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Workers' right to organise and collective bargaining: barriers, curbs and restrictions.

At the time of independence, employees of all categories throughout the country with the exception of personnel of the armed forces and police had the right to form and join trade unions. All government and semi-government employees, civilian employees of the armed forces and all the workers of factories and commercial and financial organisations had this right. Self-employed persons could also form trade unions. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Bill of Human Rights on 10th December 1948. Article 23(4) of that document recognised the right of every individual to join trade union for the protection of his/her rights.

Under Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan every citizen had the right of association and to form unions. ILO Convention No. 11 had already been ratified in 1923, long before the establishment of Pakistan. Under the Convention, agricultural workers were given the right to form unions. ILO Convention No. 87 which the Government of Pakistan ratified in 1951 conceded this right to all workers without discrimination with the exception of employees of the armed forces, police and state administration. ILO Convention No. 98 which the Government of Pakistan ratified in 1952 guaranteed adequate protection of workers' right to organise, besides the right of collective bargaining.

Labour Policy, August 1955

Under this Policy the Government declared its intention to promote trade union activities. To stop the exploitation of workers and ensure welfare of workers were declared to be the goal of the government. It was also announced that the Government would encourage collective bargaining as per ILO Convention No. 98.

Labour Policy, February 1959

This policy was a reiteration of all the Conventions and Recommendations of ILO which the Government of Pakistan had ratified earlier and was intended for the welfare and betterment of all types of workers whether they belonged to the agricultural sector or the industrial sector. In this Policy it was declared that the growth of trade unions is imperative for a stable social structure, and for industrial and social peace, increasing production and ensuring equitable distribution of wealth.

Labour Policy, 1969

In this Policy it was officially admitted by the government that justice was not done to the workers in the past and that their economic conditions had deteriorated. It was categorically stated that the discrimination between government and non-government employees would be abolished and everyone would have the right to organise and collective bargaining. While duly recognising, the importance and usefulness of trade unions, both the government and the employers were severely criticised. Industrialists were accused of being the first generation industrialists with a feudal and commercial mentality, who were taking advantage of the inexperience of the workers in order to preserve a landlord-peasant relationship in industrial life.

Thus, the Government of Pakistan set up the worst example of saying one thing and doing the opposite. Today the largest employer in the country is the federal and provincial governments who employ the overwhelming majority of the country's labour force, Peons, attendants, gardeners, driers, mechanics, fitters, painters, carpenters, clerks and thousands of workers employed in other fields of work in the government sector have been by law deprived of the right to form and become member of trade unions.

Employees of Pakistan Security Printing Corporation, Pakistan Security Papers Limited, Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, Pakistan Television Corporation, Civil Aviation Authority, Pakistan Councilor Scientific and Industrial Research, Wah Ordnance Factory, National Logistics Cell, Stores Department, Defence Club and Defence Housing Authority, besides hospitals and educational institutions, have also been deprived of the right to form unions. Similarly, thousands of employees in banks and financial institutions have been deprived of the right of collective bargaining.

During the war, the colonial rulers had passed the Essential Services Act to keep army supplies and communication lines running uninterrupted. It was a temporary legislation for a limited purpose. However, today the free citizens of independent Pakistan are victims of this unjust and oppressive law. The government arbitrarily declares any organisation as Essential Service reducing all its workers to virtual hostages who are not fee to go any where at will nor to quit their jobs. On the other hand, if they are sacked for no reason or justification, there is no court in the whole country where they can even file a petition seeking reinstatement. It is the most oppressive form of slavery, to say the least.

Public Utility Services

The definition of Public Utility Services is so sweeping that a large majority of workers fall within its orbit and lose their right of collective bargaining. They include the thousands of workers in gas, electricity and oil generation, production or supply and a host of other similar jobs, such as:

a) persons working on supply, storage and distribution of water to general public;

b) employees of post offices, telephone and telegraph offices;

c) workers employed at the pens;

d) workers employed in railways and airways;

e) workers in fire-extinguishing services;

f) persons employed as watchmen in any establishment and the personnel of security services.

All the above categories of workers/employees have been denied the unconditional right to strike. Prior to or during strike, the Government can issue orders forbidding the strike or order the strike to be called off. As long as there were strong and active trade unions in Pakistan Security Printing Corporation and Pakistan Security Paper Limited, there were no incidents of theft of pilferage. Today just as workers' jobs are not secure, government's currency notes and other valuables in these top security organisations are not safe. Not only officers and administrative experts work in the Radio and Television but there are also peons, watchmen, drivers, clerks, photographers and laboratory technicians. There are also writers and translators, news producers, reporters and announcers, artistes and singers. These people are denied the right to organise.

