Trade Unions have lost steam

Majyd Aziz – March 02, 2021

A Worker’s Union is an integral part of an industrial or commercial unit’s working environment. The workers have a fundamental right to form an association to project, promote and protect their rights, their needs, their demands, and their remunerations. Unions are formed not only in the public sector organizations but are also very significant in private enterprises. There can be more than one Union in an enterprise but only one is designated, through a democratic process, of representing the workers as their Collective Bargaining Agent. Labor Unions got their primary boost after Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party came into power in 1972. The pseudo-socialist mandate of the government gave impetus to workers’ representatives to form their own Unions and also group into Workers Federations.

There were labor leaders galore and there was this sense of perceived omnipotence in most of them, much to the consternation of industrialists and businessmen. Industrial unrest became the norm and Labor Courts were inundated with all kinds of cases, mostly frivolous, or to coerce the employers to accept the dictates of this new band of leaders. Although there were some moderate persons within the labor leadership, the majority of them were in a belligerent mood and they created havoc in many establishments. A large number of industries closed down, many industrialists left the country and, with the government in no mood to rein in the radical elements, Pakistan saw decline in industrial output, in new investment and in attracting even foreign investment. The labor leadership obtained more power after Bhutto started nationalization of industries and service sectors. This further aggravated the dismal industrial scenario and Pakistan lost five years of economic growth apart from the tremendous loss of half of the country in the 1971 War in East Pakistan.

Come Martial Law of Gen Zia ul Haq in July 1977, things seemingly cooled down. Radicalism yielded to realism and the workers’ representatives were subdued through various measures, including banning unions in public sector organizations. The pressure eased to some extent on the private sector and there was again infusion of domestic and foreign investment into the country. Of course, there were strong unions in many private enterprises, but by and large, industrial peace became a normal feature in industrial estates. With the advent of the Benazir Bhutto regime, the sparks flew again with the result that there was a marked revival of the labor extremism, though not intensive, that had been subdued in the past many years.

The Musharraf government put great emphasis and accorded considerable importance to attracting investment and rebuilding the country. Labor leaders were told not to rock the economic boat and were clearly reminded that the goalposts had changed. A labor leader cum social activist was made the Labor Minister and he very shrewdly sidelined the mainstream labor leadership. The aging leaders were gradually put to pasture and the new leaders came with a conciliatory outlook and a pragmatic vision. The labor unrest in private enterprises dwindled down drastically and most of the enterprises conveniently got rid of unions and in-house agitators and adopted the hiring of contract workers rather than a permanent workforce. Labor lost its luster and its critical mass. This continued even after the Zardari government came into power. It was felt by the business community that there would be a strong transformation of the workers struggle after the advent of the PPP government. Premier Yusuf Raza Gilani did convene a Tripartite Labor Conference, where this writer was also present, but it turned out to be nothing more than a PPP workers jalsa thus vitiating the purpose of this crucial Conference. The Sharif and Imran Khan governments limited themselves to announcing increase in Minimum Wage and pensions under EOBI scheme but refrained from radical measures that would satisfy the workforce.

There has been a paradigm shift in the trade union influence among workers over the past two decades. The gradual veering away from having a permanent, on-record, labor force in the plants led to a proliferation of so-called contract workers that has over the past many years led to this decline in unionized membership. This was not an overnight transition nor was it a planned or a deliberate employer strategy. This was the result of other factors that impacted upon the trade union movement. Labor Unions have become skeletons of the past. It is a fact that except for enlightened employers who accept and encourage healthy union activities in their plants and businesses, a deep-rooted dislike to power of workers more often than not discourages employers from allowing workers to chart a course on the pathway of core labor rights.

This catalytic factor has been the reason why many labor federations steered away from unionization of private sectors while concentrating on having a strong control on workers in the public sector organizations. It was in state-owned enterprises where the real potential of influence lay and where they could muster political patronage, power and privileges. More importantly, labor federations were, and still are, more or less personal fiefdoms of the leaders. This individualistic control is averse to a true democratic hierarchy or succession. Ergo, a labor federation is usually an extension of the leader’s personal vision.

Another factor that diverts the attention of labor leaders is that they are often on foreign-sponsored junkets where they hobnob with counterparts from other nations and use all means to source funding for their projects. While appreciating their desire to generate foreign funds, it has been alleged by some quarters that at times their proposals for sponsorships highlight negative aspects of the labor situation in Pakistan, often detrimental to the image of the motherland. Here it is pertinent to mention the role of Malik Zahoor Awan, leader of Pakistan Workers Federation, which is the largest representative body of workers. He strongly believes in resolving matters across the table instead of on the roads and also ensures that a positive image of Pakistan in presented at various global forums.

The inability of the tax collectors to enforce a broad-based tax regime has encouraged a pushback to an undocumented economy in many areas and sectors. The high General Sales Tax, the unbridled influx of smuggled, mis-invoiced and mis-declared foreign goods, the exorbitant utility charges, the menace of extortion and deteriorating law and order, and other negative factors have aggravated the situation and thus SME employers are not eager to get themselves registered or maintain documentation. This is one more reason why many enterprises are out of the tax net. Thus workers of these units are deprived of many of the legal remedies and prescribed benefits under the law. It also negatively impacts upon the efforts of labor leaders to increase their membership base.

