The current economic situation in the country necessitates a series of serious discussions followed by concrete actions to address the issues of growing decent work deficit and lack of social protection particularly for vulnerable sections of the society.
Both the issues are quite important given the ground realties and the country’s international commitments such as United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDSs) and other UN and ILO conventions. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has further underscored the need to pay more attention to addressing the issue of unemployment, falling incomes and lack of economic safeguards.
An overview of the labour in Pakistan suggests that the country has 65 million strong workforces, which is the ninth largest in the world. Of this 38 percent work in agriculture and 62 percent in non-agriculture sectors. Further break down of the non-agriculture labour indicates that an overwhelming majority or 78 percent is in informal sector and only 28 percent work in the formal sector.
Another flipside is that there is only 21 percent participation of women in the workforce in Pakistan, which is the lowest in South Asia.
These official statistics clearly indicate that an overwhelming majority of working Pakistanis fall in the category of what is internationally termed in labour market terminology “vulnerable workers”.
With growing globalisation, changing patterns of economic markets particularly with reference to increasing phenomena of supply chain manufacturing, more and more workers are being pushed to this exploitative category of labour.
The pre-COVID and current debate has well recognised the need of appropriate actions on part of nation states and businesses to ensure protection of vulnerable and marginalised groups of the population to resist economic shocks and market exploitation.
This is where the whole concept of linking economic growth with decent work emerged and culminated in Goal-8 of the SDGs signed in by over 190 UN members five years ago in September 2015.
Decent work as defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is a broader concept of respecting core labour rights, particularly those related to gainful employment opportunities, decent wages, social security and health and safety at workplace. However, the SDG concept has narrowed it down with concrete indicators and time bound targets to be achieved by the member states.
A SDG monitoring report released by the Pakistan Development Alliance (PDA) in March this year claims that one of the major reasons behind the lack of political will in fulfilling global commitments such as SDGs or its previous version MGDs is lack of awareness among the masses. The less public pressure, the less priority the government puts on achieving these goals.
The report did not explicitly measure the progress and public perception towards SDG Goal-8. However, the other goals measured clearly indicate that the government, parliamentarians, civil society, businesses and other stakeholders would have to double their efforts to meet the Agenda 2030 deadline of achieving specific targets under each goal.
This assessment is very much applicable to various components of Goal-8. Pakistan has one of the lowest social security penetrations. Less than five percent of the workforce is covered under Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI), Punjab Employees Social Security Institution (PESSI), Workers Welfare Fund (WWF) and other labour welfare schemes.
Similar is the situation regarding social dialogue as the country has a very minimal workforce organised in the trade unions. A latest ILO report suggests only 1.4 million workers are members of 7,000 unions. Only 20 percent of these unions are collective bargaining agents (CBAs) with mandate to enter into negotiations, a process of social dialogue.
Pakistan Labour force Survey, an official document acknowledges that two-third of eligible workers did not receive minimum wages leave alone living wages, which is a pre requisite to measure decent work.
The same survey reveals that four percent of the workers fall prey to occupational diseases in the absence of any appropriate Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) measures in place. COVID-19 has further necessitated enhanced workplace safety measures.
While highlighting all these hard facts, it is quite important to acknowledge the latest progress made in Pakistan. This includes a series of new legislations on occupational safety and health in the provinces. The short-term cash transfer to daily wagers who lost income due to COVID-19 under the Ehsaas Programme is an example.
The debate around expanding the social security net is also picking up momentum and legislations such as Sindh’s agriculture women law to provide protection to most vulnerable section of the workforce are some other commendable efforts.
However, the significant progress towards achieving certain degree of decent work in the country is only possible by adopting a realistic approach. This means an honest and scientifically sound assessment of the current situation and impediment in achieving the targets including the capacity constraints.
This would obviously require prioritisation in terms of political commitment and resource diversion followed by an oversight by the parliament at federal and provincial levels.
Given that the entire issue of decent work is linked to the labour market, a predominately private sector phenomenon, business participation is a must.
Instead of creating new models and relying on weak systems such as corporate social responsibility (CSR), it is important to build on legally and international defined mechanisms such as an ILO certified Tripartite mechanism where government, employers and workers’ representatives can sit down and work out strategies that create a win-win situation through mutual consent.
Decent work is a broader citizenship agenda as it concerns the lives and livelihoods of people, therefore participation and monitoring by active citizens groups such as PDA is equally important. Multi stakeholder approach is a tested method to bring various stakeholders on table and work out joint strategies.
State as a regulator has greater responsibility so is the role of the government to align their policies and priorities in a way that address the most pressing and common issues concerning millions of people.
This would earn them not only public trust, but also international respect and recognition. There is no other such opportunity, but to give serious attention to achieving the SDGs.
The writer is a human rights and labour rights expert based in Karachi