Movements for the rights of skilled and unskilled manpower working as labour in Pakistan have always lacked a unified purpose and vigour. The single reason why trade and labour unions despite overwhelming numbers have failed to make an impact is the absence of educated and motivated prime movers to provide the ideological edge to this workforce that powers Pakistan’s economy. 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.

Unlike United Kingdom, France, Germany 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.

In a society that repeatedly fails to innovate and breed new ideas, the absence of strong and effective labour organisations opens wide spaces for exploitation and absence of effective pressure groups in the political economy of the country. This is manifested in a diverse and fractured representative structure along ethnic, political, ideological and sectarian lines besides limitations imposed by legislative, regulatory authorities and welfare infrastructures.

Trade unionism in Pakistan ever since the Cold War is synonymous with communism and therefore non grata. Even long after communism died its death, they remain a taboo. 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 International Labour Organisation (ILO), World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and World Confederation of Labour (WCL) reach into Pakistan through a manipulative system into a house divided within and rotting inside out. Socialist-leftist leaning organisations like Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF), All Pakistan Trade Union Federation (APTUF) and All Pakistan Trade Union Organization (APTUO) have failed to create any instrumentalism and syncretism to claim the true spirit of labour rights. The situation has become more complicated and regressive after the entry of political parties for political purposes. Consequently, the working class is forever vulnerable to 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 imprisonment of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, 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. Nothing has changed since.

But unlike Pakistan, labour movements world over have become 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 kickstart 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. Laws prohibit non-workers from becoming leaders. This effectively closes doors on educated cheerleaders. 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 them 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.

The danger is that a sustained neglect could one day lead to a workers revolt. So unless there is a Godot for change, inertia will prevail. But then Godot never comes.