In the hospitals, besides doctors, professors and specialists, there are also ward boys, nurses, laboratory technicians, X-Ray technicians, peons, chowkidars and drivers whose number runs into thousands. According to government statistics, there are 733 hospitals, 3714 dispensaries, 4211 public health units and sub-health units, 1027 maternity and child care centres, 230 T.B. centres and 455 rural health centres all over the country where countless persons are employed on the para-medical staff to provide medical advice and care to the sick. To give medicines to the patient, take temperature, prepare X-Ray and Laboratory test reports, carry tea, breakfast etc. to the patient, make the patient's bed, put patient in wheelchair when necessary and take him round - all these duties are carried out by workers. They have, after all, their own sorrows and worries. They have their basic needs too. And all of them are deprived of the right to organise themselves in unions. A large number of clinics and hospitals in the country are run on purely commercial basis. They charge exorbitant sums from the patients. There also workers cannot exercise the right of organisation.

There are 22 universities, 99 professional colleges, 612 arts and science colleges, 6215 high schools, 7389 middle schools, 127,575 primary schools and 930 secondary and vocational institutes in the country. And now a large number of big commercialized schools carrying the illustrious names of former masters and other dignitaries have mushroomed in various cities. These private institutions charge from each child every month more than what an employee gets as his monthly pay. Persons working in these institutions receive very meagre salaries and none of them can exercise the right of unionization.

Approximately 1 lac persons are employed in the banks and financial institutions countrywide, of whom, a large number consists of experts with a high level of education and conversant not only with different aspects of the country's economy but also matters of international finance. They have worked tirelessly to raise the banking industry to a high stage of sophistication. Banking is a very sensitive commercial activity. It is the height of irony that the employees of this institution are denied the right of collective bargaining. The disastrous effect of not allowing collective thinking and decision is amply manifested in our political life. When individuals are left free in the political field without any organizational base, they perforce lean on village, tribe, clan and sect to secure votes. This is extremely dangerous and harmful to national interest.

People employed in the Private Sector today work in conditions reminiscent of the age of slavery. In most of the enterprises the employer is all the time trying to replace permanent employees (who enjoy certain facilities under existing laws) by recruiting workers through contract labour system which rejects even the most fundamental right of job security, not to speak of other rights under labour laws. Workers can be kicked out at will and have nowhere to seek relief from. This cancer of forced labour which is virtual slavery is spreading so fast that it can be called the number one problem faced by the trade union movement today.

Let us consider the present state of affairs at overall national level and at the level of the trade union movement, from a historical perspective. Kings and emperors and foreign masters used to bestow favours in the shape of lands and estates to their touts in recognition of their loyalty, competence and services rendered in enslaving the people mentally and physically in order to protect their selfish interests. They created an administrative system which hailed every act of savagery on their part as assertion of a right. Anyone who dared to stand up was liquidated. Those demanding justice were given the harshest punishment. And the masses were made to accept their tormentors as their benefactors who alone could protect their life and honour.

The country became free but the same old structure has been kept intact. The leader of our freedom movement and Founder of Pakistan Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah had time and again warned that feudalism which is a highly repressive system has made its adherents so selfish that they would not be convinced by reasoning. It is in their blood to resort to merciless exploitation of the masses to achieve their objectives. They have forgotten the teachings of Islam. Similarly, naked greed has so blinded the capitalists that they willingly become tools in the hands of enemies for the sake of enrichment. Have you paused to think how cruelly crores of people have been exploited that they cannot afford even one meal in a day? If the achievement of Pakistan cannot change this state of affairs, I think it better not to achieve it. If they (the feudals and capitalists) are sensible, they will adapt themselves to the new conditions; if not, God help them. We cannot help them.

Ever since the establishment of Pakistan and the death of the Quaid-e-Azam, the people of Pakistan have been exploited ceaselessly with the knowledge, if not direct connivance, of the government. Laws were enacted in total violation of the country's constitution, international covenants and ILO Conventions. The Government has empowered itself to wholly or partially exempt the employers from any provision of the law.

For a long time there had existed 2 separate laws relating to the organisation of unions and industrial disputes. During any kind of emergency, workers were forbidden to resort to strike for resolving industrial disputes but the union remained in existence. However, since the two laws were integrated under the Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO), the situation became worse. Subsequently, as implementation of IRO also began to be blocked by means of new laws, the situation further deteriorated. And today it has assumed the shape of all-round violation of the Constitution and the ILO Conventions.

The Federal Government is empowered by Export Processing Zones Authority Ordinance 1980 (Clause 25) to suspend, through a notification, the application of any or all laws or parts thereof in the whole of the Export Processing Zone. This obviously means that the Government has assumed the right to wholly or partially set aside the operation of not only the IRO but also Social security Ordinance, Employees Old Age Benefits Ordinance (EOBI), Workmen's Compensation Act, Standing Order Ordinance and all the basic or welfare laws made for the workers.

