of trade, a race to the bottom has come about in labour standards for workers.
So the union busting by the South Asia Port Terminal, Karachi, a subsidiary of the Hutchison Ports, is business as usual. Through the internet, the SAPT Democratic Workers’ Union does have supporters in the world hence the news of sacking of the union members four weeks ago was circulated and a signature campaign ‘Reinstate the Karachi 8’ was launched by the LabourStart, a global network of over 700 volunteers who devote their time and effort to support labour.
Published in Dawn on June 11, 2019.
The textile industry the world over poses many hazards to workers, such as musculoskeletal disorders and exposure to chemicals, dust, fibres, noise, vibration, and dangerous machinery. In addition to mechanical and chemical hazards, fires pose the greatest risk, particularly in developing economies with substandard building structures. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure workplace safety through national safety regulations, along with inspection and compliance mechanisms. South Asian states, however, tend to abdicate this crucial responsibility — which may result in workers losing their lives and limbs.