May 1 is celebrated as International Workers’ Day but, in Pakistan, it generally passes without highlighting labour related issues. In recent past, no government has ever come up with a serious policy to address concerns of the workers and their plight remains beyond description.

Article 11 of the Constitution prohibits all forms of slavery, forced labour and child labour. Article 37(e) makes provision for securing just and humane conditions of work, ensuring that children and women are not employed in vocations unsuited to their age or sex, and for maternity benefits for women in employment.

The total labour force in Pakistan is estimated to be over 45 million. Of all labour issues, the informal economy, child labour and absence of social safety net are the most serious concerns.

The ‘informal economy’ refers to modes of production and enterprises that range from small-scale production units, home-based work in production chains, and self-run micro-enterprises to bare-minimum economic survival activities such as street vending, rag-picking and domestic work. Thus the informal sector includes street vendors, shoeshine boys, rickshaw pullers, garbage collectors, home-based garment workers and home-based electronic workers. Of the total labour force in Pakistan, 65.8 per cent are employed in the informal sector compared to 34.2 per cent in the formal sector. Of these, 57 per cent are employees and unpaid family helpers, while 42.2 per cent are self-employed in the informal sector. By virtue of being part of the “informal” economy, a vast majority of workers are excluded from legal and social protection and from the scope of labour laws.

Pakistan is still among the top ten countries with the child labour issues. Although the country has had Child Protection Departments and Bureaus since 2004, the departments have done little in containing the rapid growth of the menace of child labour. Poverty and inflation have played a lethal role in the seemingly uncontrollable increase in child labour in Pakistan. Pakistan has ratified International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention against child labor and is obligated to take practical and effective measures to eradicate child Labor.

In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Statistics (FBS) findings revealed that 3.8 million children between the age group of 5-14 years are working in Pakistan out of a total of 40 million children in this age group. Many independent organisations have estimated that this figure could be anywhere from 8 to 19 million. Approximately one quarter of the children in the carpet industry are girls, and due to a prevailing view that girls have less worth than boys, many are sexually abused. The most common ailments suffered by working children in the carpet industry are back pain, poor eyesight and respiratory disorders.

Another industry in which many children are involved is the surgical tool industry. In Sialkot city, at least 5800 children are working 8 to 10 hours day and 6 days each week. The main reason why children are used in this industry is because the work requires very quick hands. The children experience many terrible things in this industry including burns, respiratory illness and carpal tunnel syndrome. 95 percent of the children report bad sleep and 40 percent experience physical punishment at work. This is a horrible state of affairs, especially given the fact that children represent 30 percent of the workers in the surgical tools industry.

The country’s existing labour code - comprising well over a hundred Ordinances, Acts, Rules, Regulations and Statutes related to industrial and commercial establishments, spanning over a century - is beset with a number of problems. Most of the legislative pieces are not in tune with changing realities and the existing conditions on the ground. For instance, we have yet to include informal sector casual employees in the ambit of labour laws despite the fact that more and more people have started entering the informal sector.

There exist wide discrepancies between the national legislation and the provisions of ILO Conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining. The labour legislation must be harmonised with international laws in consultation with all relevant stakeholders.

Adequate access to healthcare, education, skill development and safety at the work place are significant components of a dynamic social protection system. In Pakistan, the State has failed to evolve a comprehensive social protection system, while economic transformation in the last two decades has eroded traditional, indigenous community support systems that took care of periodic, or life-long, social and economic insecurities of individuals in the past. The existing social security institutions, both in the formal sector (i.e. EOBI, Social Security Institutions, Workers’ Welfare Fund and other schemes) and in the informal sector (i.e., Zakat system, Baitul Maal), are afflicted with poor governance.