What Pakistan’s Worker Says

    GovernanceAccountabilityWhat Pakistan’s Worker Says
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    What Pakistan’s Worker Says

    The general working conditions for Islamabad’s workers are pathetic and labour groups have been demanding elimination of a ruthless-to-the-core contractual system, but to no avail.

    Naazir Mahmood

    One would expect much better working conditions and the implementation of labour laws in the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), in comparison to other parts of the country. This, sadly, is not true.

    The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), that keeps an eye on such issues and conducts fact-finding missions across the country and holds dialogues.

    On 7 June, the HRCP held a meeting of trade unions, labour groups and workers’ federations in Islamabad – the Capital Development Authority (CDA)’s labour union, lady health workers, nurses, school teachers, sanitation workers, and the Pakistan Workers Federation.

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    Senior human-rights activists of Pakistan like Afrasiab Khattak, Arif Taj, Farhatullah Babar, and Nasreen Azhar are nearly always conspicuous by their presence during such discussions in Islamabad. There are not many such voices in the capital.

    Events like the HRCP’s meeting do not get much attention from the mainstream media in Pakistan as they do not contribute to any enhanced ratings.

    An issue that came up for discussion on 7 June was the contractual system successive governments have introduced in various agencies in Islamabad. The neo-liberal model of economy hardly gives any protection to labour and workers, especially in developing countries. Most private enterprises use a contractual mode of employment through third parties and now, government departments are following the same model. The trick is to hire a contractor who, in turn, will recruit daily wagers on contract. In most cases, these unscrupulous contractors give no appointment letters to their hired hands and minds. Needless to say, there is no job security.

    Laws not implemented

    The general working conditions for these workers are pathetic and labour groups have been demanding elimination of this ruthless-to-the-core contractual system. Labour groups have also been recommending doable steps the authorities can take, but to no avail. They have been organising protests every now and then, but there is normally a temporary response with promises that soon vanish, only to be followed by the situation worsening.

    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 cannot 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 splurges money on many other things, but not on labour development and welfare. This scarcity of resources has hindered the work of the Labour Department, in turn compromising its capacity to respond to labour issues.

    In fact, there are plenty of laws governing labour. But the real problem is with their implementation. 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.

    Pakistan worker Islamabad CDA


    Safety of labour groups is another challenge neglected by the authorities. Most contractual workers belong to the lowest-income strata and the recent surge in inflation has intensified their miseries. The workers remain 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. It has become hard for workers to network or form effective alliances in the absence of organized trade union activities. 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 are not governed by any laws. Most domestic workers come from outside Islamabad and work for a 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 and washing pets. In most cases, they get bare minimum and stale food and their children don’t attend school. Most workers complain that nearly half of their salaries are spent on transport and female workers have often complained of harassment by conductors, drivers and also by male co-passengers.

    No homes

    Paramedical and janitorial staff working in Islamabad hospitals – both private and public – and sanitation workers cleaning the streets and lifting garbage from homes too face a similar plight. 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. The occupational hazards they face are high, and the financial yields extremely low.

    The situation of sanitation workers is equally dismal. They are out there on the streets, in Islamabad’s biting cold or under the scorching summer sun. They don’t even have a place to escape a downpour. 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 are discriminated and easily threatened. 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 live in slums. Now the ICT authorities have served them notices to move. These families are extremely poor and they have nowhere to go. This is a serious issue. Knowing that Islamabad will need sanitation workers forever, the CDA must build houses for these workers. Instead, they are being asked to leave their meagre dwellings.

    Right to collective bargain

    CDA Labour Union leader Qaiser Abbas said at the hearing 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. They do not get medicines and other medical facilities if and when they fall ill. Moreover, they do not get their payments on time. The CDA says it pays the contractor regularly, but says it is helpless if the contractor defaults on payments.

    Even the Federal Directorate of Education does not treat its teachers and other workers well. While at the HRCP dialogue, representatives of contractual teachers gave a detailed account of the raw det they are meted by the FDE, which has hired hundreds of teachers and workers in 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 Rs. 25,000 a month and without any other benefits.

    Labour representatives disclosed that there were over 15,000 CDA employees. But, they said, the authorities do not recognise their right to collective bargaining. The government must consider resolving these issues that the workers face. It must provide relief to workers in ICT. Indeed, ICT must be a model for 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]



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