Hira NasirOn a scale of one to five, Pakistan stood at the bottom of the world’s worst countries for workers on the Global Rights Index(2015), by the international Trade Union Confederation(1). Pakistan has been struggling for political stability for years. Amidst all other issues the trade unions play an important role with or without the intervention of the government (depending of the case).
Trade unions can be advantageous to both the employer and the workmen. For the workmen trade union is an important platform to communicate their concerns to the management. The rights of the members of the union are better protected and at times the members of the trade unions receive better benefits in terms of wages etc. than the non-unionized members. The union provides legal support to its members in any event that requires legal assistance (eg events involving police or court). Trade unions keep the workers protected from physical and mental exploitation. Several developed nations have training sessions for the workers in the trade union. Such benefits not only provide a sense of security to the workmen but also motivated them to do better. Nevertheless, for the employer, satisfaction of the workmen translates into greater productivity. Industrial disputes are avoided through the existence of these unions.
Specific to Pakistan, the trade unions have to face several issues.
Issues faced by trade Unions in Punjab
Lack of Participation
With 63.34 million workers, Pakistan is amongst the 10th largest labor force around the globe with 945 trade unions(2). However, still the unionized workers in the labor force amount to three percent only with majority of the members of the trade unions usually associated with industrial backgrounds(3).
Punjab is a province with large number of cottage industries where the workmen are either illiterate and have little exposure about the benefits of participation in a union. These individuals are easily be exploited by industrialists. Further, the globalization of economy has resulted a lot of job insecurity amongst the workers especially the workers who are working under contracts. Their participation in the trade union can help in protecting the interests of the industry and the participants, but they do not trust the union leaders and fear that their participation might translate into a ‘negative act’ to their employers and result them losing their jobs.
Political exploitation of trade unions
The political leaders of Punjab might pose to empower labor unions but the reality dictates they can not afford to do it. The politics of the country are designed such to benefit through the status quo. The employers and the opposition leaders use trade unions as blackmailing agents against the current government. For example in the past Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used the labor force to start a movement of Islamic Socialism, however, as soon as he got into power the traditional system of government continued without much of the promised change.
Following Bhutto General Zia-ul-Haq followed. His period of dictatorship put restrictions on the labor rights and favored the employers by imprisoning union leaders. It was only in General Perwaiz Mushraf’s period of rule that the restrictions on the members of trade unions were lifted. With every government that followed, the destiny of trade unions in Punjab and other provinces lied in their hands. A recent study by International Trade Union Confederation (IUTC) revealed that although the rights of trade unions exist in law, even the Provincial and Federal governments can not guarantee that the due rights are delivered. In 2013 four cases of the violation of rights of trade unions were registered against the government of Paksitan(4). Events of unlawful interference of government have existed during the period of strikes and otherwise also.
Laws that provide hindrance in the formation of trade unions
Following the 18th amendment, there are a few contradictions in the labor laws and the constitution. The federal and provincial labor laws do not protect labors from anti-union discrimination. The Section 27-B of Banking Companies Ordinance 1962 considers it an offence to use office facility such as telephone, car for the purpose of promoting trade union activities during office hours. Any individual found guilty of doing so is to be imprisoned for three years, or fined or both. Since the office bearer of banking union can only be an office employee if it happens this becomes an issue. If a bank employee is considered guilty of the offense stated earlier the Industrial Relations Act 2012 disqualifies the individual under “moral turpitude under the Pakistan Penal Code”, and the individual is disqualified from being an office bearer of trade union for minimum five years since the time his sentence ended.
Furthermore, the Provincial Relations Acts states that a person who is put under the “Pakistan Penal Code” is unfit for the office bearing of trade union. The new labor laws allow the provincial and federal governments to dismiss the office bearer of trade union if he is unable to stop a strike as ordered. The Essential Services Maintenance Act 1952 is used to provide hindrances in the activities of trade unions. The act has been used to prevent or stop any strikes by the unions and to cancel the registration of the unions. In 2015 the KPK government used this act to prohibit all the medical staff to take part in any union related activities.
Both the provincial and federal governments have the authority to restore the membership of any expelled member of the trade union if the right amount of compensation is provided. The 18th amendment provides a lot of hurdles to give the status of CBA(collecting bargaining agent) to a union. Excessive number of requisites are outlined to achieve the status which ensures CBA status is not easily given to unions.
Complicated registration Method
The steps that go into the registration of a trade union are complicated. Repeated formalities of the process of registration results in delay. A trade union can not register in an industry or establishment if there exist two or more trade unions in the establishment or industry already, unless its members comprise twenty percent of the workers in the industry.
