Published in Dawn on January 24, 2019.
The recent success of the Port Qasim dock workers’ union in claiming due rights after months of struggle is worthy of our attention for three reasons. Foremost is the fact that this is the first time workers took an open stand against rights violations committed by a Chinese company working for a CPEC project. Secondly, the way the dock workers’ union garnered solidarity of a larger representation of trade unions and civil society reflected positively on the unionised labour in Karachi ports and the trade union movement no matter how weak it stands in the current neoliberal environment. Thirdly, it provides an opportunity to take stock of labour legislation and international standards compliance in our ports.
Published in Dawn on October 14, 2018.
The recent debate on brick kilns as a site of pollution, spurred by the Environment Protection Department (EPD) Punjab’s decision to close down the kilns during winter for 70 days, brings in to focus an aspect other than bonded labour generally associated with brick kilns. Based on a technology (Fixed Chimney Bull’s Trench Kiln, or FCBTK) as old as 1876, an estimated 11,500 brick kilns in Pakistan are run on coal and bonded labour. The pollution caused by their high emissions of black carbon from coal burning is linked with asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, posing risks for more than one million bonded labour involved in brick making. It is also leads to the smog impacting the cities. Considering the fact that we are a nation that hankers for ‘change’ yet resists it, it surprises no one that in this sector there is resistance to change in both technology and its exploitative labour relations.
Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2017
OF all categories of occupations, the most invisible and least talked about work in our country is sanitation or management of human refuse, wastewater, effluents and solid waste. According to a 2015 World Bank estimate, 64 per cent of Pakistan’s population has access to improved sanitation facilities which include pit latrines, composting toilets and flush/pour flush services.
In our urban centres, sewage is conveyed through underground sewer networks to treatment plants (rarely) or directly to the water bodies (mostly). Managing human refuse of some 200 million people requires a significant number of workers even if the available facilities do not serve the entire population. So, who are these people who carry out sanitation tasks at hundreds of tehsil municipal administrations, some municipal corporations and thousands of union councils? Do they have a voice?
Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2017
THE world of labour has gone through great turbulence. Globalisation, restructuring, deregulation of economies and technological changes have reshaped labour relations. Precarious, informal employment and diverse contractual forms of work have replaced traditional permanent employment.
The supply chain production system has left the workforce dispersed in various unconnected spaces, shrinking the power of labour unions. Legal frameworks based on old employment relations models no longer protect workers. This has led to a global debate on labour law reforms to address adverse impacts of change.
Published in Dawn on December 31st, 2016
“People resist exploitation. They resist as actively as they can, as passively as they must.” — Immanuel Wallerstein
IN his world system analysis, Wallerstein speaks of a multiplicity of political systems which gives capitalists a “freedom of manoeuvre that is structurally based”.
This analysis explains how the system works when the core (rich) countries export waste to peripheral (poor) economies in the shape of decaying ships. It is the core (industrialist-state) nexus in the peripheral country itself which benefits at the expense of its peripheral (marginalised) labour. A follow-up of the disaster at the Gadani ship-breaking yard in Balochistan validates the premise.
Published on June 8 2016 in Dawn
THE convoluted history of the labour movement in Pakistan is replete with negativities: state oppression by both military and democratic regimes, ethnic and ideological divides among workers, employers’ subversion of genuine workers’ representation through pocket unions, to name a few. Yet it was a brief, two-year flicker of industrial labour struggle that stood out for its promise of labour solidarity and potential for sustained movement, had it not been extinguished by Z.A. Bhutto’s civilian martial law regime in June 1972.
Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2016
AS you drive down the Super Highway, past Sohrab Goth in Karachi, your eyes fall on mammoth excavators — huge truck cranes, bulldozers, loaders and cement-mixers parked left and right in the open katcha land. Around the dangerous-looking machinery you spot drivers and cleaners in faded shalwar kameez squatting and chatting, or resting on charpoys.
In between are patches of dust and bushes, raiti-bajri adda with mounds of gravel, stand-by trucks and junkyards full of rusted vehicles. The first thought that springs to your mind: ‘Construction business is booming is Pakistan!’ Indeed, the machinery, high-rises, upcoming residential schemes, underpasses and flyovers — all highly visible — are indicative of the 7pc growth rate of the construction industry and its 2.4pc contribution to the country’s GDP.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2016
IT was an early March morning in 2009 and I was cruising along one of the primary roads in the central business district area of Dhaka city where many of the ready-made garments (RGM) factories are housed in old buildings.
Young girls in droves, dressed in shalwar-kameez, were emerging from the side lanes, stepping down from the buses, crossing the road, chatting on the footpath, bending over street vendors’ wares now and then and heading towards their factories for the morning shift.
I was in Dhaka to get a sense of what makes Bangladeshi RGM women workers organise for their rights. I climbed a narrow staircase of a building where many girls had gone. The factory was on the first floor. From the small landing I looked through the iron grille padlocked from outside: women bending over sewing machines in rows. A surly young man guarded the door: “outsiders are not allowed”, he told me.
Published in Dawn on January 12, 2016
‘Let the sky fall, when it crumbles, we will stand tall and face it all together.’ — Skyfall, Adele
Natural disasters aside, white-collar workers can’t even imagine the sky falling down on us, literally, while we are at work. Neither can they imagine what happens in that flicker of a second, and thereafter, to the body and soul of the workers on whom the roof crumbles as they toil for a pittance, or to the families when their dear ones die or are injured. ‘Standing tall and facing it all together’ seemingly is not in our collective ethos. Hence, incidents of factory collapse hardly make a ripple in the power corridor or in society’s consciousness.
The stars above us, govern our conditions.— Shakespeare
Azam Khan, an 18-year-old, works in a boutique in Karachi for 10 hours as an errand boy and earns Rs12,000 a month. Shy and soft-spoken, he thinks it is the stars that determine one’s life path. “What can I aspire to? I have no education. Jo naseeb mein hai [whatever destiny has in store]…” he mumbles. He comes from Shangla, one of the most deprived districts in Pakistan. He is the lad who irritates the policymakers and the politicians because he has no story to tell — no story of hope, no story of reaching out for the stars, no story of ‘youth creativity and energy’, the phrase our policy documents on youth bulge and youth dividend are full of.