By the time this article is printed, Labour Day, commemorating the struggle, exploitation, social responsibility and long-term welfare of labour in Pakistan would have come and gone with hackneyed statements, banners, posters, limited rallies, photo shoots and promises of a better future. Inasmuch as development is a human trait, exploitation is an animal instinct that does not go away. Marxism and Communism failed as they could not resolve the crises of working classes in Russia and the Soviet Union that began since the industrial revolution. So did the Chicago Rally.

It all began on May 1, 1886 and has become a symbol for working classes the world over. That day, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions of USA unanimously set May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard. Tragically, on May 4, the rally at Chicago became violent resulting in Haymarket Riot. Later, May 1 in most parts of the world became a celebration for the achievement of working classes. In reality, are there any achievements to boast about?

In countries where feudalism, exploitation and suppression still prevail, the day is a grim reminder that the struggle must continue against the state for its culpability in ignoring labour laws, conventions and international obligations in cahoots with exploitative elite classes. The problem aggravates in countries dependent on financial assistance through international financial institutions. In order to cut expenses, raise revenue and pay back loans, the axe always falls on the working classes creating room for business exploitation.

At the end of the day, every government wants more growth, less expenses and smaller budgetary gaps. Big businesses exploit this desire by prolonging illegal working hours, maintaining dubious records of actual list of workmen, outsourcing and the use of contractors. There are factories that show phenomenal profits through unregistered labour toiling in the most inhumane conditions. While all this happens, the state machinery looks the other way while palms are greased right up to the highest tier.

In the article, ‘Sugar Bubble and the Heist’, I described the tip of an iceberg. Of the many icebergs that the Prime Minister may have to confront, restoring the legal, social and ethical responsibility in favour of the working classes will be the most challenging. These classes represent over 70% of Pakistan major part of the GDP. Yet the clock turns in favour of those who evade taxes, perpetuate corrupt practices and abhor corporate social responsibility through violations and thefts. But the government must know that ignoring them any longer will cause destabilisation.

While the Economic Reforms Act 1992 provided a gateway to money laundering and massive corruption (inconclusive Panama Papers), the Finance Act of 2006 and Finance Act of 2008 laid the framework for exploiting funds exclusive to welfare of working classes. This act allowed the Worker’s Welfare Fund (WWF) to be treated as a tax and not a fee to balance budgets. These amendments were declared ultra vires to the Constitution of Pakistan by Lahore High Court in 2012. This order was endorsed in 2016 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan that ruled it was a ‘fee’ and not ‘tax’. In amendments made by the Finance Acts of 2006 and 2008 Money Bills were declared unlawful.

Similarly, in the Finance Act 2008, provisions of the Employees Old Age Benefits Act (EOBI), 1976 pertaining to contributions were also amended widening the scope of obligation on employers to contribute towards the Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Fund. This contribution was also treated as a tax. In 2012, Sindh High Court held that the levy was a ‘fee’ and not a ‘tax’. Therefore, the amendments made by the Finance Act of 2008 could not have been lawfully brought about through a Money Bill. The Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld this view.

There is a third aspect to the benefits of workmen. Through the Finance Act of 2007, various provisions of the Workmen Compensation Act, 1923, the West Pakistan Industrial and Commercial Employees (Standing Orders) Ordinance, 1968, the Companies’ Profit Workers’ Participation Act, 1968, the Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers Ordinance, 1969 and the Act of 1976 were amended to broaden the scope of the obligation of the employers in the respective statutes. These were declared ultra vires to the constitution by the Lahore and Sindh High Courts in 2011 because they could not be introduced through a Money Bill. The Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2016 upheld these decisions and directed the federal government to follow a legislative route. This legislative route means a curative amendment.

While the PPP and PMLN governments had the time and majority to follow the legislative route, workmen and their welfare was never their priority. Power elites infest both parties and they never could demonstrate the moral authority to redress the injustice. Instead they complicated the situation by devolving the labour issues to provinces with no mechanism on how to address the fast-migrant labour force of Pakistan that keeps shifting from one province to another. The division of WWF and EOBI has become tricky but not unresolvable.

Pakistan’s history in emancipation of labour is chequered, with few bright spots. 2006 marks the year when the government consciously joined hands with big businesses, industrial elites and political industrialists to close the window on welfare of labour. As of today, nothing has changed, which implies that the present government is also adopting an eerie silence over an issue it had promised to address once it came to power. Meanwhile the funds collected by FBR from businesses declined from Rs25 billion in 2015 to Rs18 billion in 2018. A total sum of over Rs1.7 billion lies in various accounts of the government and employers to continue to hold back obligations for lack of a curative amendment. These funds are shown as liabilities and obligations in audit sheets of all big businesses.

Now that the 18th Amendment is coming under review, the government needs to initiate action on the curative amendment and decisions of the Supreme Court to resolve the issues of welfare funds and benefits.

Unfortunately, there are other areas of labour that have not been touched by successive governments.

According to estimates, women now comprise more than 50% of Pakistan’s workforce. They are mostly employed in agriculture, kilns and home-based labour. Home-based work comprises garments, beedi, bangles, incense, gem-cutting, food items like pickle, handlooms, carpet weaving, lace, handicrafts and clay pots. Over the past two decades, this sector has grown at over an annual rate of 16%, contributing more than $ 4 billion annually. This informal sector is not documented. They have extremely low wages, no job security and long inhumane working hours. For mothers, their children suffer. Labour inspectors in districts seldom reach out to these fringed people while they maintain healthy handshakes with the employers. There are no labour unions in this sector.

It is also the informal sector where men and families work as slaves in agriculture fields, particularly for sugar. Home industries comprise mostly the same occupations as women. Brick kilns operate under the strict supervision of local administrations that have handshakes with owners. The labour is underpaid, held in bondage for life. The few labour unions working in the kiln sector face continuous harassment from the local administration and kiln owners. The situation is dire.

Outsourced industry and labour contractors are other areas where workers are paid less and exploited. This comprises about 70% male and 30% females. Out of the entire lot, a significant number comprises children. These industries are money minting machines, flout labour laws, international conventions and proliferate unchecked. The major businesses that outsource or employ contractors are multinationals, banks, mobile service providers, garments, cutlery, sports, leather, cosmetics, foodstuff and security.

Last but not least, the domestic workers and sanitation staff. These are the least paid, most exploited and undocumented. The government has to make legislations to ensure that all domestic servants have a contract along with social security and benefits. If organised properly, it can turn into a well-organised, regulated and profitable business.

So next time you wear an affordable Zara, a cheap H&M or a classy Lacoste, do pause to think who suffered; or when you enjoy a coffee or chocolate, who paid with sweat and toil? Do not look at the end product, but at the process. You will start hating the system.

I must acknowledge assistance from Dr Ikram Ul Haq while writing this article.