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Pakistan: A Paradigm Shift Needed in Labour policy and industrial relations

by Karamat Ali, 6 May 2009

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(The below article appeared earlier on, 1 May, 2009)

Amid doubts and hopes about whether the present elected government fulfills its promises, Pakistan’s citizens await a new labour policy expected to be announced on May Day today.

The underlying premise of state policies, ideally, constitutes the values and principles that benefit the largest number of people in society. Under a democratic dispensation, labour policy — framework for industrial relations — is expected to be rights-based, participatory and inclusive.

Unfortunately, throughout Pakistan’s history, chequered with successive military rules and sporadic periods of so-called democracy, the framework for industrial relations has remained oppressive. Five labour policies announced in 1955, 1959, 1969, 1972, 2002, and the draft labour policies prepared in 1980, 1982, 1992, 1996 and 1999 were all mere showcase documents never to be followed by requisite legislative and administrative reforms. More recently, the Labour Protection Policy and Labour Inspection Policy 2006 followed the same restrictive pattern. The recent Industrial Relations Act 2008 — a re-enactment of the oppressive IRO 1969 — is, similarly, a breach of trust by the present government. That military dictatorships and elected governments should be holding similar views is indicative of a deep-rooted malaise; a colonial mindset that is still alive and kicking after 62 years of independence.

The fundamental interest of the colonial state lay in the subjugation of labour. Its main objective, transfer of the products of labour, was best achieved by keeping them at the level of subjects — as people not entitled to unconditional fundamental human rights. The labour policy of the colonisers was, hence, aimed at maintaining that status quo. To the question whether workers should be entitled to the right to organise protests, the governor-general of India had responded in 1943: “Not at all, at this stage in the evolution of trade unions, it will be premature, indeed dangerous.”

The response of the rulers in Pakistan towards labour has remained the same and has made clear their denial of the right of association and collective bargaining to a very large number of workers of different categories, including 21 million agricultural workers. Beginning with the first labour policy of 1955, all subsequent policies contained solemn pledges regarding full compliance with the principles laid down in the ILO Conventions No 87 and 98. But the labour laws promulgated have continually negated these principles.

It is imperative to realise that the current industrial relations system is adversarial in nature. It engenders and promotes conflict, distrust, discontent and confrontation. The employers are reluctant to recognise the basic rights of the workers. The workers, the majority of them not organised and not covered by most legal protections, are bitter. While the discontent of the two parties reflects poorly on industrial efficiency and production, the state functionaries contentedly lord it over both the employer and the employed.

Under the guise of a sham tripartism — the recent example is the Tripartite Labour Conference held on Feb 16 this year — state functionaries usurp the rights of both employers and employees. Neither is allowed to independently exercise even the right of free association. Their organisations are constantly manipulated. Each and every state institution in this field are known to be inefficient, self-seeking and corrupt.

Clearly the industrial relations system needs a paradigm shift. This requires adopting a fresh framework as well as redefining perspectives, roles and responsibilities of the state, the employers and workers. However, the change must first occur at the level of the state which must reconsider its present role as overlord and arbiter and restrict itself to establishing minimum standards for every sector of economic activity.

The fundamental rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social, Cultural and Political Rights, the Convention on Non-Discrimination and the core conventions of the ILO, provide a solid basis and guidelines for policy formulation.

For bilateralism to develop and succeed, the employers will have to recognise, without reservation, the basic rights of workers as defined by the universally acknowledged minimum labour standards, embodied in core ILO conventions. These include Convention 29 on forced labour; Convention 87 on freedom of association and the right to organise; Convention 98 on the right to organise and bargain collectively; Convention 100 on equal pay; Convention 105 on abolition of forced labour; Convention 111 on discrimination in employment and occupations; and Convention 138 on the minimum age of employment.

Pakistan is a signatory to all these conventions and, therefore, under obligation to honour them. The workers in turn will have to commit themselves to peaceful and democratic means of conflict resolution. It should then be possible for employers’ and workers’ organisations to develop a voluntary code of conduct and to draw up a plan of action for phased implementation of basic rights and obligations.

Such a cooperative model of industrial relations and institutions will open up tremendous possibilities of joint bilateral and tripartite efforts in other areas.

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 force.