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Pakistan: Labour’s just demands

by I A Rehman, 10 September 2011

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September 8, 2011

The debate on the recently promulgated Industrial Relations Ordinance 2011 has offered the trade unions an opportunity to call for a thorough review of the basic premises of labour legislation adopted by the Ayub regime in 1959, in contravention of the principles followed till then. Some of the points made by them merit serious attention.

Since the subject of labour has been transferred to the provinces the new ordinance is meant for the Islamabad Capital Territory. It also aims at removing one of the problems caused by the 18th Amendment by providing for trans-provincial establishments/industry and trade unions. This ordinance does reveal some new and positive thinking on the part of the lawmakers.

For instance, a worker will have the right to relief under this law even when he has been dismissed, discharged, retrenched, laid off or otherwise removed from employment in connection with or as a result of an industrial dispute. It also lays down that where women are included in the employees a trade union will have women’s representation in its executive in proportion to their numerical strength in the establishment. The law also enables workers employed in establishments in
more than one province to join a trade union, provided they are owned by a single party.

The ordinance has a few provisions that make no sense and constitute unfair restrictions on the right to freedom of association. For instance, it says that any trade union can apply for registration, “provided that there shall be at least two trade unions in an establishment”. This unheard-of condition is quite absurd and could lead to mischief.

Another questionable provision says that if a person who is not qualified to be elected as an office-bearer of a union gets elected the registration of the union could be cancelled. This is a totally irrational provision. The problem visualised by the lawmakers could be resolved by saying that the election of a person not qualified to be elected as a union office-bearer would be invalid.

The ordinance has thrown up quite a few serious issues. First, since the new law’s life depends on its endorsement by parliament within a few months the authorities are required to proceed with speed towards removing the flaws and lacunae in it. Secondly, it is necessary to face the question as to how the healthy features of the central law can be incorporated in the provincial laws. The provinces are of course free to grant their labour more rights and privileges than those allowed under the federal law but it will amount to a miscarriage of justice if they gave them less.

While there is no problem about the application of the ordinance in the federal capital area, doubts have been expressed whether it can be extended to establishments/unions working in more than one province. The reason is the Supreme Court ruling that after the coming into force of the 18th Amendment the federation cannot make a law for a province unless a request is make by two or more provinces. The unions argue that since industrial relations/trade union rights fall under the category of international treaties and conventions (item 32 of the federal legislative list) the federal government has an obligation to ensure compliance with the ILO conventions in all parts of the federation.

While on this subject, one may also take note of two high court verdicts wherein some labour-friendly legislation (including fixation of the minimum wage and revision of old-age benefits) done vide the finance bill has been struck down. The lawmakers at both the federal and provincial levels have to put their heads together to prevent any curtailment of workers’ rights.

However, the debate in union circles has gone beyond the merits and demerits of the Industrial Relations Ordinance 2011.

Two issues in particular have been emphasised.

The facility allowed to workers employed in a group of establishments that may be functioning in more than one province has boosted the demand for industry-wise formation of general trade unions. The workers had won this right before Independence. The Ayub regime violated this principle in an unconcealed bid to destroy workers’ unity and undermine their ability and their right to organise themselves on craft basis. The country is supposed to have broken out of the straitjacket devised by authoritarian rulers and there can be no justification for denying labour the right to have industry-wise unions.

Even more important has become the need to recognise the trade union rights of all those who are employed in the informal sector. The number of workers employed in this sector has exceeded the strength of the formal-sector employees. A strong agitation has been going on for the recognition of home-based workers’ rights. The authorities should not be unaware of the ILO convention on the rights of such workers. After all, we did have unions of workers employed by various employers in the early days of Independence.

At the same time, some voices have been raised in favour of helping agricultural labour to organise themselves. The ILO convention on this subject (C 11 of 1921) was ratified as early as 1923 (by Pakistan’s predecessor government). Since farmhands are much weaker than industrial workforce or even home-based workers, the responsibility for organising them falls on the state, though well-organised trade unions could also extend a helping hand, that is, if they were allowed respite from the grim battle for their own survival.

In sum, all these matters underline the need for a full-scale tripartite conference, or at least a revival of the Webcop (workers-employers accord) spirit, for refusal to address labour’s concerns in the present circumstances could lead to a major upheaval.


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