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.
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 the morning hours when you leave for office you find women, young and middle-aged, sitting in groups at the edges of the streets of several localities in Karachi — North Nazimabad, Gulshan, Garden, PECHS, Clifton — some chatting, a few ruminating, a couple doing needlework.
These are domestic workers waiting for bajis, their employers, to wake up, open the doors of their homes and let them in to the world of work that exists at the fringe of the labour market. It is one that is bereft of job security and decent wages and excluded from the scope of labour laws.
It was for the first time in my life, as far as I remember, that I reacted to a murder in that peculiar way: awe and delight. My instant reaction was ‘Bravo!’ when I read the news, ‘She shot her lover dead.’
Slightly disturbed at this brutal reaction to a gruesome act, I tried to make amends by reasoning with myself: ‘But she destroyed herself too. Didn’t she? She might be hanged.’
But damn the gallows.
The fact remains that I was fascinated and still can’t make myself believe she did a wrong. And I am not alone. I talked to a few friends of mine, all women, about this episode that took place in Lahore and was reported two weeks back. And they all reacted the same way.
“In women,” Bertrand Russell said, “zest has been greatly diminished by a mistaken concept of respectability”.
Zest is an in-born human capacity to enjoy life, to be interested in the world and the varied and the beautiful things it has to offer. In our society, I think, this basic human instinct is, to a large extent, killed in women not only by a mistaken concept of respectability but also by a distrust of men inculcated in women by men themselves.
Take for instance travelling. Not till very late, a woman’s going out of her house for pleasure was considered a horrible, ignoble act. Times have definitely changed. The women who have the opportunity and desire to travel in-land or abroad, do travel. Still, by and large, conventional thinking persists — that it’s dangerous for girls to travel unless they are duly chaperoned. Girls who do travel may have to face raised eyebrows and sarcastic remarks.