The first day of May is observed as International Workers’ Day or Labour Day in most countries. And in many of these countries, the day means little to nothing for those it was meant for – the working class. This day commemorates the struggle of workers for an eight-hour workday that resulted in the famous Haymarket Affair in May 1886 in Chicago in which many workers lost their lives. In Pakistan too, despite being a public holiday, May 1 carries no significance for the scores of labourers in the country. It is a pity that Pakistan still lags behind on almost all indicators of workers’ welfare internationally. Take for example, the eight-hour day that has become a standard for full-day work anywhere in the world. But in Pakistan – and in many other developing countries – this remains a dream. Apart from some big private and public organisations, private businesses and industry in Pakistan do not follow the eight-hour workday schedule – especially with a non-formal economy where the standard work hours extend to 10 or 12 hours.
The indifference to the working class in our country has been present for many decades. It became more marked after the 1980s when labour unions were banned under the dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq. As a result of such restrictions, the powerful unions within the Railways, the banking sector, the mining sector and other fields simply fizzled away, leaving little behind to represent the rights of workers. At the moment, working conditions in most factories in Pakistan remain pathetic, with hardly any fire exits or ventilation facilities. We have seen how workers have burnt to their death, for there were no fire exits on the premises they were working in. Although workers march with red flags in hand on May Day, they know that these marches hold little meaning in the eyes of those who employ them or the government which should be protecting them. Add to this the fact that the working class in Pakistan not only suffers apathy by the state but also bears direct violence in the form of attacks on their livelihoods and their homes in the name of ‘development’ or under the excuse of ‘encroachments’.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has done the right thing by increasing the minimum wage in the country, but this announcement needs implementation across the board. Many businessmen have already objected to this raise. While inflation is rising rapidly, there is an urgent need to raise minimum wages. Instead of promising dignified work, successive governments here have tended to provide government handouts to workers. No one who is employed in labour should be in a position to need handouts from the government. May 1 is really a reminder then that none of the political leaders who are trying to beat each other in their revolutionary credentials talk about the working class, and it is really up to the workers themselves to organize for their rights because there is no one that will speak for them.