Hard Times For Pakistan's Working Classes

Hard Times For Pakistan's Working Classes
About 3.3 million Pakistani children are trapped in child labor, depriving them of their childhood, health, and education, and condemning them to a life of poverty and want. It has been estimated that almost a quarter of women aged 20-49 were married before the age of 15, and 31% before they reached eighteen years of age. Only 34% of children under five are registered at birth nationally (PDHS). Birth registration is a fundamental right of all children as legal proof of a child’s existence and identity. As an accurate record of age, it can help prevent child labor and child marriage, and protect children from being treated as adults by the justice system.

Pakistan, like other parts of the world, is celebrating Labor Day to honor workers' contributions for the country's development and prosperity. Pakistan has ratified the 36 International Labor Organizations (ILO) conventions, as well as the fundamental conventions. Being a signatory of the ILO conventions, Pakistan is responsible for honoring international standards related to fundamental principles and rights at work.

One in every four households in Pakistan employs a child in domestic work, predominantly girls, between 10 to 14  years of age.

The International Labor Organization Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work was adopted in 1998 and amended in 2022 required all members to uphold basic human values that are vital to our social and economic lives. It further requires that the government, employers, and workers’ organizations should affirm the obligations and commitment that are inherent in membership of the ILO and require that they should protect and uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, work towards the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and put in place measures that guarantee the effective abolition of child labor. The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, and the provision of a safe and healthy working environment are also requirements set by the ILO.

However, in the case of Pakistan, though we have ratified international labor conventions and signed various declarations on fundamental principles at work, we have not yet implemented those in letter and spirit in our country. On World Day Against Child Labor (WDACL) in 2022, the ILO highlighted that one in every four households in Pakistan employs a child in domestic work, predominantly girls, between 10 to 14  years of age. UNICEF estimated that 3.3 million children were trapped in child labor, which deprived them of fundamental rights such as education. Though there are several laws discouraging child labor in Pakistan, children continue to employed to perform domestic work. The U.S. State Department in a report also raised concerns about child labor in Pakistan, and quoted that the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau rescued over 1,000 children from begging in Punjab and referred 1,500 to 2,000 children for psychological counseling.

The report highlights that about 9.8% of Pakistan’s population is children between 10-14. There is a higher proportion of children working in Sindh than in Punjab, with agriculture, domestic labor and the industrial sector being the most common employers of children. The ratio of children attending school is 77.1% in Punjab, but only 60.6% in Sindh.

Moreover, the International Labor Organization released a report in 2023 from a committee of experts on the application of conventions, with serious concerns about Pakistan related to the Right of Association (Agriculture) Convention, 1921, and stated that share of the employed labor force in the agriculture sector in Pakistan is around 67.24 million which stands at 37.4% of the total employed workforce. Despite that, there is no specific legislation available to protect agricultural worker’s rights. The report further states that all the Federal and Provincial Industrial Relations Acts are applicable to formal sectors, but not to the agriculture sector.

The report further highlights that there are no restrictions on agriculture sector employees to form a union. The report states that Balochistan Industrial Relations Act, 2022 (hereafter BIRA 2022) provides in its section 1(4) that the Act shall apply to all workers and employers at all workplaces working or conducting business within Balochistan. It further points out that the Government of Sindh has registered four unions of agriculture workers and two associations of landlords of agriculture farms. However, the workers engaged in agriculture holdings that do not run an establishment or farmers working on their own, or with family are out of the ambit of industrial relation laws. The committee urged Pakistan to ensure that federal and provincial Industrial Relations Acts are amended to expressly cover all agricultural workers, including those in the informal sector, and to enable them to enjoy the rights conferred by the Convention in law and in practice. It requests the Government to provide information on any progress achieved in this respect.

Apart from the agriculture sector, the report highlighted concerns regarding the formation of associations for workers as well as managerial staff, and urged the government to revise all Industrial Relations Acts, federal as well as provincial, and ensure that both labor and the managerial workers can form and join the organization of their choice. Pakistan was also asked to amend the laws to accommodate the workforce of Export Processing Zones (EPZ). Though Pakistan assured that it has withdrawn S.R.O. 1004(1)/82, except clause 7, through a notification dated 5 August 2022, and stated that the eight industrial relation laws which are not applicable to the EPZ are now applicable. The Government also informed the committee that it has formed the rules in this regard as well, however, a copy of the rules was not provided to the committee to examine the veracity of the rules. The committee urged the government to provide a copy of the final version of EPZ (Employment and Service Condition) Rule 2009 and provide them with information about the rights of trade unions in the EPZ and their registration criteria.

Pakistan ranked 8th out of 167 countries on the modern slavery index

Apart from improving the right of association, the country is very relaxed in implementation of labor laws. Being a member of the ILO, Pakistan has so far failed to implement a 40 hour work week and minimum wage rules in the private sector. Workers who are employed in the markets or in the private sector normally work between 12-16 hours a day for seven days, whereas people employed to serve as domestic workers even work for longer hours, however, in reward, they do not even get the minimum pay set by the government of Pakistan.

Consequently, these workers are forced to live a life that resembles modern slavery. Law enforcement agencies adopting a largely lenient approach in implementing labor laws is the main hurdle in the upliftment of living standards of workers and eliminating poverty. The Norwegian Human Rights Fund, referring to the report of the Global Slavery Index stated that 3,186,000 people in Pakistan are victims of modern forms of slavery, and Pakistan ranked 8th out of 167 countries on the modern slavery index. The government of Pakistan should realize that any further delays in implementing labor laws not only tarnishes the country’s image on global platforms, but also increases unemployment in the country.

The author is a corporate lawyer based in the USA and an expert in international public law, labor law, white collar crimes and sanctions compliance.