Trade Unions in private sector in Pakistan, by and large, can be aptly described as in-house unions, pocket unions, or fill-in-the-blanks unions. Radical labor leaders have gradually been eased out and there are more moderate and sensible workers’ representatives now who base their future on practical economic solutions, who adhere to the concept of industrial peace, and who utilize human skills of negotiations and consideration to hammer out agreements rather than resorting to strikes and other anti-industry tactics to achieve their objectives. They are also equal partners with enlightened employers in Workers Employers Bilateral Council of Pakistan (WEBCOP) that has been universally acclaimed as a pioneer initiative.

Today, efforts are being made by social and human rights activists to send out motivating signals to the “dying breed” to learn from the global initiatives undertaken by various labor federations who, in recognizing the effects of globalization on the working class, are banding together in an effort to resuscitate the terminal patient. Interestingly, the various global unity groups, having a focused agenda, have not been able to bring about a renaissance within the disarrayed and disorganized labor movement in Pakistan. Although these global programs do have members and linkages in Pakistan, nevertheless there is no display of a trickle-down effect among either local unions or the general workforce.

Some activists cite the 2020 International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index of the World’s Worst Countries for Workers. The ITUC Global Rights Index depicts the world’s worst countries for workers by rating 144 countries on a scale from 1-5+ based on the degree of respect for workers’ rights. The prescribed workers’ rights are absent in countries with the rating 5 while violations occur on an irregular basis in countries with the rating 1. Pakistan has dipped to rating 5 (no guarantee of rights). ITUC identified Pakistan as one of 32 countries “with the rating of 5 that are the worst countries in the world to work in. While the legislation may spell out certain rights, workers have effectively no access to these rights and are therefore exposed to autocratic regimes and unfair labor practices”. Notwithstanding this rating, many activists have only been highlighting the negativity against Pakistan whereas the rating 5 also includes Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Turkey, etc in the same rating. What these activists also fail to underscore is that there are nine countries in 5+ rating that do not guarantee rights due to breakdown of the rule of law.

Pakistan is not the only country violating many of the labor rights. However, what some activists complain that “the government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat” is nothing but opprobrium usually heard at May Day rallies. The employers or the governments are not principally responsible for the union movement to lose steam. The business dynamics have changed, especially when a massive inflow of migrant workers started coming into urban cities like Karachi, Faisalabad and Lahore. The power of union leaders proportionately diminished when laborers accepted the conditionalities of working as contract workers rather than so-called permanent employees. Their concern was the current continued paycheck rather than gratuity, bonus, leave encashment, etc. Nowadays, many workers do not want to hear about EOBI, Social Security, NIRC, etc. Furthermore, with more entrants in the labor market, the bargaining power of the worker correspondingly reduced too. Unskilled workers are available at even less than the guaranteed minimum wage as ordained by the government. Ms Sharan Burrow, General Secretary ITUC, is highly admired and regarded by this writer who, in his opinion, is the beacon and guiding force for workers around the globe. She once stated that “For social justice, economic justice and stability, we need negotiated, planned outcomes that people can touch at both the national and industry and enterprise level”.

Pakistan faces another labor problem too. While skilled or technically competent people are also in demand here as well as in foreign countries, there is scant scope for the unskilled, with low literacy quotient, to obtain higher paying jobs. The housing sector would be the new booming industry in Pakistan but the dilemma is that there are few skilled workers even in this sector. The trade bodies related to construction and housing, such as ABAD, do not have a game plan to deal with the expected upsurge, especially in low-cost housing. To make matters worse, even the fifty plus industries that depend on housing and construction are also deficient in developing or having a skilled and trained workforce. Here too, even the unions have not demonstrated any attempt to encourage unskilled workers to learn new skills.

Fortunately, today there are some moderate and erudite labor leaders who are well-versed in labor laws, who are involved in intensive lobbying for amendments in various labor related legislation, and who have a respectable command of the working environment. However, certain work-related issues often escape their focus. There is limited attention towards motivating workers to enhance productivity, to maintain hygiene at workplaces, to improve punctuality, to ensure education and health for workers and families, and to promote the orientation of safety and disaster management procedures. Sadly, there are some labor leaders who still continue with their trite litany about “appointment letters” and inflation or resort to long-winded rhetoric even at agenda-focused meetings.

The momentum of the labor unionization movement has decreased. There are very few formidable and strong labor leaders in Pakistan. This has been understood and accepted by the moderate leaders of the workers. They are, thus, cautiously and prudently working within the system while leaving their rabble-rousing dramatics for the Red Salute rallies or celebration of May Day. They now seriously want the wheels of economy to move. As Charles Dickens said, “Industry is the soul of business and the keystone of prosperity”. The power of trade unions, as stated above, has diminished primarily because of the labor leaders themselves and less due to employers asserting their influence or the government turning a blind eye. The salvation for labor mostly lies in per force implementation of the eight core International Labor Standards. Moreover, compliance of 27 Conventions, that include the eight core ILS, is crucial if Pakistan is to enjoy the fruits of the EU GSP Plus status for the next decade after the present status expires. What labor leaders seemingly failed to achieve, European Union will ensure that laws, rules and conventions are comprehended, assured, and implemented. Winston Churchill, the great statesman, very rightly said that “some see private enterprise as a predatory target to be hunted, others as a cow to be milked, but few are those who see it as a sturdy horse pulling the wagon.”

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