The process requires details of the names of the employers and the members. The list is verified by the employer before the registration. The employer might use different ways to prevent the activities of the trade unions such as threatening, or warning to dismiss the employee or harassment. A policy that is followed by a few establishments from the private sector is that the non-management employees are converted into management employees. The advantage of such a policy is that the labor law puts a bar on the participation of officers in the activities of trade unions. At time the registrars refuse to register the trade union or delay in the process of registration due to their secret cooperation with the employers. Under certain instances the employers have also registered ‘yellow union’ so that the members are divided and are unable to fulfill the requirement of having minimum twenty percent of the total employees membership to form a second union. Once the trade union is registered the employees face threats and harassment at workplace. At times the registrations can be cancelled even upon the action of the employer. For example in 2015 a petition was filed by the employer against the Ittehad Workers Union at the UniLever plant on Multan Road. The court cancelled the registration of the union stating that UniLever was transprovincial establishment which had to registered with NIRC and not the Trade Unions Registrar(5).
Lack of leadership and finances
Although we have a large number of trade unions registered in Punjab, they lack the needed leadership. The current leadership is already old and struggling to survive. It does not represent the women, children and contract workers. Union members belonging to a similar industry are not even united to achieve similar goals .
To make the situation complex unions in Punjab are usually self financed. Lack of funds prevent them from taking up issues in media and or on international forums through conferences.
Role of Trade Unions in Brick Kiln Industry of Pakistan
An estimated 15000 to 18000 brick kilns exist in Pakistan(6) The brick kiln industry and its issues have existed for long. Despite legislation that protects the right of the workers in the brick kiln industry issues such as bonded labor, no regulation of the working conditions and very little wages remain.
Every year hundreds of children and families are trapped in the never ending cycle of bonded labor with heavy debts that take a life time period to end. The government of Punjab has circulated a fixed wage rate for the workers (1036 rupees for producing 1000 bricks), however, the employees are even deprived of it fully(7). The workers are under constant debt of interest on advance payments. Since, most of their lives are spent paying for their debts they have very less to invest into education or other activities that can benefit them financially. They are easily exploited under dangerous working conditions.
With such a situation prevailing in the brick kiln industry trade unions are a need to advocate for the rights of the labourers. However, according to a survey in 2016, two third of the labors are not allowed to participate in unions(8). Amongst the very few related trade unions with the All Pakistan Federation of United Trade Unions are Pakistan Brick Kiln Labor Union and Punjab Federation of Brick Kiln Labor Unions.
Separate from those mentioned earlier, a very active related union from the industry is the Pakistan Bhatta Mazdoor Union Punjab which is the first brick kiln union that received the certificate of collective bargaining agent from the registrar of trade union in 2016. The union was also earlier associated with All Pakistan Federation of United Trade Unions. On October 18th 2017 the union along with several other unions coming from other industries rallied in Lahore to be a part of the anti-slavery day. Everyone joined in from different cities to put forward their issues. They advocated for minimum wage rate, registration of the social security, employee old age benefits and an end to the bonded labor. The union has been part of several strikes such as that in Toba Tek Singh, where after two years of non-payment of wages the laborers of around 20 brick kilns finally stood up. Similarly the members protested for eight hours outside the press club for the end of bonded labor until the members of labor department agreed to fulfill their demands. It is their efforts that have successfully freed individuals from years of bonded labor. Traditionally the workers had numbers assigned to them and were called accordingly. However, over the years with the efforts of trade unions, trends have changed and so they have names now. The unions have stressed upon the need to raise salaries of the workers at the brick kilns and so they succeeded also to have a minimum wage rate.
Trade unions from the industry participate in various workshops to engage with trainers and discuss issues specific to Brick Kiln industry. Recently a two day workshop was held in Hotel Pak Heritage Lahore from 22nd May to 23rd May 2018 for the union members(9). The workshop focused on laws in the constitution that could support the rights if the workers and the existing issues faced by them. An issue brought forward in the workshop was related to the CNIC of the brick kiln workers. The processes required by the NADRA for the registration was complicated and lengthy for the poor illiterate workers. To resolve this issue brick kiln workers Union was to conduct meetings with NADRA. Similarly, another workshop was held at the same venue for the brick kiln union members from 27th June to 28th June 2018(10). Some of the demands that were put forward by the union members on the workshop are listed below.
” · Abolish advance system
· Proper housing with all basic facilities
· Provision of proper wages
· Social security cards, EOBI cards
· Health facility at brick kiln
· Maternity leaves to females workers
· Provision of pure drinking water at brick kiln and workplace
· Facility of washroom at workplace and separate washroom for females
· Prioritization of Demands
· Provision of Social security cards
· Provision of EOBI cards
· No advances offered by owners” (11)
Particularly for the protection of the children in the brick kiln industry a one day training session was conducted by Labour Education Federation in April 2018. The union members participated also along with the workers to understand the issues faced by children and their parents so they could advocate for them better. The parents revealed how children were included by parents to complete the tasks assigned by the owner of the brick kiln. There were no khidmat cards or free books for the children to go to school. The poor children were treated separate from the rest of the children due to their inferior status. The parents felt insecure for their childrens’ fate which was to match the parents’ due to the persisting problems. The union members supported the parents emotionally and promised to voice them. Previously, only a few workers associated with the industry used to have awareness about unions, however there have been changes in the brick kiln industry. The existing few unions are more vocal about the rights and aim to bring about the necessary changes for the protection of the rights of workers.