Trade Unions and Federations in Pakistan have become a farce and a front for elites to exploit working classes for political gains. All through Pakistan’s political history, these organisations lacked a unified purpose, vigour and thrust. A glance through labour laws and codes and Pakistan’s ratifications to international obligations indicate that there is no dearth of legislation. The truth is that like the ‘overdeveloped state’, the concept in theory is also overdeveloped. Yet practically, it is beyond the reach of devolution and implementation. The issue is that like all other indications of governance in Pakistan, the urge to promote elitist and self-serving agendas far outweighs the interests of the working classes.

Why have trade and labour unions despite overwhelming numbers failed to create an impact. One explanation is the absence of educated and motivated prime movers to provide the ideological edge to this workforce that powers Pakistan’s economy.

In the 50s and 60s, this edge was provided by the left-wing politicians who have since withdrawn to drawing rooms and neo liberalism. They were perceived as agents of communism and made outcasts. With communism gone and left-wing dead, the field is left wide open for traditional politics that lacks motivations to take on the onerous tasks.

Though labour movements and rights in the developed world still occupy a central space in politics and welfare systems, the fallacy that prevails in third world countries is that such movements are disruptive, counter-productive and retard GDP. The linkages are traced directly to the liberal capitalist system. This is particularly true in countries where IMF and World Bank interventions result in low wages, more cuts, meagre investments in welfare systems and an apathy of labour rights. 

Unlike United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Korea and very recently Poland, Pakistan’s labour organisations are yet to play any formative role in the political and constitutional evolution of the country. They never were and still remain outcasts and outside the system. Due to lack of patronage and effective leadership, they have been successively exploited by the state, labour representatives, governments, public and private sector employers and political parties.

In a society that repeatedly fails to innovate and breed new ideas, the absence of strong and effective labour organisations leaves wide spaces for exploitation. This leads to absence of effective pressure groups in the political economy of the country. Hence a diverse and fractured representative structure along ethnic, political, ideological and sectarian lines superimposed by elitist legislative, regulatory and welfare infrastructures.

Pakistan’s anti-communism genesis has a lot to do why labour rights in the country remain a low priority. After independence, trade unionism was synonymous to communism and taboo. Evolution of political thought was considered rebellious. Pakistan’s entire generation of thinkers, writers and poets was either incarcerated as impractical idealists or untouchables. The road from Iqbal to Faiz was never taken. Even today any discourse on welfare of working classes is taken as a leftist tendency. Socialites and leftists that once existed in Pakistan Tea House have since moved into posh and cosy environs, paying only lip service to a fast losing cause.

International bodies like World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Labour Organisation (ILO), World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and World Confederation of Labour (WCL) operate as aliens to economic liberalisms. For economic liberalism, profits, cuts in wages and minimum tolerable working conditions are premium. They reach into Pakistan through a manipulative system, a house divided within and rotting from the head.

Socialist-leftist leaning organisations like Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF), All Pakistan Trade Union Federation (APTUF) and All Pakistan Trade Union Organization (APTUO) have since been packed with unassertive leaders and failed to create instrumentalism and syncretism for efficient and motivated labour classes and rights. The situation has become more complicated and regressive after the entry of political parties into trade unions. This has made working classes subservient to political influence rather than labour rights. It is a can of worms that makes working class forever vulnerable to rotting and exploitation.

The partition of India had a dampening effect on labour and trade unions in Pakistan. Pakistan created with the geopolitical design to contain communism was inherently averse to the idea of trade unions represented by the Communist Party of Pakistan. The logic inferred was that these unions had played no role in the creation of Pakistan; they represented the enemy and were therefore hostile. The propaganda was an appeasement of the West in its anti-communist strategy. The imprisonment of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the man responsible for kick-starting the Kashmir liberation movement and the Secretary General of PTUF in 1951 and banning of communist party in 1954 effectively outlawed the labour struggle.

The creation of state sponsored All Pakistan Confederation of Labour (APCOL) was meant to make the labour movement irrelevant.

But unlike Pakistan, labour movements world over became stronger. The Solidarity of Poland was the death knell of USSR and Communism. Yet in Pakistan, the state and employers view them as disruptive organisations and blackmailing tools in the hands of political parties.

The use of labour by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to jump-start a movement around Islamic Socialism though temporarily effective, caused massive disruptions in productivity. Once Pakistan People’s Party came into power, it quickly shifted gear towards feudal politics and abandoned the lot that had been politically energised for change. Other political parties with their narrow ethnic agendas also moved in with more negative than positive effects. The intentions of these parties in making labour wings and unions are political in nature that reflects lack of awareness about larger issues. In a globalised, transnational and highly cut-throat market, these unions have failed to keep pace and lost relevance.

Being narrow and restricted by unfriendly labour laws, these unions are ineffective in spreading their memberships in sectorial growth. More so, confined to limited mandates and industries, they have failed to tackle the issues of irregular labour like farmers, daily wagers, bonded labour, mining, transport, security services and households that form the majority of workforce.

Restrictions imposed by laws promote proliferation of unions and discourages instrumentalism. As a result, despite increase in numbers, the poor quality of performance results in neglect and apathy.

These unions are self-financed and usually too weak to take up big issues through conferences, media and public awareness. Social Security and Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI) are managed by handpicked individuals to willingly comply with manipulations at the cost of welfare. The case of EOBI funds to Metro Bus is a case in point.

The proliferation of unions and their rivalry adds to the infighting and strengthens the agents of corruption, inertia and manipulation.

Leadership of unions from a once celebrated Faiz has become the hunting ground of opportunists and frontmen. Most leaders are illiterate, cannot communicate at international levels and do not provide space to educated and motivated upper hierarchy.

Even political parties fail to provide good leadership and wherewithal to develop social skills and capital. As a result, these self-styled leaders are content with holding offices and visitor cards. Their political leanings force them to tow party lines notwithstanding that these parties themselves are highly incompetent at organising them into a viable political arm.

In the final analysis, traditional politics in Pakistan cannot afford to empower labour unions. These politics are sustained through corruption and exploitation and therefore prefer status quo. The system neither has the intentions nor the desire to politically emancipate the working classes. Intelligentsia and enlightenment of thought in Pakistan is too weak and feeble to take any risk for a cause long lost and neglected.

Is it time these trends could change? I would love to wait, see and take the plunge.