July 14, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
Media workers in Pakistan are facing a redundant and ineffective labour law system that has failed to protect essential worker rights, according to a report commissioned by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
The IFJ and its affiliate the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) have noted that there is a dire need to review and overhaul the legal framework governing the rights of media workers in Pakistan.
The new report, developed by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA), was launched in a webinar on July 13. The report, titled ‘Decent Work in Pakistani Media: An assessment of labour laws and the impacts for media workers’, comes in the wake of the continuing crisis of non-payment of wages, coupled with massive job losses and widespread job insecurity within the once-burgeoning media industry in the country.
Jeremy Dear, Deputy Secretary-General of the IFJ, told panellists in the webinar that the IFJ supported its affiliate PFUJ in fighting job cuts, layoffs, and threats to journalists in Pakistan. He said journalism across the world was under threat due to technological advancement and many journalists have been forced to freelance.
Job losses, pay cuts and delayed salaries for journalists and media workers, which had already risen as a critical issue by 2018, snowballed into crisis proportions in the year of the pandemic. Over 8,000 of Pakistan’s estimated 20,000 journalists lost their jobs in 2020 alone, according to the IFJ.
“The landmark assessment of Pakistan’s existing and applicable labour, industrial and worker laws was commissioned by the IFJ to provide a better understanding of the status, facts, qualities, shortcomings, and deficiencies in the legal framework relating to labour rights in Pakistan,” he said.
Aftab Alam, Executive Director of IRADA, spoke on the findings and recommendations of the report.
“In the post-18th Constitutional Amendment era, there was a need to thoroughly review legal framework governing rights of media workers and determine the shortcomings, and deficiencies therein,” he told fellow panellists.
“Nevertheless, this IFJ supported initiative enabled us to identify the weakness of the legal system and provided an opportunity to devise a plan of actions for legal reforms for a decent and safer work environment for media workers in Pakistan,” he added.
According to the findings of the report, there is a non-inclusive legal framework for women and other marginalised segments such as religious minorities in the country.
The report stated that there is no adequate mechanism for the protection of employment in the case of electronic and social/digital media employees as seen in the case of newspaper employees. There is a need to reform the existing labour laws dealing with print and electronic media to align them to international best practices. Furthermore, there is also a need to make pragmatic and positive regulations relating to the business of social/digital media platforms so that the rights of employees associated with that platform may be safeguarded, the report said.
The report noted that the labour laws mainly dealt with formal workplaces and establishments. The issue is particularly relevant to those online/digital workers who operate from their homes.
“Since most of these laws are related to formal workplaces and establishments, therefore, they don’t recognize freelancers and independent contributors as ‘workers’,” the findings of the report said. “This is particularly relevant to the media industry where many writers, freelancers and reporters work independently and contribute to the news through their write-ups,” the report said.
The report also stated that a frail collective bargaining system has severely impacted media workers’ rights. The findings pointed out the poor awareness of media law and its application among media workers; inadequate measures to ensure the safety of media workers and journalists; and redundant and ineffective media institutions, including wage boards and the Implementation Tribunal for Newspapers Employees (ITNE).
Saqib Bhatti, the legal expert on labour laws, said most of the labour laws have to be updated to meet the needs of the time. He pointed out that broadcast and digital media workers were not covered under a specific law. However, the government could provide workers legal cover by an executive order to implement Standing Order Ordinance 1968 for the media outlets.
Sheher Bano, vice president of PFUJ, called for a gender audit of labour laws relating to media. She recommended the imposition of penalties for employers not implementing labour laws.
Rana Azeem, Secretary-General of PFUJ, said correspondents and freelancers were the most exploited media workers in the country. Out of 17000 journalists, over 7872 are correspondents and freelancers,” he told fellow panellists. He said these correspondents were not paid any salary or benefits and media owners even extort money from them on the pretext of security deposit.
Rana Azeem revealed that thousands of cases of journalists were pending before labour courts and the ITNE. He called upon the IFJ and other international media watchdogs to build pressure on the Pakistani government to ensure speedy justice to journalists.
The panellists called for a reform of existing labour laws to regulate the digital media market that has flourished in recent times and to providing digital and freelance journalists with a safety net.
The IFJ called on the unions in Pakistan need to reform their constitutions to allow digital journalists and freelance journalists to join their unions and their structures to advocate for those groups.
The report recommended that the National Industrial Relations Commission, wage boards, the NECOSA and all Industrial Relations Laws in Pakistan must be reformed to include language that reflects women and all members of society.
The wage board and ITNE must become more consultative institutions, which don’t simply reflect the government’s perspective. Government agencies must be better resourced so that they can properly implement existing labour laws and make employers comply with their legal duties. Finally, journalists must be kept safe through the creation of federal and provincial legislation that safeguards workers during this tumultuous time and beyond.