Listening to labour – 12 May 2023

Two of these concerns were expressed most. One is the determination of minimum wage

The information revolution and the rise of digital technology has profoundly changed the nature and the place of work. In Islamabad this week, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan organised a timely roundtable on reconceptualising the notion of labour and labour rights in this changing context. Listening to the representatives of labour present there gave one the feeling that reconceptualisation has perhaps to wait until some longstanding issues are resolved. Rather than looking forward, and coming to terms with the unfortunate fact that trade union membership has consistently declined over time and that two-thirds of the non-agricultural employment has continued to be in the informal sector, the discussion is dragged back into the legacies, admittedly, of an unenviable past.

Two of these concerns were expressed most. One is the determination of minimum wage. For reasons not known, the federal government took over the task of announcing minimum wage. It is done in the Parliament as part of the budgetary process. A government that cannot stick to its budgeted promises enters into a territory over which it has no control. The abolition of the concurrent list under the 18th amendment completely devolved labour and related matters to the provinces. By a strange coincidence, the federal government announced a labour policy in 2010, while enacting at the same time the 18tth amendment. Obviously, it turned out to be its last labour policy. Later, it started dabbling into the minimum wage. It provided nothing more than a baseline for the provinces, who have the de jure power to notify. In FY21, for instance, the federal government increased the minimum wage from Rs17,500 to Rs18,000. Punjab government raised it to Rs20,000. Sindh went further ahead to fix it at Rs25,000. Employers challenged it in the Sindh High Court without success, but the Supreme Court accepted their plea that the announcement was made without tripartite consultation. More recently, the caretaker government in Punjab has approved a minimum wage of Rs32,000. In this case, the tripartite consultation was held, but employers claim that their representatives were handpicked.

The other concern related to the complexity created by some 70-plus labour laws. In the Labour Policy 2010, the federal government recognised that “the Labour Laws are quite complex, over-lapping, anomalous, and at times render the subject matter difficult to understand, besides creating confusion for those who deal with them. Further, the penalties prescribed for offences and non-compliance are very low, since some of these laws were framed during pre -independence period. The Labour Laws will be consolidated and rationalized into five core laws.” Then the work was passed on to the provinces, who just copy-pasted these laws. Punjab and Sindh waited until 2018 to announce their respective labour policies. This paragraph was copy-pasted in the Punjab Policy, with the addition that the rules or the lack thereof made life even more difficult. In the Sindh Labour Policy, a promise was made to reduce the number of laws to six, coupled with one-window operation. It seems both provinces were only producing donor-assisted glossy documents to window-dress the GSP compliance. Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa did not attempt even these verbal statements.

In the meantime, post-18th amendment issues related to Employees Old-Age Benefit Institution and Workers Welfare Tax — the two gifts of ZAB — continue. For the pittance of a pension and other benefits, a worker working in one province with family and residence in another province, has to run from pillar to post.

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