Contract workers or condemned workers?

By Najma Sadeque

Published in the News, You Magazine

With the many laws being introduced there is unfortunately still no law that protects the rights of tens of millions of female and male skilled workers being routinely cheated…

Imagine trying to make ends meet on mere six thousand rupees a month. This is supposed to be the minimum wage for an unskilled worker. Yet, millions of female and male skilled workers operating tools such as sewing machines and cutters or welding equipment, are paid what is laid down for the unskilled – six thousand a month or down to half as much. In other words, an illegality is being committed hundreds of millions of times over every day. But the poor have neither the money nor muscle to assert their rights in a court of law.

There must be some good Samaritan lawyers around who would fight for them pro bono? Yes, there are, but nowhere near enough to come to the rescue of tens of millions of workers being routinely cheated. In fact, labour matters are not even dealt within courts of law.

“They are dealt with by the Labour Department which is not part of the judiciary,” points out Nasir Mansoor, National Pakistan Trade Union Workers.

It means that workers, despite being citizens, are not entitled either to the same quality of justice or fair wages that the middle-class and elite receive. The Labour Department’s track record speaks for itself in effect; they have merely maintained the status quo for the employers.

There is no doubt that the feudal structure was already brutal in the rural areas since well before 1947. But who do we have to thank for this continued inequitable state of affairs in the urban areas as well? The USA in part, a country that is also associated with propping up undemocratic, unelected leaders, creating debt and dependency through the IMF, double standards in terms of trade and workers rights.

Karamat Ali, Executive Director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, narrates the particular interest of the Americans in contract workers. One day, in 1989, soon after the Zia era ended, the workers union office in Karachi received a phone call from the American Embassy requesting to come and meet the labour representatives.

“They came down and told us that if we wanted to see rapid economic development in Pakistan, we should welcome foreign investment,” recalls Karamat, “We replied that we were not against foreign investment as such. But then they told us that if we kept insisting on rights for contract workers, then foreign investment would be discouraged from coming into Pakistan. The American Embassy had taken on itself the task of promoting this point of view against contract workers.”

In other words, foreign investment was conditional, not just on cheap labour but dirt-cheap labour, treating workers as sub-human, to be made to accept whatever the employers were willing to pay them – not the recommended amount needed for a decent minimum standard of living. The Americans clearly had double standards at the outset: one for their own citizens, and another for other countries. And the Pakistani government nonchalantly accepted the violation of their citizens’ constitutional, social and economic rights, and continues to do so.

Most people are unaware that the majority of workers in the country are more correctly casual labour, whether skilled or unskilled, who are recruited by contractors. Most of the contract workers are women – invisible home-based workers and harvesting peasants exploited to the hilt by contractors.

But there are almost as many male contract workers. And the common denominator is that both men and women workers are grossly underpaid. The term ‘contract workers’ generally gives the misleading impression of the worker being protected by a written contract which guarantees not only a minimum wage but extras that cover overtime, health protection that covers accidents or illness from the materials or chemical

Imagine trying to make ends meet on mere six thousand rupees a month. This is supposed to be the minimum wage for an unskilled worker. Yet, millions of female and male skilled workers operating tools such as sewing machines and cutters or welding equipment, are paid what is laid down for the unskilled – six thousand a month or down to half as much. In other words, an illegality is being committed hundreds of millions of times over every day. But the poor have neither the money nor muscle to assert their rights in a court of law.

There must be some good Samaritan lawyers around who would fight for them pro bono? Yes, there are, but nowhere near enough to come to the rescue of tens of millions of workers being routinely cheated. In fact, labour matters are not even dealt within courts of law.

“They are dealt with by the Labour Department which is not part of the judiciary,” points out Nasir Mansoor, National Pakistan Trade Union Workers.

It means that workers, despite being citizens, are not entitled either to the same quality of justice or fair wages that the middle-class and elite receive. The Labour Department’s track record speaks for itself in effect; they have merely maintained the status quo for the employers.

There is no doubt that the feudal structure was already brutal in the rural areas since well before 1947. But who do we have to thank for this continued inequitable state of affairs in the urban areas as well? The USA in part, a country that is also associated with propping up undemocratic, unelected leaders, creating debt and dependency through the IMF, double standards in terms of trade and workers rights.

Karamat Ali, Executive Director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, narrates the particular interest of the Americans in contract workers. One day, in 1989, soon after the Zia era ended, the workers union office in Karachi received a phone call from the American Embassy requesting to come and meet the labour representatives.

“They came down and told us that if we wanted to see rapid economic development in Pakistan, we should welcome foreign investment,” recalls Karamat, “We replied that we were not against foreign investment as such. But then they told us that if we kept insisting on rights for contract workers, then foreign investment would be discouraged from coming into Pakistan. The American Embassy had taken on itself the task of promoting this point of view against contract workers.”

In other words, foreign investment was conditional, not just on cheap labour but dirt-cheap labour, treating workers as sub-human, to be made to accept whatever the employers were willing to pay them – not the recommended amount needed for a decent minimum standard of living. The Americans clearly had double standards at the outset: one for their own citizens, and another for other countries. And the Pakistani government nonchalantly accepted the violation of their citizens’ constitutional, social and economic rights, and continues to do so.

Most people are unaware that the majority of workers in the country are more correctly casual labour, whether skilled or unskilled, who are recruited by contractors. Most of the contract workers are women – invisible home-based workers and harvesting peasants exploited to the hilt by contractors.

But there are almost as many male contract workers. And the common denominator is that both men and women workers are grossly underpaid. The term ‘contract workers’ generally gives the misleading impression of the worker being protected by a written contract which guarantees not only a minimum wage but extras that cover overtime, health protection that covers accidents or illness from the materials or chemical.

http://www.thenews.com.pk/newsmag/mag/detail_article.asp?id=714&magId=1

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About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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