Pakistan’s labour movement: a reality check

Trade union membership in Pakistan is no higher than at independence in 1947, causing the country and its citizens to miss out on the potential benefits of a strong labour movement. The political and other restraints on workers’ organizations need addressing as a matter of urgency.

Last month, Pakistan celebrated its diamond jubilee of independence with passion. Memorial ceremonies were organized from Karachi to Kashmir and Gilgit to Gwadar amidst a devastating monsoon which has already killed more than 1,500 people including 550 children and impacted more than 35 million mostly poor citizens, especially farmers, peasants, daily wage earners and domestic workers who are now displaced and homeless. But one thing missing amid the humanitarian crisis is the united voice of workers in Pakistan.

The strength of the labour movement in Pakistan has receded and flooded over the 75 years of the country's history, and is arguably at its weakest point in recent memory due to internal fights and a lack of capacity to nurture the new leadership. Even though Pakistan was founded by a trade union leader – Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was the elected president of the All India Postal Staff Union - Pakistan's trade union movement has never managed to build a strong foundation which shows the failures of the country's development trajectory.

At the time of independence, for a population of 32 million, only 75 registered trade union organizations in Pakistan had a mere 58,150 members. This can be compared with 1,725 registered trade unions in the United India, which claimed 900,000 union members. Whereas, in today’s Pakistan, there are 7,096 trade unions with a membership of 1,414,160 for a 60 million workforce in a country of 220 million people according to a recent ILO’s study - which is contested by the labour leadership in Pakistan as they believe that less than one per cent of workers in Pakistan are organized in trade unions. Because of the lack of data and non-reporting by the trade unions to the registration authorities, official, precise data about the number of trade unions is not available.

From independence to current times, Pakistan has witnessed a series of political and military-led governments in which labour reforms have never been on the agenda of the ruling elite, except for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government, which brought in several pro-worker reforms. His government’s drive to promote unionization, in combination with other provisions such as giving a share in profits, promoted a movement to form trade unions in small and large industries.

A recent study Mapping Labour Unions in Pakistan commissioned by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Pakistan stated that despite the lack of official information there is consensus in the labour movement that trade union density in Pakistan is today as low as it was at the time of the country’s independence.

The biggest improvements for workers in Pakistan are owed to the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Pakistan joined the ILO in 1947, ratifying Convention 87 relating to the right of workers to organize, and Convention 98 concerning the right to bargain collectively in the early 1950s. Together this helped Pakistan develop a framework to regulate and establish worker-employer engagement, and most importantly to safeguard workers’ rights. But those improvements were challenged when in 1958, military dictator General Ayub Khan completely scrapped the trade unions by removing the Trade Union Act of 1947 and the Trade Dispute Act of 1947. In 1969, the Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) provided the right to form trade unions but it incorporated a politically insulating trade-union model by restricting the selection of trade-union leaders to the factory level and introducing the collective bargaining agents (CBA) system. This required 75 per cent of the members of any trade union to declare the same employer, which promoted fragmentation in trade unions, leading in turn to an increase in the number of unions while resulting in a decline in the trade union movement as it prohibited strikes in the essential-services sector. Successive governments, whether military or democratically elected, amended the exclusionary IRO 1969 several times, lastly in 2008 to further restrict labour-industrial relations. The IRO 2002 and the IRA 2008 both excluded from their ambit the employees of law-enforcement agencies, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) security staff, wage-earners above pay group V, government hospitals and educational institutions, and the self-employed and agricultural workers. These groups together constitute about 70 percent of the total labour force of the country.

Today, after 75 years, the trade unions in Pakistan stand disenfranchised, fragmented, and under-represented. The many reasons for this include: the politicization of trade unions, where political parties have their labour wings in the public sector and industries; growing informality in employment which has promoted contract labour and outsourcing; formation of pocket unions; and lack of institutional support from the government. But the labour movement is partially responsible for its own weaknesses. In interviews for the FES study on mapping labour unions in Pakistan with labour leaders criticized corruption within the ranks of the trade unions as well as favouritism and nepotism in the unions. The inability to foster new leadership and generate adequate funds has led to a lack of capacity building on labour laws and an absence of solidarity among the trade unions. All of this has further weakened the labour movement in Pakistan.

Another weakness of the trade-union movement is the underrepresentation of women. Even though women constitute almost 50 per cent of the total population, according to ILO only 2 percent of members of trade unions in Pakistan are women. The main reasons for this are dominant patriarchal values and toxic behaviour at trade unions, which make them unwelcome spaces for women workers. Most trade unions lack a gender-sensitive perspective, and women are handpicked for leadership positions only to satisfy the legal requirement but are not perceived as genuine representatives of female workers.

It’s time for the labour leadership in Pakistan to work for the unification of all workers to enable impactful workers’ solidarity in Pakistan. Moreover, trade unions should focus on the educational capacity building of their members and should promote democratic culture in their ranks by introducing a tenure system for office-bearers. It is crucial for trade unions to bring new leadership and encourage youth and women to participate in trade union activism. Pakistani workers need a strong voice to be heard in the corridors of power, which is only possible by unifying the fragmented labour movement in a workers confederation in Pakistan that can build strong alliances with civil society and international labour support organizations. Pakistan and its citizens need a strong labour movement. The workers can’t wait for another 75 years. So, it’s time for action to deal with unfinished business.

Abdullah Dayo, is a strong advocate of social justice and democracy, currently working as programme advisor at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Pakistan. In this context, he is responsible for social justice, economy, governance and democracy projects. He has studied political science, political economy development and foreign policy analysis at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany. Previously, he has worked with UNICEF, Oxfam, World Vision International and European Commission in Pakistan. He tweets at: @AbdullahDayo

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.