By Zeenat Hisam
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” — Albert Einstein
THE Covid-19 pandemic, which destroyed the livelihoods of billions of workers, exposed the widening inequity in the world between the rich and poor as never before.
An important lesson to emerge in the aftermath is the need for a “just transition into the future” and the need to go “towards a more protected and empowered workforce” as was said in a recent ILO report.
This lesson may not have been grasped yet by the employers and workers in our country, but it has created a ripple in the world of work at large. Let us hope our employers, labour unions and state officials realise these needs, if not today, then tomorrow.
Contrary to the notion that in times of crisis trade union membership falls, many countries witnessed a resurgence of trade union activism during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, trade union membership was going down in the world, excepting a few African and Latin American countries.
The pandemic resulted in a realisation of precariousness of jobs and a reckoning for social security systems. The crisis heightened the sense of loneliness and kindled a desire to connect with others. Workers came out in droves to raise their voice against inequity and for transformative social policies.
It was not just workers, but employers’ associations and industrial relations officials in many countries too that came together to formulate proposals to step up protective mechanisms for health and safety, and to remedy the loss of income.
It is not surprising that union resurgence is highest in the US, the most powerful capitalist economy, with the highest level of income inequality among the G7 countries. The US was once famous for its strong middle class; but today, the number of middle-income households has declined from 60 per cent to 51pc and union density has shrunk from 20pc to 10.3pc in the last four decades.
Trade unions in Pakistan are at a crossroads.
During the pandemic years, although union density remained at the previous level, the percentage of young union members rose substantially. Unionisation gathered momentum in food chains like McDonald, Starbucks and Chipotle, where young workers dominate. The April 2022 victory of workers to form a union for the first time in Amazon.com, an internet-based retail enterprise, has accelerated unionisation in America and kindled hope among workers globally. Amazon is notorious for its treatment of workers and had successfully squashed workers’ efforts to unionise.
In the UK, trade unionism and worker activism have also seen a resurgence over the past two years. A recent example is CHEP, a pallet warehouse in Trafford, Manchester, where 65 workers have been striking since the last five months against low pay. Cases of labour activism in other countries include Argentina, where platform workers are organising a new union; Indonesia, where motorcycle and taxi drivers trade unions have formed an Online Transportation Action Committee; and Uzbekistan, where the trade union federation is organising seasonal workers such as cotton pickers.
Closer home, we witnessed the historical Indian farmers’ one-year-long movement (2020-2021) against three laws which the government finally repealed. In March 2022, an estimated 50 million people in India joined the two-day national strike called by 10 trade unions demanding social security, higher minimum wage and a halt to privatisation.
In Pakistan, a small victory for labour was recorded in March 2022. More than 2,000 workers of a carpet company in Lahore went on a three-day strike in September 2021 when the company failed to raise the minimum wage to Rs20,000 as stipulated by the Punjab government. By the end of the year, the workers’ continued struggle resulted in an increment of 16pc for piece rate and 14pc for fixed salary workers.
What came out of the pandemic’s impact on the world of work was a simple truth: trade unions matter.Trade unions are founded on the concept of social dialogue, a dialogue between two (unequal) partners — workers and employers. It is only through dialogue that the conflicts can be resolved and grievances addressed. According to a recent survey by the ILO, the consensus reached through social dialogue between employers and workers led to a 26pc increase in trade union membership.
Though faced with serious challenges, trade unions in Pakistan are at a crossroads. On the one hand are the constraints of inadequate labour legislation, poor socioeconomic indicators of the workforce, social divisions and politico-economic instability that the unions have to reckon with. On the other hand, the increasing induction of youth in the labour force, a bulky informal sector and the rising number of platform workers present an opportunity to organise and service a greater number of workers through both traditional and innovative methods and bring them into the fold of trade union structures.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector. She can be reached at [email protected]