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Two years on, govt falters on labour policy

Two years on, govt falters on labour policy

LAHORE: Workers in Punjab are still waiting for implementation of initiatives announced by the provincial government while giving a new labour policy two years ago.

Announcing the [labour] policy in 2015, the Shahbaz government had among a plethora of promises, pledged to promote “genuine” trade unions and strengthen social dialogue under the right to organise.

It had also undertaken to give an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism as well as a time-frame for labour judiciary to decide cases, which remain pending adjudication even for decades.

Labour leaders say they are disappointed as the government couldn’t do anything visible on any of the three major initiatives.

“The words couldn’t be translated into action as not a single genuine trade union was registered though scores of applications were submitted during the two years,” laments Hanif Ramay, general secretary of Muttahida Labour Federation Punjab.

Almost all the applications were rejected on “technical” grounds as the labour leader points out connivance between labour department officials and factory owners [in rejecting the applications].

“As soon as an application for enlisting a union is submitted the officials convey names of the signatories to the [respective] owner, who dismisses the same. Then the officials visit the unit to process the application and reject it finding that the signatories are not employed there,” alleges Mr Ramay.

At least 100 plus employees of a garments factory situated at Hadiara drain close to Gajju Matta had been sacked when they had attempted to form trade union in 2015, recalls Niaz Khan, general secretary of the Textile, Powerlooms & Garments Workers Federation.

Out of over 25,000 total (small, medium and large) factories in and around Lahore less than 3,000 are registered with the labour department. Fifty per cent of them are in the textile sector.

Mr Khan claims that not a single trade union exists in textile sector and if there is any then it will be “pocket” or dummy union in many cases not even in the knowledge of the workers.

Admitting the official-owner connivance, a senior bureaucrat of the department defends his subordinates by talking of under staffing.

“The department is working with the same strength [of inspectors] approved during the Bhutto regime back in 1970s though the number of industrial units has increased manifold since then,” he argues. “Thus the resultant overburdening coupled with lack of equipment and conveyance for mobility leads to fake inspections and connivance with factory owners.”

Referring to pocket union issue, he says the problem is with the mindset of industrialists who have repeatedly been told that empirical studies reveal three-fold more productivity in units where workers are happy and satisfied with the management.

About the ADR, Mr Ramay claims that the initiative is confined to announcement only, for neither any meeting has been convened on the issue nor any mechanism has so far been suggested by the authorities concerned.

He believes that the ADR is workable only in large-scale local or multinational companies where the bosses are inclined to hold negotiations.

Mr Khan adds that out-of-court settlements is successful only when both parties in a dispute are equal in resources and influence. “Not a single case has so far been settled outside courts,” he claims, “for almost all capitalists have a feudal background in which employees are considered as slaves and not an equal party.”

The official says ADR is a good way out and a recommended channel for settling industrial disputes and judiciary is also taking it up. “It needs to be worked out,” he says, implying that the authorities have not yet taken it up in their official discourse.

Mr Ramay laughs off the government’s third initiative of setting a time-frame for labour courts to decide cases. “The job can be done only when you have a permanent judge. But here a judge comes only for a few months and by the time he understands the law and the affairs he’s posted somewhere else. The post remains vacant for many months which along with other reasons contribute to delay in adjudication for years and decades.”

He suggests a separate cadre for labour courts.

The official says he is not aware whether the time-frame initiative had come from the judiciary or the government, but about the cadre proposal he says that a quota for administrative officers like in services tribunal may be fixed to resolve the issue.

He, however, says the government is focusing more on labour laws many of which have become “irrelevant” to the modern age. There’s also a suggestion to divide the around 70 labour laws into five or six main broad categories to reduce the number of laws and complaints of industrialists in this respect, he says.

When contacted, Labour Minister Raja Ashfaq Sarwar said he’s in a meeting and the reporter should contact his personal staff officer to get official version on the initiatives.

His PSO Tariq, however, did not take up calls on his cell phone despite repeated attempts.

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2017

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