2018 elections — labour and manifestos

While many would argue that political party manifestos are merely aspirational documents with a litany of vague promises and loft rhetoric, it is also a fact that political parties seek the mandate to run the country (or a province) based on the agenda and programs they plan to launch once voted into power.

Of the 207 million population, as determined by the 2017 Census, 106 million are registered voters (18 and above). More than 90 percent of these 106 million voters are part of the working age population (15-64 years) and thus are the direct recipients and beneficiaries of the policies that will be crafted by the incoming government. These voters are either already part of the workforce or about to join or past the retirement age.

Of the 9 million formal sector workforce, only 1.4 million are unionised. While there are more than 7,000 registered trade unions in the country, only 1,400 have been able to sign collective agreements with their employer, invariably leaving millions out of the purview of collective bargaining rights. Those trapped in the modern forms of slavery, as estimated by Global Slavery Index, are 2.134 million. Children engaged in child labour, though showing a declining trend, are still 3.93 million. The incidence of occupational accidents is more than 4 percent in the country and thousands of workers have lost their lives in this decade, especially in mining, construction and manufacturing sectors.The private sector old age benefits institution (EOBI) has only 4 million active contributors (and is not sustainable beyond 2027) while only 1.8 million workers are registered with the provincial security institutions (to provide healthcare and other monetary benefits during employment).

Considering the sheer volume of working age population in the total registered voters, you would expect party manifestos to be full of plans for provision of decent work opportunities as envisaged under the Constitution.

Both the PTI and PML-N aim to create two million jobs a year over the next five years. Interestingly, the two parties, though focusing on the quantity, do not refer to the quality of jobs. It is not that the employment is not being generated in the country. It is more in the informal sector, thanks to the casualisation and urbanisation of jobs in the economy, and thus is not “productive and gainful employment” as required under SDG-8. The current employment that is characterized with slavery wages, hidden unemployment or underemployment, hazardous working conditions, discrimination and violence at workplace cannot be referred to as decent work. PPP, on the other hand, plans to provide a public sector job to at least one member per family.

To regulate the labour market and effectively estimate demand and supply of labour, all party manifestos provide for employment exchanges — labour exchange (PTI), employment bureau (PPP) and placement centre (PML-N). All the parties have focused on enhanced skill development for youth. PML-N wants to expand Punjab Youth Internship Program, while PPP wants to start an Internship guarantee program. It is interesting how none of the parties refers to reforming apprenticeship system already provided under the Apprenticeship Ordinance 1962 and expanding its coverage to the growing services sector, instead of burdening the public exchequer by providing state sponsored internships. Similarly, youth (as well as women and other marginalised groups including persons with disabilities) employment can be generated through provision of tax incentives and other relief measures.

Considering the sheer number of working age citizens in the total registered voters, you would expect party manifestos to be full of plans for provision of decent work opportunities as envisaged under the Constitution

Since 42.3 percent of the current labour force is still engaged in the agriculture sector, you would expect political parties to initiate legislative reforms bringing these workers under the purview of labour and social protection laws. For that purpose, the tenancy acts need to be updated. Only Sindh and Balochistan allow agriculture workers to form and join unions though implementing rules have not been formulated so far. There is nothing in the PTI and PML-N manifesto to protect the rights of agriculture workers, though PML-N manifesto refers to the creation of low and medium skilled jobs in the value added agriculture sector. PPP manifesto deals with the issue quite comprehensively and plans to issue Benazir Kissan Card (for provision of benefits and subsidies) and Benazir Women Agricultural Workers Programme, affording these workers all the rights of formal sector workers.

PPP once again stands out in dealing with all labour related issues including the minimum wage/living wage, workplace discrimination, freedom of association, persons with disabilities, child labour, bonded labour as well as occupational safety and health. PML-N manifesto only refers to “strengthening of labour and occupational safety laws”. PTI has also focused on enacting further legislation on labour rights, harassment and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. In the area of social protection, PTI and PPP both refer to expanding the coverage of EOBI and Workers Welfare Fund.

On the other hand, PML-N refers to issuance of Khidmat Cards through newly established Punjab Social Protection Authority. It is interesting though that none of the parties refers to promulgating standalone legislation on discrimination (including workplace discrimination on the grounds of sex, religion, creed, caste or disability) and occupational safety and health (Sindh already promulgated the law). Similarly, none of the manifestos refers to the reforming and improving of dilapidated labour inspection machinery. With the current number of labour inspectors around 500 in the country, there is only one labour inspector for every 18,000 formal sector workers.

There are many similarities in the manifestos of these political parties however it is only the implementation of these manifestos which will distinguish one from the other. The 69-million strong labour force has all the right to ask the political parties to honour the workforce by implementing such policies and plans which make the attainment of decent work a reality and not a distant dream.

The writer is the founder of the Institute for Labour Rights (The Whistlers) and can be contacted at Email: [email protected] and tweets @Iftikhar_Ahmad1

Published in Daily Times, July 25th  2018.

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