Why trade unions are losing steam
By: Majeed Aziz
A workers’ union is an integral part of the working environment of an industrial or commercial unit. Workers have a fundamental right to form an association to project, promote and protect their rights, their needs, their demands, and their remunerations. There can be more than one union in an enterprise but only one is designated, through a democratic process, to represent the workers as their collective bargaining agent. Labour unions got their primary boost after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party came into power in 1972.
The socialist mandate of the government gave impetus to workers’ representatives to form their own unions and to group into workers’ federations. There were labour leaders galore and there was this sense of perceived omnipotence in most of them, much to the consternation of industrialists and businessmen. Industrial unrest became the norm and labour courts were inundated with all kinds of cases, mostly frivolous, for coercion of the employers to accept the dictates of this new band of leaders.
Although there were some moderate persons among the labour leadership, the majority of them in belligerent mood, and they created havoc in many establishments. A large number of industries closed down, many industrialists left the country and, with the government in no mood to rein in the radical elements. As a result, Pakistan saw a decline in industrial output, in new investment and in attracting foreign investment.
The labour leadership obtained more power after Bhutto started nationalisation of industries and organisations in the services sector. This further aggravated the dismal scenario and Pakistan lost five years of growth, not long after the loss of half the country in the 1971 war. Come the martial law of General Zia ul Haq in July 1977, and things seemingly cooled down. Radicalism yielded to realism and workers’ representatives were subdued through various measures, including banning of unions in public-sector organisations. The pressure eased to some extent on the private sector and there was again infusion of domestic and foreign investment into the country. Although there were strong unions in many private enterprises, by and large industrial peace became a common feature in industrial estates. With the advent of the Benazir Bhutto regime, the sparks flew again, with the result that there was a marked revival of labour extremism.
The Musharraf government gave considerable importance to attracting investment and rebuilding the country. Labour leaders were clearly reminded that the goalposts had changed. A labour and social activist was made labour minister and he shrewdly sidelined the mainstream labour leadership. The aging leaders were gradually put out to pasture and the new leaders came with a conciliatory outlook and pragmatic vision. Labour unrest subsided in private enterprises and most enterprises conveniently got rid of unions and in-house agitators and adopted the hiring of contract workers rather than a permanent workforce. Labour lost its lustre and its critical mass. This continued even after the Zardari government came into power.
It was felt by the business community that there would be a strong labour transformation after the advent of the PPP government. Premier Yusuf Raza Gillani did convene a Tripartite Labour Conference but it turned out to be nothing more than a PPP workers’ jalsa, and this vitiated the purpose of the crucial conference. Meanwhile, the gradual change from a permanent, on-record labour force in the plants led to a proliferation of so-called contract workers, and this has led to a decline in unionised membership. This was not a planned or deliberate employer strategy. This was the result of other factors that impacted upon the trade union movement. Labour unions have become a skeleton of the past. It is a fact that, except for enlightened employers who accept and encourage healthy union activities in their plants and businesses, a deep-rooted dislike for demands of workers discourages employers from allowing workers to chart a course on the pathway of basic labour rights.
The catalytic factor has been the focus of many labour federations away from unionization of private sectors and concentrating on having a strong control on workers in the public sector organisations. It was in state-owned enterprises where the real potential lay and where they could receive political patronage, power and privileges. More importantly, labour federations were, and still are, more or less personal fiefdoms of their leaders. This individualistic control is averse to a true democratic hierarchy or succession. Ergo, a labor federation is usually an extension of its leader’s personal vision. Another factor that diverts the attention of labour leaders is that they are often on foreign-sponsored junkets, which enables them to hobnob with their counterparts in other nations and to use all means for source-funding of their projects.
It has been alleged in some quarters that at times their proposals for sponsorships highlight negative aspects of the labour situation in Pakistan, often detrimental to the image of the motherland. The inability of tax collectors to enforce a broad-based tax regime has encouraged a pushback to an undocumented economy in many areas and sectors. Negative factors like the high general sales tax, the unbridled influx of smuggled, under-invoiced and mis-declared foreign goods, the exorbitant utility charges, the menace of extortion and the deteriorating law and order have aggravated the situation.
Therefore, SME employers are not eager to get themselves registered or maintain documentation. This is one more reason why many enterprises are out of the tax net. Thus,
workers of these units are deprived of many of the legal remedies and prescribed benefits under the law. It also impacts upon the efforts of labour leaders to increase their membership base. The momentum of the labour unionisation movement has decreased. There are no more formidable and strong labour leaders anymore. This has been understood and accepted by the more moderate leaders of the workers. These leaders are prudently working within the system while leaving their rabble-rousing dramatics for Red Salute rallies or May Day celebrations. They now seriously want the wheels of the economy to move