Dock Workers’ Rights

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.

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Dangerous Depths

Published in Dawn on August 17th 2018

While the country watched the induction of the newly elected parliamentarians and celebrated the 71st Independence Day, it was business as usual in the extractive sector in Pakistan, a business that claimed the lives of 15 coalminers in the dark alleys underground on Aug 13-14. The immediate cause, as reported, was methane gas explosion. Or, faulty blasting technique as asserted by the trade union federation.

Perhaps the cause or causes of the accident in the coalmine will never be known. Was it faulty ventilation and a flawed alarm system, inadequate illumination intensity, invisible hazard signage and the absence of an emergency and evacuation plan, or the lack of workers’ training, or a combination of all?

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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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Core and Periphery

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.

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Dangerous Industry

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.

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Workplace Safety

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.

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Safety of Workers in Bangladesh

Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2014

THE concept of safety at the workplace as a fundamental human right is slowly making its way into the ethos of a South Asian society burdened with the notion of destiny. ‘If the roof falls on your head, too bad. You were fated to die this way while at work.’ Workers and other stakeholders are now rising up against this farcical justification for the inhuman treatment of labour. If not in Pakistan, at least in Bangladesh workers are demanding safety and stakeholders have begun to listen.

Bangladesh is taking the lead in giving higher priority to workers’ safety and the prevention of industrial accidents though it learnt its lesson the hard way: from 2005 to 2013, industrial accidents in the readymade garments sector killed over 2,000 workers and injured a higher number. These accidents occurred due to gross violations of building safety codes and labour standards. The case is not different here.

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