Each year, the first of May is celebrated as International Labour Day marking the liberation of the working classes around the world. Numerous functions are held in all major cities of Pakistan to commemorate the sacrifices made by the Chicago martyrs for the rights of workers. Both print and electronic media highlight the ceremonies from year to year, yet the condition of the workforce in our country is far from satisfactory. The standards practised in the developed nations complement the international labour laws, but unfortunately in Pakistan there is little value for the life, safety and comfort of the common man. Thus, I believe, that the majority of Pakistanis celebrating Labour Day are not well aware of its history or significance in relation to their fundamental rights as workers.

The industrial revolution of the 19th century promised better days ahead for the workers, but even in the 21st century their exploitation continues; although Pakistan has ratified the international labour laws of ILO. Long working hours, unpaid overtime, meagre pays, unsafe working conditions, child and bonded labour, no compensations for accidents, illness, old age or death on job, and lack of resting or catering facilities at meal times highlight that the working environment in Pakistan has, by large, little changed, in spite of a rapidly changing world.

The elected representatives of working classes sit in Parliaments and are under oath to legislate in the best interest of the country. However, a look at the working and living conditions of the labour class reveals the deplorable reality of their existence. The exploitation of the workers is an ongoing phenomenon, whether it is at the hands of industrialists, feudals, traders or domestic employers within the informal sector. Child and bonded labour, both within the rural as well as urban areas, are a black mark on the image of a liberal Islamic country. The golden period of childhood, that is when children should be attending school and playing, is spent in toiling hard to make both ends meet.

The European Union labour laws regulate the working hours to a maximum of 40 hours per week at the basic wage. Any further hours worked are remunerated at a higher rate. The higher rate also applies to the evening and night shifts, as well as weekends. Depending on the nature of the job, sufficient rest breaks are given to ensure the health and safety of the employee. Social security and pensions are mandatory.

Although Pakistan’s labour laws specify the maximum number of working hours in a week, but their poor implementation mainly in favour of the employer is a clear violation of the workers’ fundamental rights. The meagre remuneration is not sufficient to sustain their families in this era of economic insecurity and inflation.

Another disturbing sight of labour exploitation is that of undernourished women and old-age workers commonly visible on the roadsides during their construction busy hammering bricks for hours. A similar site can also be seen in the fields where rural women constitute a substantial part of the workforce. Since human labour is available at an extremely cheap rate, there is little incentive for various industries, including agriculture, to mechanise the highly laborious tasks. The failure to mechanise specific aspects of the agricultural sector is one reason for our national failure to achieve a higher yield of the crop per acre.

The working class of Pakistan is facing social injustice of different kinds. Since this situation benefits the tax-evading industrialists and feudals sitting in the legislature, there is likelihood of a change in status quo. It is extremely difficult to determine when and how the working conditions for the labour class in Pakistan would improve enough to protect the basic rights of the worker. Will this give rise to another Arab Spring phenomenon, or a regional mini-industrial revolution? This is food for thought for the ruling elite to ponder over the current harsh realities of the working class. It is time to legislate and ensure implementation of the fundamental rights of workers and guarantee them protection and social justice.

n    The writer is an ex-assistant commissioner Income Tax, IT and Change Management consultant and a Public Sector Management analyst.

    Email: drsaniachaudhry@gmail.com