The Finance Act 1992 empowers the Government to exempt all industrial units exporting 75 per cent or more of their products from the application of IRO or any other law. Similarly, the Civil Servants Act 1973 (Section 2 B)is interpreted in such officials handling administrative matters but also to ordinary workers.

Due to the constraints imposed on union formation process, defective labour laws and the negative attitude of the government and the employers, only 3 per cent of the employed labour force are members of trade unions. And only 1.32 per cent of workers are members of such unions which function as Collective Bargaining Agents (CBAs). After excluding workers of the agricultural sector, members of registered trade unions constitute 6.14 per cent and members of CBA unions 2.7 per cent. Even if, along with agricultural workers, personnel of police, armed forces and other workers who have no trade union rights are excluded, these figures rise only slightly to 8.18 per cent and 3.6 per cent respectively.

The Industrial Relations Ordinance 1969 which, besides denying union rights to all types of government employees with the exception of railway, post, telegraph and telephone workers, imposes a variety of constraints and complications rendering it difficult for workers to exercise the right to form unions. "Worker" is defined in such a manner that persons employed as supervisors or receiving more than Rs. 800 per month are excluded from its scope and counted in the category of employers and as such, cannot form or be members of unions.

Among the various objections raised by employers to block registration of a union or recognition of a union as CBA, one relates to what they call the "presence of non-workers in it, which makes the formation of the union illegal and ineffective". Employers often resort to filing different cases in civil courts and use various tactics to cause frustration among workers (which usually succeed) to impede the registration process. In the meantime, pocket unions are easily created and get registered. IRO also forbids workers from becoming members of the more than one union at a time. Employers also approach the Registrar of Trade Unions or civil courts and try to create obstacles in the way of formation and registration of the new and effective union, by taking the plea that its sponsors are members of another union and they cannot be members of two unions concurrently.

One of the compulsory provisions which the constitution of a union applying for registration must contain is that the numerical strength of the Managing Committee shall not exceed the ceiling fixed by the government and 75 per cent of the members shall be from the same establishment/industry for which the union is being formed. It is also obligatory to state in the application the details of the name/names of the establishment, group of establishments or industry concerned. Similarly, it is also obligatory that the name of the establishment/industry in which a member is employed must be written in the membership form.

The manner in which laws have been framed makes it impossible for self-employed workers to become members of a union. It excludes the possibility of forming industry-based or profession-based or combined trade unions at the level of industrial area, city, district, province or country. It is not possible to form trade in small industrial units particularly when workers have not been issued written letters of appointment. No new unions are being registered in Punjab, because employers refuse to own up workers who are union members as their employees. In this way, both the trade union's application for registration as well as workers who sponsor the union get the sack.

Secret agreements are concluded between owners and contractors after every six or eight months under different names and addresses. This allows the contractor to exclude himself from the official definition of owner. For instance, after the workers from a union in the name of Siraj & Co., it suddenly comes to light that since last month the owners had signed contract with Sattar & Co. after terminating the contract with Siraj & Co. In connection with registration of trade unions, it is clearly stated in Section 7(2) that:

2. Without prejudice to the provisions by Sub-Section (1) a trade union of workmen shall not be entitled to registration under this Ordinance: (a) unless all its members are workmen actually engaged or employed in the industry with which the trade union is connected, and (b) where there are two or more registered unions in the establishment, group of establishments or industry with which the trade union is connected unless it has as its members not less than one-fifth of the total number of workmen employed in such establishment, group of establishments or industry.

According to section 10(3), the Registrar of Trade Unions is empowered to cancel the registration of a union if, as a result of his enquiry, he finds that the union has ceased to exist.

10(3) The registration of a trade union shall be cancelled by the Registrar if, after holding such enquiry as he deems fit, he finds that such trade union has dissolved itself or has ceased to exist.

During the period when the application for registration is pending with the Registrar, there is no guarantee of the security of job of ordinary members. However, in respect of office bearers it is stated in Section 8A that only in the event that the names of the office bearers have been intimated in writing to the owner they will not be transferred, suspended or dismissed without the consent of the Registrar. But usually the employers acknowledge receipt of the envelope but say that it contained blank paper, or they say that the covering letter had no list of names enclosed with it and so on and in this way discharge or dismiss even the office bearers without Registrar's permission.

One of the most veteran trade union leaders of the country, Mr. Nabi Ahmed (61) is the Secretary General of Muttahida Labour Federation. He stepped into trade unionism in 1948 as Section Representative in General Motors Overseas Corporation. Mr. Nabi Ahmed studied Labour Economics and Trade Union administration in the Universities of Philippines and Turkey. As a labour delegate he visited China, Iran, Turkey, Great Britain and Germany. Mr. Nabi Ahmed in his article highlights the Barriers, Curbs and Restrictions on worker's right to organise unions and Collective Bargaining.
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Author:Ahmed, Nabi
Publication:Economic Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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