LONG-HAUL trucks, trailers and big intercity buses — the most noticeable vehicles on the roads, for their mammoth bodies and exotic art — are operated by workers who are the least visible and seldom talked about in Pakistan’s work sphere. It is their workplaces — roads, highways and motorways, bridges and infrastructure — that get all the attention. Policymakers plan projects, allocate resources, inaugurate sections of motorways; citizens complain of potholes, drive fast on newly built roads and dislike heavy vehicles plying the city’s arteries. All the while, transport workers — drivers, conductors, cleaners, helpers — go about their work shadowed by ‘informality’ and play their silent role in the economy.
The transport sector — road, rail, sea and air — is the fifth largest sector in terms of employment following agriculture, services, manufacturing and construction, and it employs six per cent of the total workforce. The sector is dominated by road transportation where workers struggle with low wages, long working hours, poor work conditions, occupational health hazards and lack of social protection. Highly informal and fragmented, the road transport sector is characterised by a weak regulatory framework and non-compliance with labour laws.
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.
THE railway system, one of the pillars of the Industrial Revolution, transformed societies, including the subcontinent, economically and socially. Henry Bartle Frere, chief commissioner of Sindh(1850-1859) had commented on the massive railway network the British planned. He said that it would unite not only the “distant provinces in one bond of material prosperity” but bring “distant peoples and races” closer to each other.
After 1947, the railways took different trajectories in India and Pakistan. While India maintained and enhanced the railways, the network saw gradual decay in Pakistan, destroying livelihoods, robbing people of prosperity and crushing their dreams and passion for their vocation — as engine drivers, boiler men, station masters, signalmen and more.