OPINION: Neglected priority

ISLAMABAD (Dawn/ANN) - Among the ministers and advisers appointed by the Pakistan government, the additional portfolio of labour has not been assigned to anyone.

There is no doubt that the government is confronted with myriad challenges in need of urgent attention; it must not only face them effectively but also bring about tangible improvements. Among others, these comprise of economy, energy, security, foreign policy, health, education, water and environment. For more than 20 years, successive governments have been fire-fighting such issues while also struggling for their own survival. All those challenges had to be handled on a priority basis. Besides unprecedented power load-shedding and water crises, successive governments have had to handle major natural disasters and acts of terrorism, involving a colossal loss of life.

The October 2005 earthquake resulted in a death toll of almost 100,000, with injuries in the tens of thousands. Around 3.5 million people were rendered homeless; 250,000 animals perished and 780,000 buildings were destroyed. In August 2010, Pakistan was hit by the worst flooding in its history, which affected an estimated 20 million people. The heavy monsoon had swept away human beings, homes, animals and crops, which jolted the economy during the then PPP-led government.  

This was followed by a dengue outbreak in 2011, in which more than 14,000 people were infected. Despite the efforts of the governments, especially in Punjab, the high cost of prevention limited the ability of Pakistan to control epidemics. 

Will labour finally get the attention it needs?

Almost 300 people perished in the September 2012 Baldia Town garments factory fire. The APS Peshawar terrorist attack in December 2014 killed 132 children and others. In 2017, the young doctors’ strike in Lahore seriously impacted hospitalised patients, 11 of whom died due to neglect.

Besides these calamities, the longest dharna in Pakistan’s history, staged by the PTI in Islamabad, was called off after the gruesome APS attack. This was followed by prolonged litigation against Nawaz Sharif after the Panama Papers leaks. These both affected the functioning of the PML-N government for five years.

In these circumstances, the field of labour legislation has suffered, never finding its place in the list of various governments’ priorities. At present, Pakistan is critically in need of foreign investment to set up industries, business houses and commercial undertakings. Besides having a stable law and order situation and the required infrastructure, labour laws should also be made investment-friendly. Since the passage of the 18th Amendment, which transferred the power of legislating on labour to the provinces, the situation has unfortunately gone from bad to worse.

While the Sindh government took the opportunity to devolve almost all the prominent labour laws, there has hardly been any effort by the other provinces over the last five years to amend these laws to meet new challenges. One should not, however, get the impression from this that the Sindh government’s efficiency in passing laws brought about any improvement in the structure of labour legislation, enhancement in workers’ welfare or in the creation of a business-friendly environment. Its sole purpose was to increase revenues by collecting huge funds from companies operating in the province through the following enactments: the Sindh Companies Profits (Workers’ Participation) Act, 2015, the Sindh Workers’ Welfare Fund Act, 2014, and the Sindh Employees’ Old-Age Benefits (EOB) Act, 2015.

On the other hand, the promulgation of Sindh’s labour laws without provincial coordination and ignoring its ramifications on other provinces has led to difficulties for the federal government and trans-provincial companies. As a consequence, over the last three years, the number of cases referred to the superior courts for interpretation of the provisions of various labour acts has reached a record high.

The EOB Act, the most beneficial of these laws, has reached a stage where its survival looks doubtful unless immediately attended to by the federal government. Both the beneficiaries (ie, retired workers) and the EOB Institution are suffering. The monthly pension of Rs5,250 was last increased in April 2015, and there is no chance of its revision at the moment unless intricate legal issues are sorted out. Besides, the matter regarding the rate at which monthly EOBI contributions are payable by employers is sub judice.

Among the ministers and advisers appointed by the government, the additional portfolio of labour has not been assigned to anyone. With the prime minister constituting various taskforces under his advisers, there is a dire need to form one for the unification and rationalisation of labour laws. Since these laws are applicable to industrial and commercial establishments, the labour taskforce may be constituted under Abdul Razak Dawood, the adviser to the prime minister on commerce, textiles, industry, production and investment.   

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