According to Human Rights Watch, despite having one of the largest labour and manpower resources in the world, millions of workers in Pakistan are facing egregious abuse and rights violations, being paid below legal minimum wage whilst forced to work overtime without compensation at risk of losing their livelihood.
Concepts of social security and pension benefits are largely absent from workplaces in Pakistan, decreasing proportionately to the skills required for the profession. The 2012 garment factory fires in Lahore and Karachi, which claimed over 255 lives, should have served as stimulus for reformation of laws pertaining to working conditions.
Regrettably, since then, not even the basic framework for reform has been discussed. The incidents and numerous others and inaction in light thereof calls into question the adequacy and efficaciousness of the existing labour rights regime in Pakistan, perhaps even fundamental human rights; begging the question: how many more lives have to be lost for reform to be enacted? One cannot help but ask how miniscule must the value of human life in Pakistan must be to warrant this inaction.
Modern labour laws can be derived from the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, which expanded the relationship between employers and employees from small-scale production houses to large conglomerate companies. Pakistan, which was under the colonial rule of Great Britain, inherited its labour laws from its coloniser. Until the 18th Amendment, labour was a federal subject but after passing of the amendment in April 2010, the subject has been devolved to provinces. Every province has its own legislative framework in regards to labour, however; the laws are mostly similar to each other. Yet some provinces have been more active in drafting legislation as compared to others, for example Sindh. For the purposes of this article, we will refer to laws under the Punjab Labour Code.
An interesting aspect to note is that the law on Labour essentially seeks to protect the “workmen” while other labourers are protected through the common law principal of master-servant relation or have contractual rights and obligations under the Contract Law in Pakistan. The definition of workmen according to the Industrial and Commercial Employment (Standing Orders) Ordinance, 1968 is; ‘any person employed in any industrial or commercial establishment to do any skilled, unskilled or electrical work for hire or reward’. The definition is quite vague and many disputes have gone into litigation, however, a direction or judgment encompassing all the limbs of defining the parameters of labour issues by the Honourable Supreme Court has yet to come to light. The case law is based on a factual analysis pertaining to each particular case, thus there remains place in law for improvement in the definition of workmen and bringing clarity to this field.
The Constitution of Pakistan has a wide range of provisions in regards to labour rights as Articles 11, 17, 18, 25 and 37(e) prohibit all forms of bonded labour, child labour, allow freedom of association, grant rights to unionise, provide citizen with the right to enter any lawful profession or trade without any discrimination and secure humane and reasonable working conditions.
The two main pieces of legislation responsible for safeguarding the rights of the workmen are the Industrial and Commercial Employment (Standing Orders) Ordinance 1968 and the Punjab Shops and Establishment Ordinance 1969. These ordinances are supposed to protect all workers engaged in industrial and commercial businesses. The law provides clear guidelines to be followed by all commercial and industrial businesses. Firstly, it states that the terms and conditions of service are to be given on every new appointment, promotion or transfer in writing. Working hours should be published in the workplace, which should be visible to the workmen along with holidays and paydays. Moreover, in an industrial establishment where 50 or more workers are employed, the industry needs to provide a Group Incentive Scheme either in the form of additional wages or extra holidays to the workers in the establishment. In addition to this, the employer is liable to provide compulsory group insurance for permanent workers in relation to unforeseen incidents in the absence of which, the employer becomes liable to pay the workmen’s’ families in case of their death. One must wonder in light of all this legislation what the fuss is about but one must be aware that living in Pakistan, this legislation rarely translates into action.
The Badlia Factory incident in Karachi where workers died but no relief was granted to their loved ones is sadly not an isolated incident. Even where relief is provided it is largely inadequate.
Every business that is making profit is liable to give bonuses to its workers. The Labour Code also provides clear guidelines on the termination of employment, which is widely ignored in Pakistan especially in the present times where Covid-19 is creating torment in people’s lives. The employer must give one-month notice before termination to the worker along with one-month wages during termination. The Labour Code clearly provides the grounds on which the employer can terminate the workforce and the abovementioned Ordinances also provide the employer the right to terminate work in the event of natural disaster, civil commotion etc. However, even under these circumstances the employer cannot terminate the employment of more than 50 percent of workforce or close down the business without the prior permission of the Labour Court, thus this provision gives protection to the labour force even in extraordinary situations.
The writer did his LLB (Hons) from City University of London and is a practicing lawyer based in Lahore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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