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Laws and devolution

May Day or Labour Day is celebrated in remembrance of those striking workers who were killed by Chicago police on May 3 and 4, 1886. The event got wide attention on account of the common cause of workers all over the world – to have reasonable limit of maximum working hours in a day. They were fighting to get their daily working hours fixed at eight.

The workers in Chicago not only succeeded in getting their demand accepted by the employers in America but the daily limit of eight hours work was adopted worldwide. Later these working hours were formalized through a convention released by the International Labour Organization and ratified by member countries.

It is unfortunate that in Pakistan so many incidents of workers deaths at work keep taking place frequently due to their employers’ negligence and apathy but no one including the government’s labour inspectors compel the government to follow the law and implement safety measures at their workplaces. As a consequence, the incidents of deaths from factory fires, lack of safety equipment and precautions, faulty machines and falling of lifts are common. Even labour federations have not been effective in persuading employers to ensure compliance with laws on safety and health.

Today’s occasion also provides us an opportunity to evaluate where we stand in safeguarding workers’ rights and privileges guaranteed by law. The subject of labour laws was devolved to the provinces through the 18th Amendment in April, 2010. Thereafter, the Sindh government promulgated its own labour laws, bringing about substantial amendments in their scope and structure. These changes were not so drastic in other provinces, most of which just changed the name of the laws and did not make any material changes in the provisions.

Besides other laws, the Sindh government promulgated the three most prominent welfare laws, which were being managed smoothly till the devolution. These are: Sindh Workers Welfare Fund Act, 2014; Sindh Companies Profits (Workers’ Participation) Act, 2015 and Sindh Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Act, 2015.

In the first instance, all the above-mentioned laws should not have been devolved as they are inherently federal in nature. As federal laws, they continue to protect the interest of workers in the smaller provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa and Balochistan, which have less industries and businesses. In view of these reasons the other three provinces did not devolve any of the aforementioned laws but the action of the Sindh government has severely hampered their smooth functioning. Matters relating to ambit and interpretation of the Companies Profits Act and EOB Act, were taken up by employers before the superior courts; after prolonged litigation, these are now pending decision in the Supreme Court.

Resultantly, these laws are being managed on an ad-hoc basis and the EOBI is unable to exercise its authority over many companies in Sindh, which are not making any contribution to it since the last three years. Other companies in Pakistan are contributing to the EOBI based on their volition and these rates vary from six percent (including one percent of employees’ contribution) of Rs6,000 to six percent of Rs13,000 per month. Post-devolution, the federal government has been increasing the EOBI pension, which is currently Rs6,500 per month, primarily under pressure from the pensioners and not based on any defined and laid-down system. Initially, the labour federations took up these issues with the federal government and strongly advocated reversion of the three laws to the latter. However, finding the federal government helpless in this regard over the last nine years, they have lost interest in chasing it any further.

In a meeting held in Islamabad on April 12, 2019, to review the development on the Punjab labour policy announced by him in December, 2018, the prime minister said, “Ensuring implementation of labour laws is a real challenge which requires special attention”. The meeting was attended by the Punjab labour minister, spokesperson for the chief minister of Punjab, provincial labour secretary and commissioner of the Punjab Employees’ Social Security Institution.

At present, the real challenge is not of implementation but of provincial coordination in the amendment of labour laws by one province. Unless this is addressed on a priority basis, the three critical labour welfare laws, which continued to provide uninterrupted benefits to workers till the devolution, may become redundant for the smaller provinces. In the same meeting, the prime minister was informed that the Punjab Workers’ Welfare Fund Act, 2019 and the Punjab Companies Profits (Workers’ Participation) Act, 2019 were under process. Once these two laws are passed by the Punjab Assembly, it will hasten to deprive workers in KP and Balochistan from benefits available to them over the last half century.

In order to avert this situation, the federal government should hold a tripartite conference at a national level and take decisions based on recommendations of the stakeholders.

Parvez Rahim, "Laws and devolution," The news. 2019-05-01.
Keywords: Law and humanity , Labor laws , Welfare laws , Labor policy , Development projects , Social aspect , Social security , National level , International issue , Stakeholders