International Labour Day 2014: No respite for Islamabad’s daily wage workers

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 2, 2014.

Islamabad – They shake their heads almost simultaneously. None of the eight daily-wage labourers, sitting under the shade of a tree by the G-9/4 service road near Peshawar Mor, have ever heard of Labour Day. They are not aware of why it is a public holiday in Pakistan on May 1 or of the history of the International Workers’ Day. Even if they knew, it does not look like they can afford a holiday.

Their wares — shovels and hammers and a drill machine — are showcased on the road a few yards away from the tree’s shade, under which they have just finished eating a brief communal lunch and which at 2pm is also protecting them from the scorching heat wave that has settled in the capital since Monday.

First to speak up is Sher Muhammad, a 45-year-old painter from Swabi who moved to the capital back when Ziaul Haq was in power. With a skull cap and a flowing beard with wires of grey, he is also the most confident among the labourers who are mostly hired by contractors or house builders to work on the construction of houses or plazas.

“In the past two months and six days, I have only found work on four days,” he says, then repeats the count of days to emphasize its exactness.

Work is scarce, the labourers say, and employers are never eager to pay up. Even when they do get work, inflation makes life difficult for the capital’s daily-wage labourers. Some of them are from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where they have families to feed in their hometowns.

“All the misery is for the poor,” says Rafiq Shah, 40, a daily-wage worker from Mansehra. “Some days we have money for food. Some days we go hungry.”

Mumtaz Khan, another labourer from Swabi, says they cannot return because of violence and instability in their native villages. There are other work opportunities in urban cities but the labourers cannot ensure enough capital to start a separate business, according to Shah.

“We cannot avail government loans because we cannot get guarantors,” Shah says. “The loan schemes only help people who are already well-off.”

So the workers are left to the daily wage, if they can find work: Rs600 for a labourer and Rs1,000 for a craftsman — a slight increase from 2013 when the labourer’s wage hovered around Rs450 per day.

The Rs10,000 minimum daily wage requirement by the government might not specifically apply to the day labourers.

“If the workers are in a factory, then a workers’ union can improve their bargaining power but unions have limited presence too,” says Karamat Ali, the Executive Director of Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), an NGO that promotes labour movement and economic justice. “But if the workers are on a commercial or private site, the wage is decided mutually and the employer can have his say in the bargaining.”

Muhammad thinks the government is to blame for the lack of building work. He voted for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in the elections. But in the year since it came to power, Muhammad says the ruling party has not been kind towards the poor.

“Sharif is pleasing the traders who sit in their fancy shops,” he says. “He does not feel for the poor workers.”

The daily-wage labourers are not entirely removed from the International Workers’ Day movement. They work 8-hour days.

But consistency in work and social security are not guaranteed. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, only 1.56 million of Pakistan’s 59 million labour force have access to social security.

Even workers’ safety is not ensured at the job. Muhammad says he fell down from a ladder twice during house painting jobs.

On both occasions, the contractor made him run away from the site instead of providing any medical care. PILER’s Ali says since the private construction site is a workplace, the contractor should provide safe conditions for work.

“Unless there is state regulation, the employers will not follow safety codes,” he says. “There should be a government institution where labourers can register their grievances.”

But Ali also believes the individual worker is not in a position to demand his rights alone. Mass agitation, such as that by brick-kiln workers in Punjab, is one way to raise concern about workers’ rights.

Perhaps if such a movement succeeds in putting bread on Muhammad’s table, he might change his mind. For now, he has conceded to a stark reality.

“Nobody cares for the poor in this country,” Muhammad says, the absence of hope resounds from the certainty in his voice. “Nobody cares.”

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