Pakistani labourers’ fair demands – by I.A. Rehman

Since it is not possible to push a new bill through parliament in two days the government has only two options. It may have the proposed new legislation issued as an ordinance or take refuge under the oft-criticised subterfuge that with the lapse of IRA 2008 the Musharraf-made ordinance of 2002 will stand revived.

There are only two days left before the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) 2008 expires and there is no sign of a new and more just labour law that the government has been promising and which should be enforceable from May 1.

Since it is not possible to push a new bill through parliament in two days the government has only two options. It may have the proposed new legislation issued as an ordinance or take refuge under the oft-criticised subterfuge that with the lapse of IRA 2008 the Musharraf-made ordinance of 2002 will stand revived.

Neither option will clear the government of the charge of treating labour with less than the respect it deserves. Obviously no lesson was learnt from the fiasco of the tripartite conference of 2009 which was a travesty of the real thing and a waste of the funds provided by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). True, the government has had its plate full of contentious issues but the preparation of a new industrial relations law cannot be ignored by any responsible government.

Let it be understood at the outset that a progressive IRA is not needed in labour’s interest alone; it is needed in the interest of the country’s entire population. A law that facilitates the smooth functioning of industry, that could resolve employer-labour tensions, and that guarantees the workers what is due to them is as much in the interest of the nation as it is in the interest of employers and labour. Indeed the respect practically shown for the rights and needs of labour is a good indicator of the level of respect a state shows for the basic rights of its citizens.

It is therefore a matter of fundamental importance that the new industrial relations law that justly accommodates all three stakeholders — the state/people, the employers and labour — should be expeditiously adopted and enforced. This can be done in the spirit that was visible when the government assisted the passage of two pro-labour private member’s (Raza Rabbani) bills earlier this year.

Fortunately, the government can draw upon a remarkable consensus that the parties concerned have developed, after prolonged deliberations, on essential changes in the 2008 law. The government itself received credit for scrapping some objectionable provisions of the IRO 2002 and it could have garnered much greater goodwill if it had consulted employers and labour before settling for a rehash of the 1969 law in its 2008 bill.

More important, the Workers Employers Bilateral Council of Pakistan (Webcop), a body representing employers and labour both, has produced a consensus draft on what needs to be done. Workers’ organisations have prepared their own suggestions. Further, the PPP can take pride in and derive guidance from its own 2004 bill that it had moved to seek amendments to the oppressive decree issued by Gen Musharraf in 2002.

The important consensus demands are:

— The key terms used in the act, such as ‘industry’, ‘workman’, ‘contractor’, ‘settlement’ and ‘employer’, should be redefined and the mischief caused by different definitions in different enactments ended. The demand is valid also on the ground that it will allow the unionisation of workers in many areas where this is still prohibited.

— The havoc caused by some employers by getting two ‘pocket’ unions registered and making the rise of a genuine trade union difficult should be ended.

— The number of labour courts and labour appellate tribunals should be increased and their presiding officers drawn from amongst active or retired judicial officers. Their selection should be subject to consultation with the chief justices. The same principle should apply to the head of the National Industrial Relations Commission (NIRC).

— Section 27-B of the Banking Ordinance should be repealed, as it has already done enormous damage to workers’ cause.

— The protection granted to union office-bearers during a dispute should be available to all its members.

— The rule that two unions can be allowed to form a national federation is ridiculous. The facility should be available to a sizeable number of unions and some condition of support in more than one province should apply.

— A CBA (collective bargaining agent) should have the right to demand re-audit of the accounts of industrial establishments, particularly of employers who deny profits in their books.

— The labour inspection system must be revived as its abolition has gravely undermined the implementation of labour laws.

— No management councils/committees can achieve good results unless half of their members are drawn from workers.

— The provision that allows a trade union to have 25 per cent of its office-bearers from outside the industrial unit’s workforce needs to be streamlined. The interpretation that such office-bearers should be on some units’ payroll is liable to abuse. Many retired and dismissed workers are excellent trade unionists and labour should not be deprived of their services.

— The provisions that facilitate extermination of a union need to be revised. For instance, the condition that a union is liable to disbandment if any of its office-bearers is found guilty of defalcation is absurd (think of a cabinet in a similar situation). The condition that if a union’s strength falls below 20 per cent of its original membership it will stand automatically dissolved needs to be looked into.

— The right to apply for a referendum that is at present allowed to government and the employers should be available to a trade union and the condition of signatures of 20 per cent workers for this should go.

These demands are not excessive nor are they otherwise controversial. The government will indict itself for lack of good sense of it fritters away the present opportunity of promoting legislation through stakeholders’ consensus. If there still are points that need to be reviewed or refined this should be possible during debates in parliament. The proposed law should be thoroughly debated. One of the grounds for criticism of IRA 2008 has been the fact that the National Assembly adopted the bill while the opposition was out. The new law should not suffer from any such deficiency.

While criticising Pakistan for its failure to respect the ILO conventions it has ratified the world labour organisation has repeatedly offered help for the realisation of mutually desired standards. Everything possible may be done to benefit from ILO’s generous offers.

We will once again be told that progress or reform cannot be guaranteed by laws alone and that much depends on how a state develops plans for action and implements them through effective mechanisms and efficient policymaking. Is it too much to expect that these matters will be duly addressed in the policy announcement the prime minister has promised to make day after tomorrow (May Day)?

Source: Dawn, 29 Apr, 2010



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