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.
While the predicament of coal miners in Pakistan is relatively well known, sadly due to frequent fatal underground mining disasters, little comes to light about the life and work conditions of those engaged in artisanal small-scale dimension stone (ie marble, granite, etc) quarrying on the surface, or gemstone mining up on the mountains.
Under-reporting does not mean surface mining and gem digging is less dangerous. Stone mine collapse, causing death and injuries to workers, is not uncommon. In 2020, two such accidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took lives of 29 workers. High-altitude gemstone mining poses great risk as digging is carried out along the veins in the mountain walls accessed by harnesses and ropes which requires climbing skills and agility. Accidents in dimension stone and gemstone mining operations in remote mountainous areas of KP and Gilgit Baltistan largely go unreported. Also, the implications of mining on the community is seldom documented.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
WORK on the high-profile China-Pakistan Economic Corridor appears to be in full swing since implementation began in October 2015. While a lot has been disseminated on the quantum of investments, loans and repayments, and potential contribution to the country’s GDP, there is lack of information on a key player — labour: the workforce that is building, and will be building and running the projects under CPEC.
Human labour is mentioned but mostly as ‘employment generation’ or ‘creation of jobs’, and hence pushed out of sight in the CPEC narrative. Even the muted and cautious debate on CPEC as a manifestation of Chinese economic imperialism focuses on socio-cultural impacts and remains silent on labour. Questions raised by several scribes in the media have yet to be addressed by CPEC officials.
According to various estimates, CPEC projects would generate between 400,000 to 700,000 jobs during 2015-2030. Apart from numbers and general assumptions, there is hardly anything on labour in the discourse on CPEC. One can view the categories and number of jobs (mostly professional, technical, administrative, skilled) in advertisements on a local website, and also learn about efforts towards skilling of the labour force by the Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority, Punjab.
IN a society where the culture of dialogue is on the retreat and forces of intolerance ascendant at every level and in all relations, be it social, industrial, political or personal, you tend to hold on to small blessings such as the first Sindh Tripartite Labour Conference held seven years after the devolution of labour.
Aside from the pomp, its resemblance to a PPP jalsa and the two-page advertisement in newspapers, a couple of creditable aspects of the conference organised by the Sindh government need to be noted: it did have representation of the three partners in equal strength (state officials, labour activists and industrialists) and the organisers first gave the mike to labour and employers who blasted the state for its inefficiency and lack of political will and put forth a number of recommendations.