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Minimum wage: the wages of lack of empathy is social unrest

“I’m going to say something controversial, but I genuinely believe that Pakistan needs to move away from this minimum wage of Rs 25,000 to a fair living wage, which is Rs 56,000 for Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore and Rs 49,000 for other cities.” This statement came from CEO of Unilever Pakistan, Amir Paracha, who was sharing his thoughts on the sense of purpose young people today are looking for, and how companies need to do better by their employees at a ‘Leaders Dialogue’ organised by the Marketing Association of Pakistan in Karachi.

It is only recently that the minimum wage has been revised by both Sindh and Punjab to reach the figure of Rs 25,000. Previously it was Rs 19,000 in Sindh, Rs 20,000 in Punjab. Even now we are ranked 104 in the world as far as minimum wages are concerned. Singapore tops the list where the minimum wage is 4,350 US$ followed by Australia 4,218 US$, the United States 3,721 US$, the United Arab Emirates 3,663 US$, Norway 3,457 US$ and Canada 3,338.62 US$. In Canada, minimum wage is calculated on an hourly rate and on an eight-hour five-day week. If you work on weekends or on holidays you stand to earn more sometimes even as much as twice and a half the hourly rate.

While in most countries of the world the minimum wage is strictly adhered to and implemented it might not be the same in Pakistan. I doubt that all employers are paying minimum wage to all their employees. Let us assume that everyone is following the minimum wages guidelines, but the purchasing power of the rupee is fast depleting. Only a few years ago the middle classes could get their monthly grocery for a few thousand rupees but now that is how much it costs to just buy few basics like cooking oil, rice and sugar. The bills for utilities have also gone up and take away a good chunk of the salary. According to a survey the cost of living in Karachi is way above the minimum wage and even much higher than proposed by the Unilever CEO. According to this survey estimated costs for a family of four are Rs 229,094.89 without rent and estimated costs for a single person without rent is Rs 68,407.62. Seems pretty steep but it is a fact. A family I know living on the outskirts of Karachi has only one bread earner who earns around Rs 30,000. There are five members of this family just pulling along when one day out of the blue they were forced to pay medical bills which were twice the amount of their usual monthly expenditures. The entire budget for the family went through the window and they were running from pillar to post to beg or borrow or whatever to somehow just survive. On ordinary days when I ask them what was for dinner the children would say they just had fried potatoes with roti. The fruits which they eat at random and take for granted are like the forbidden fruits for them and it was a blessing for them when this year the country had a bumper crop of apples, and they were at one time available cheaper than most vegetables. The motorcycle of the head of the family that was their main means of transportation now mostly stands idle as the fuel is too expensive for its frequent use.

There are some expanses in Karachi which are due to the negligence of authorities which allowed different mafias to take over certain functions of the government and eventually became so strong that now it is almost impossible to dislodge them. Perhaps the strongest is the water tanker mafia. I remember when I would come back from school in the 1960s I would go straight to the water tap and drink straight from it. No mineral water, no tanker water but water straight from the municipal corporation. Healthy and treated for any harmful substance it was delivered right at our doorsteps. This facility disappeared over a period of time and now we are doing what we could not imagine in our childhood. Buying water and this has now become such a booming business that anyone hindering it or trying to provide this essential civic service are risking their lives. It is the same with transportation. Karachi had at one time the most convenient and affordable tram service and government run bus system. On one pretext or the other it was wound up and now the transport mafia will not allow anyone to provide safe, secure and affordable transport system to the people of Karachi. Buses of different colors appear and disappear but the only survivors are the broken down, lightless, brakeless buses with seating arrangements on the roof that defy and taunt all traffic regulations.

I was thrilled by the suggestion of the Unilever CEO to raise minimum wage to reasonable levels. I hope this message reaches those in power and the poor hardworking people of this city will get a chance to enjoy even if at the fringes some of the facilities and comforts this city offers.

Zia Ul Islam Zuberi, "Minimum wage: the wages of lack of empathy is social unrest," Business recorder. 2022-12-03.
Keywords: Economics , Marketing association , Cooking oil , Medical bills , Tanker mafia , Municipal corporation , Unilever , Karachi , Islamabad , Lahore , Pakistan , Canada , Norway , United Arab Emirates , CEO , US

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