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Pakistan: Outlines of a framework for industrial relations

by B.M. Kutty, Karamat Ali, 30 May 2015

print version of this article print version - 30 May 2015

Ever since the promulgation of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, under which the subject of labour and industrial relations has been devolved to and brought under the purview of the provincial governments, a debate has been going on about the need to evolve a viable mechanism to ensure that labour policies framed by the latter comply with the relevant constitutional provisions on labour rights and industrial relations on the one hand and on the other, these should strictly adhere to the various international treaties, covenants and conventions, of which the state of Pakistan, through its federal government, is a signatory.

The powers ceded by the federation to the provinces need to be exercised with maximum caution. Provincialising the labour laws should not mean that the provinces are free to abridge the rights guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan or violate the country’s international obligations. The province can enhance but not curtail these rights. To quote a bad example, the Industrial Relations Act promulgated by the Government of Punjab deprived the majority of workers of the Right of Association and are thus violative of the constitutional provisions as well as Pakistan’s international commitments in this regard.

Responding to this situation, PILER has been in the process of organising interactive consultative conferences of representatives of trade unions, academics and other concerned organisations and individuals. A national level Labour Conference was held on 26-28 September, 2014, at PILER Centre, Karachi, which was attended by about 300 delegates representing various trade unions/federations, employers’ organisations etc., besides researchers, economists and legal experts from across the country. It resulted in a good number of positive recommendations which can serve as useful guidelines for developing what should constitute the broad outlines of a National Framework for industrial relations in the new emerging situation, which at the same time should be both “labour and industry-friendly”, comply with the country’s national and international commitments and provide the guidelines to the provinces in framing their own labour policies.

It is in this context that we are presenting these outlines for consideration and appropriate action by policy makers, legislators and other concerned state functionaries. Needless to emphasise the point that the underlying premises of any policy framed by any democratically elected government are supposed to be the values and principles that benefit the largest number of people in a given society. Such policies serve as guidelines and provide strategic direction for legislative and institutional reforms in various fields of governance. Under a democratic dispensation, Labour Policy – framework for industrial relations – is expected to be rights-based, participatory and inclusive.

However, the sad fact is that the labour polices announced in 1955, 1959, 1969, 1972, 2002 and the draft labour policies prepared in 1980, 1982, 1992, 1996 and 1999 were all show-case documents on labour rights, never to be followed by necessary legislative and administrative reforms. The so-called Labour Protection Policy and Labour Inspection Policy 2006 were also made in the same restrictive mould, on both counts of coverage and application. Similarly, the Industrial Relations Act 2008 framed by the last elected federal government was nothing more than a re-enactment of the IRO 1969.

Ironically, one finds a remarkable continuity in the perspectives of successive governments – both military dictatorships and elected governments - on labour rights issues, obviously because both choose to ignore the related provisions of the country’s constitution and International Covenants, to which the Pakistani state is a signatory. It is clear that the principles and objectives of the labour policy of any democratically elected government ought to be based on the constitutional provisions, international conventions and certain other imperatives underlined below (in the case of provincial governments, as best as is possible under the given status of provincial autonomy/devolution of powers after the passage of 18th Amendment).

Following are the constitutional provisions covering labour rights: Article 3 asserts “elimination of all forms of exploitation”; Article 9 guarantees that “no person shall be deprived of life or liberty”; Article11 prohibits all forms of slavery, forced labour and child labour; Article17 guarantees to every citizen the fundamental right to form associations or unions; Article 18 guarantees to every citizen the right to enter upon any lawful profession or occupation and to conduct any lawful trade or business; Article 25 (1) lays down that all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law; Article25 (2) prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; Article 37(e) provides for securing just and human conditions of work, ensuring that children and women are not employed in vocations unsuited to their age or sex, and for maternity benefits for women in employment. Article 38 pledges to “promote social and economic well-being (Social Security) of the people”.

