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What the worker says

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By Dr. Naazir Mahmood

The Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) is an area where one would expect much better labour laws and working conditions compared to other parts of the country. Sadly, this is not true. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) keeps an eye on such issues, conducts fact-finding missions across the country and holds dialogues.

On June 7, the HRCP held a meeting of trade unions, labour groups and workers’ federations in Islamabad. Such events and issues do not get much attention from the mainstream media in Pakistan as they do not contribute to any enhanced ratings.

The HRCP engaged the Capital Development Authority (CDA)’s labour union, lady health workers, nurses, school teachers, sanitation workers, and the Pakistan Workers Federation. In such discussions in Islamabad, some senior human-rights activists like Afrasiab Khattak, Arif Taj, Farhatullah Babar, and Nasreen Azhar are nearly always conspicuous by their presence. There are not many such voices in the capital.

One of the major issues that came up for discussion was the contractual system that successive governments have introduced in various departments of Islamabad.

The neo-liberal model of economy hardly gives any protection to labour and workers, especially in developing countries. Most private enterprises have been using a contractual mode of employment through third parties.

Now the government departments are following the same model. The trick is to hire a contractor who in turn will recruit daily wagers on contracts and without any job security.

In most cases, these unscrupulous contractors give no appointment letters to their hired hands and minds.

The general working conditions for these workers are pathetic and labour groups have been demanding elimination of this contractual system which is ruthless to the core.

Labour groups have also been giving recommendations to government authorities but to no avail.

They have been organizing protests every now and then but there is normally a temporary response with promises, but as soon as these protests end, things remain the same or sometimes get even worse.

Contractors are prompt at firing those who demand better wages and working conditions; there is almost no redressal mechanism where the fired labourers can go and get relief.

They can’t prove their employment without an appointment letter to anybody. In many cases the government has used brutal force to disperse such protests, and in the face of a severe crackdown the labourers just remain on the receiving end.

The government authorities have not been taking these issues as seriously as they should be. The ICT Labour Department lacks resources as the government spends money on so many other things but not on labour development and welfare.

This scarcity of resources has hindered the Labour Department’s work, and its capacity to respond to labour issues is compromised.

It is not that there are no laws governing labour problems, there are aplenty. The real problem is with the implementation of labour laws. Contractual workers and daily wagers in the ICT have been facing uncertainties mainly related to their contracts but successive governments have been unwilling to address these issues.

The safety of labour groups is another problem that the authorities neglect. Most of these contractual workers belong to the lowest-income strata and the recent surge in inflation has intensified their miseries.

The working class segment remains at the mercy of the vagaries of contractors. The relevant authorities have been reluctant to provide relief to these segments, making them even more vulnerable.

In a way, the government and the private sector – under the farce of public private partnership – have adversely affected the interests of the working class. In the absence of organized trade union activities it has become hard for workers to network or form effective alliances.

Local governments, student unions, and labour organizations all have been nearly paralyzed by a nexus of the bureaucracy and the private sector.

Another example of this paralysis is the plight of domestic workers who have no governing laws. Most domestic workers come from outside of Islamabad and work for pittance.

Their working hours are long and they have no job security, medical facilities, annual leaves, or any other benefits. They do all sorts of chores – from cleaning and cooking to driving and walking or washing pets. In most cases, they get bare minimum and stale food and their children remain out of school.

Most workers complain that nearly half of their salaries are spent on transport in which many female workers have also complained of harassment by conductors, drivers, and even by male passengers.

Then comes the issue of paramedical and janitorial staff working in Islamabad hospitals – both private and public – and sanitation workers cleaning the streets and lifting garbage from homes.

Private and public hospitals and clinics now hire paramedical and janitorial staff on daily wages or on a contractual basis. Most of them do not get proper training to handle medical and surgical waste and end up contracting various diseases as a result.

Not many hospitals have modern incinerators, leaving most of the waste for the janitors to dispose of in a dangerous manner. Occupational hazards are high and financial yields extremely low for the staff.

Coming to sanitation workers we find an equally dismal picture. Whether extreme cold or scorching heat, they are out there on the streets. Even in heavy rains they have nowhere to get shelter. Ideally there should be some shaded places for the workers to sit and rest for a while during their tiring workday.

Most of these workers are non-Muslims and live under perpetual threat of discrimination. Their communities are located across Islamabad but they lack basic facilities such as education, health, electricity, water and sanitation, and even security.

Many settlements of sanitation workers have been removed for ‘new developments’ without giving any compensation. One latest example is the construction of 10th Avenue in Islamabad that will pass through the land where hundreds of non-Muslim sanitation workers have their slum dwellings.

Now the ICT authorities have served them notices to move away. These poor families have nowhere to go. This is a serious issue and the CDA must build flats for these workers because Islamabad will need sanitation workers forever. You can’t just ask them to leave their meagre dwellings like this.

CDA Labour Union leader Qaiser Abbas shared with the audience the fact that most of the CDA sanitation workers are extremely poor and they do not get any protective gear from the authorities.

Since most of them are on daily wages, the contractors do not give them any benefits at all. If they fall sick they do not get medicines and other medical facilities. Moreover, they do not get their payments on time, while the CDA says it pays the contractor regularly but if the contractor defaults on payments the CDA absolves itself from any responsibility.

Even the Federal Directorate of Education (FDE) is no better while treating its teachers and workers. Representatives of contractual teachers while attending the HRCP dialogue gave details of how unfairly the FDE treats them. There are hundreds of teachers and workers that the FDE has hired on contracts during the past decade.

The directorate does not regularize them and keeps renewing the contracts and in that process a lot of favouritism and nepotism is exercised. Some teachers complained that they were working for as low as just Rs25,000 a month without any benefits.

Other labour representatives including Ayesha, Akram Bunda, Qamar Abbas, Raja Bilal, and Rehman Bajwa disclosed that there were over 15,000 CDA employees, but the authorities do not recognize their right to collective bargaining.

These are all problems that the government must consider. It must provide relief to workers in ICT, and also in other parts of the country.


The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: [email protected]


Courtesy: The News

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