July 10, 2022

By Rehan Piracha

LAHORE: Speakers in a Voicepk.net web show have called on trade unions in Pakistan to reach out to their counterparts in other countries through new available tools so that they could chalk out a united plan of action against the new challenges of contract-based work by global capitalists.

The speakers in the show titled ‘Workers’ Rights: The Big U-Turn’ emphasised that the capacity of trade unions in Pakistan has to be enhanced so that they were able to make concerted efforts for the implementation of existing labour laws as well as campaign for new legislation relating to contract-based work and freelancing.

The web show, hosted by journalist Asha’ar Rehman, comprised panelists from representatives of trade unions and freelancing field. The web show questioned why people from many walks of life who used to talk on workers right but have turned silent nowadays. Individual bargaining has gained precedence over collective bargaining for workers. The COVID pandemic has speeded up freelancing and work from home trend globally, exacerbating lack of protections for workers.

Panelist Khalid Mehmood, director of Labour Education Foundation, lamented that no government had given priority to workers rights in Pakistan. “The governments are not interested in implementing labour laws,” he said.

Khalid Mehmood said no headway in legislation has been made in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to recognise agriculture workers there. Speaking about lack of interest in unions, he said that less than 1% workers have joined unions in the entire workforce.

Gul Rahman, Sindh president of the National Trade Unions Federation, said the government did not consider workers as human beings. “No political party is talking about rights of the workers in the country,” he said.

The NTUF office-bearer said workers had been divided into hundreds of factions that it was very difficult to unify them on a single platform. “Workers must unite under a single platform to get rid of so-called pocket unions in the country,” he added.

He was of the opinion that workers needed to form their own political party to fight against their exploitation in all spheres of the industry and services sector. He said the NTUF has helped organised home-based and agriculture workers in Pakistan.

Mirsub Ali Fazlani, an upcoming businessman who has worked for several years on major freelancing platforms, said fellow freelancers still faced a host of issues in Pakistan. “Lot of payment systems like PayPal not available to Pakistani freelancers,” he pointed out. Talking about scams on social media, he said freelancers need to research their clients before agreeing to take up gigs.

He viewed that exploitation of freelancers could be reduced if they take vendors to court over violations of terms and contracts. “However, cost of litigation against contract violations by vendors quite high for freelancers,” he said.

Fazlani said most freelancers were unaware of existing laws that could provide protection to them. He said globally there was no specific legislation for freelancers but some countries have enacted laws for their protection in some instances. “Freelancer Uber drivers were recognised as contract workers in the United States and United Kingdom,” he said, adding that there was a need for social shift on how people viewed freelancing and contract-based work. He called for pro bono organisations to help freelancer fight contract violations by companies in courts.

Farhat Parveen, executive director of NOW Communities, said there were laws that prevented workers from forming unions in many sectors. “There is a need for legislation to allow workers to form unions in such industries and services,” she said. She said unions had discouraged women to become members, leading to their non-representation in trade unions in Pakistan.

“The government should break free of shackles imposed by policies of financial institutions like International Monetary Fund so that it could provide relief to workers in the country,” Farhat Parveen said.

In the conclusion, the panelists recommended that legislation was required to protect workers from new modes of exploitation like freelancing and contract-based work imposed by global capitalists. Secondly, workers in Pakistan must reach out to fellows in other countries for a united action plan in view of new challenges.

Furthermore, the panelists were of the opinion that workers equipped with modern technical skills should take a lead in connecting Pakistani trade unions with counterparts across the globe. Lastly, the International Monetary Fund policies were shackling efforts to bring relief to all workers in the country.

In his concluding remarks, Asha’ar  Rehman pointed out that mainstream media had diminished coverage of workers’ rights in the country which also needed to be highlighted in such discussions in the future.


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