October 20th, 2021
By Hamid Riaz
The Punjab Government’s flagship workers’ welfare scheme aptly titled the Punjab Mazdoor Card (PMC), is expected to be launched by the start of November, and is already being touted as a ‘game-changer for the province’s minimum wage earners’.
The scheme was announced on September 30 during a visit by the Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar to the Rehmat-ul-Alameen Institute of Cardiology. At the event, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between Social Security Commissioner Syed Bilal Haider and representatives of the Bank of Punjab, which laid the basic groundwork for the much-awaited launching of this scheme.
Yet what is it that differentiates this particular scheme from that of the pre-existing government-run social security system? Interviews reveal a puzzling array of answers that point to the fact that this new government project may only just be a cosmetic change.
What is the Mazdoor Card?
Social security commissioner Bilal Haider is very positive about the scheme. He says that for the first time in the history of Punjab, the bank accounts of around 1.1 million workers will be opened. Beneficiaries can avail multiple benefits, including for health and finances, all through the use of the Mazdoor Card.
“Workers will get a five to 30 percent discount on purchases at more than 130 commercial outlets,” he explained, adding that through the card, effective monitoring of the monthly minimum wage of the workers will be ensured. “In the future, the plan is to link the Mazdoor Card to the Sehat Sahulat Card as well as various other government loan schemes,” he informs.
But for labour rights activists, and those who work on labour issues, this scheme is not a novel concept at all.
“This is not the first time that the government has launched a charity scheme for minimum wage earners,” states Murtaza Bajwa, Labour Secretary of the left-wing Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement (HKM).
Referring to PTI’s COVID-19 relief package, allocated to the poorest of the poor under the ambit of the Ehsas Program, Bajwa alleges that he personally witnessed ‘rampant corruption’ that tends to take place during the registration process of these schemes.
“I have witnessed so many people being rejected solely on the basis that they did not have enough money to bribe the officials in charge of registrations,” he claims. “Some people would come to our neighborhood and charge Rs2000 to Rs3000 from poor households as commission for registering them for the meager sum promised by the government,” he says. Due to this commission-based system, a lot of people who deserved the help were left out while many undeserving people who were able to give away money to corrupt government officials received multiple payments at times, he explains.
For Murtaza, the subsidy which the government claims are for the workers will in fact benefit smaller merchants who will see their sales increase, and may also end up selling the subsidized products at market rates, much like utility store owners are already doing in many instances.
Not addressing the fundamental problem
At the same time, labor rights activist, researcher, and an Assistant Professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) Dr. Sayed Azeem offers a more nuanced view of the scheme but broadly agrees with the assertions made by labour activists on the ground.
According to Azeem, the current and even the previous governments want to achieve labor security under pro-business policy frameworks, which in itself is a contradictory approach.
“I personally believe that Pakistan’s labor laws are more than adequate when it comes to protecting the economic rights of workers at large. The problem is that successive governments have made no attempts to make sure that these labour laws are effectively implemented,” he provides, adding that governments focus on launching such schemes which oft run parallel to the existing labour protection framework.
To illustrate his argument, he points out that less than 10 percent of Pakistan’s labour force is currently registered with the social security department. But instead of working to increase this umbrella, he says governments prefer to launch new schemes which require workers to re-register with different authorities.
“If the government was really serious about workers’ welfare, they should try to expand the net of registered workers instead. If the authorities have already failed to register a majority of workers for previous social security schemes, how can they expect to reach these un-registered workers with newer ones?” he questions.
Gaps in poverty reduction schemes of the past
Much like Bajwa, Azeem too points out sizeable gaps in the government’s COVID-19 welfare schemes.
“Over three-fourth of the money the government allotted for the Ehsas Corona fund remained unspent,” he claims. “It was not because there was a shortage of deserving people but because the government was not able to reach and register these deserving people,” he adds.
Critics of the project are also of the view that such schemes fail to take into account the magnitude of the problems faced by workers.
Azeem and Bajwa maintain that the real solution to the issues of the working class is not ‘charity’, but ‘labor empowerment’ so that the people can stand up for their rights already guaranteed to them by the Constitution of Pakistan.
While there are still less than two weeks left before the government’s given deadline for the implementation of this scheme lapses, taking into account the government’s previous poverty reduction ‘flagship’ schemes, questions are about whether the PMC can achieve what it is expected to set out to do.