Following are the International Conventions ratified by Pakistan: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict; Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices similar to Slavery; Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Following are the ILO Core Labour Conventions ratified by Pakistan: 35 ILO Conventions, including 8 Core Labour Rights Conventions had been ratified till July 2006. The 8 ILO Core Conventions referred to above have been grouped under four (4) Most Basic Human Rights as follows: Freedom of Association and Right to Organize and engage in collective bargaining: Convention 87: Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize (14 February 1951); Convention 98: Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (26 May 1952); The right to equality at work: Convention100: Equal Remuneration for Men and Women workers for Work of Equal Value (11 October 2001); Convention 111: Discrimination in respect of Employment and Occupation (24 January 1961); The Abolition of Child Labour: Convention 138: Minimum Age for Admission to Employment (6 July 2006); Convention 182:Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (11 October 2001); The Abolition of Forced labour: Convention 29: Abolition of Forced or Compulsory Labour (23 December 1957). Convention 105: Abolition of Forced Labour (15 February 1960).

At this point, certain observations on the framework for labour rights and industrial relations, which the provincial governments may consider incorporating in their respective labour policies or recommend to the Federal Government, depending on which of the two is empowered to do it, may not be out of place:

Relevant changes need to be made in the country’s laws and constitution so that they are in conformity with the International Conventions ratified by Pakistan; The system of industrial relations management need to conform to provisions of various conventions, both for workers’ and employers’ rights; Related institutional arrangements be made to ensure a peaceful and cooperative environment; conflicts inherent in employer-employee relationship need to be resolved through peaceful and democratic means; Workers’ and employers’ organizations need to be strengthened, so that most issues are resolved through mutual negotiations;

There needs to be an effective mechanism for dispute resolution. This may include a speedy, efficient and skilled labour judiciary, responsible and responsive labour department, implementation of workplace health and safety provisions backed by a functional labour inspection system; Rights need to be universalised and ‘exclusion’ should be done away with; Labour welfare and social protection institutions need to be strengthened and universalised;

There is need to develop a genuine tripartite system to achieve the above mentioned goals; There is the need for a Standing Labour Committee, with equal representation of the employers, employees and the government; Whatever institutional changes and constitutional amendments need to be done for universalising of labour rights should go through this committee; A tripartite conference needs to be called very soon to discuss and finalise a framework that ensures the above mentioned rights;

There is also an additional dimension to the imperative of establishing a cooperative industrial relations system based on the recognition and implementation of minimum labour standards. A reference to GSP-plus will be relevant in this context. Pakistan has been granted this facility but it is tied to Pakistan’s mandatory compliance with 27 international conventions/covenants including 8 Core ILO Conventions mentioned earlier. Pakistan’s Labour Policy (both at Federal as well as Provincial level) ought to guarantee strict compliance with these Conventions, if we want to continue enjoying the benefits accruing from GSP-Plus. Given our dependence on exports as the main vehicle for economic recovery and sustenance, we can hardly afford to throw away this opportunity provided by GSP-Plus.

One thing more, and that is extremely important.

When we talk of labour policy and industrial relations, we should also keep in mind the need for workers to reciprocate in good faith and commit themselves to peaceful and democratic means of conflict resolution. It should then be possible for the employers’ and workers’ organisations to develop a voluntary code of conduct and to draw up a plan of action for a phased implementation of basic rights and obligations in accordance with the existing conditions.

Such a cooperative model of industrial relations and institutions will open up tremendous possibilities of joint bilateral and tripartite efforts in areas such as human resource development, productivity, technical and technological advancement, social security, health and safety at work, among others. It must be realised that the state cannot sustain itself without a strong economy, while the employers must note that their ‘comparative advantage” in today’s world does not lie in exploiting cheap (and therefore weak) labour, but in a skilled, competitive, contented and strong labour.


The above article first appeared in the Daily Times, May 29, 2015
and has been reproduced here for educational and non commercial use