Workers’ Ordeal

Published in Dawn on August 22, 2017

Surrealism runs through the streets…
— Gabriel Garcia Marquez

GARCIA Marquez’s description of the reality of Latin America fits snugly into scenarios here. Or so it seems. How else would you convey the reality of several worldviews that are bizarre but that actually exist? What strange stories are hidden in the harsh realm of workers and the multilayered reality of, say, a public-sector enterprise that shut down its operations in June 2015 and still has on its payroll 12,000 employees?

When I rang up Mirza sahib, an employee at the Pakistan Steel Mills since the 1980s, and asked if we could meet, he said, “I am stationed in Dalbandin”. It was eerie to hear the melodious name of that faraway town in Balochistan. How come he ended up there? A punishment for activism, a case of enforced transfer, I am told. The PSM has a small iron ore project, now closed, in Chagai district. “The machines are lying on a hill and there is nothing to do.”

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Media and Labour

Published in Dawn on August 13, 2017

NOAM Chomsky pins his propaganda model on “inequality of wealth and power and its multi-level effects on mass media interests and choices”. The media’s structure and its five basic filters, as pointed out by Chomsky, are the same the world over, although there are variations in cultural and political filters specific to each country. Hence, it came as no surprise when I saw the news of the death of five coal miners on page six of a national newspaper a few days ago. Generally speaking, the deaths of workers are deemed fit for page two or three and if the number of dead is higher, the news is taken on the front page. I wondered about the filters in this case: was it the location of the event (a village east of Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir — and not in the provinces) or lack of representation (no trade union mediation).

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Sanitation Workers

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?

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Safety through IT

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2017

WHILE we often marvel at how the IT revolution is changing our culture, trade, commerce, banking and entertainment, and bask in gadgetry — mobile phones, laptops, LEDs, WiFi etc — we seldom wonder why the benefits of low-cost circuitry is not reaching areas where it is needed the most ie hazardous workplaces.

In the context of business and trade in our country, the purpose of IT is usually efficient management and productivity enhancement — and hardly the health and safety of workers. So it came as a pleasant surprise to learn about a young IT graduate’s resolve to make mining safer through designing and producing ‘smart helmets’ based on cost-effective ZigBee wireless technology.

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Map of Resistance

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2017

INVISIBLE to the frenzied world of urban dwellers, and anchored in the rural hinterlands of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe, live communities of peasants — small farmers, tenants, sharecroppers — joined together in their tumultuous fight against forces bent upon usurping their rights to land, to produce and to continue their way of life. La Via Campesina (literally ‘the peasant way’) is a unique international labour movement representing 200 million rural workers in 73 countries.

Today, April 17, is the International Day of Peasants Struggles celebrated by La Via Campesina the world over to honour the 19 members of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement who were shot dead by the military police on this day in 1996 in the village of Eldorado Los Carajás during a demonstration against federal appropriation of land cultivated by 3,000 rural families.

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Work Ethics

Published in Dawn on February 5 2017

THE discourse on labour in Pakistan is dominated by the terms and conditions of employment and other indicators such as the labour participation rate and the status of employment. Labour productivity, a crucial measure of economic performance and one of the key indicators of the labour market, receives scant attention and is yet to be reported by the Federal Bureau of Statistics in its yearly Labour Force Survey being published since 1963.

The factors that determine labour productivity include physical capital and technology, human development (health, education and skills of the labour force) and labour relations. Underpinning productivity is work ethics which is considered the key force behind economic growth and prosperity in any country. Though work ethics, or the lack of it, in our society is constantly commented on in the private sphere, the issue is seldom debated or researched by social scientists, economists and policymakers.

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