Dilemmas facing civil society institutions in Pakistan: A case for organized labour

Charles W. Amjad-Ali and Karamat AU

Civil society institutions (CSI)1 in Pakistan have faced many serious threats from the state. Even when formally allowed to exist, they have been harassed through bureaucratic red tape and bottlenecks. These threats reflect a more general shrinkage of democratic space in Pakistan. Hardest hit have been CSIs that are involved in broad advocacy work: expanding democratic traditions and principles and deepening international rights regimes in Pakistan. The incessant interventions by the state Establishment leads to major insecurities among the CSIs and impedes their pursuit of their vocational goals. We will be covering labour-oriented CSIs in greater detail throughout this chapter because in this overall oppressive context, they play a highly significant and critical role in pushing for participatory, democratic and egalitarian society.

The history of CSIs is tied very closely with the different permutations in the history of Pakistan generally. It is a critical part of the country’s postcolonial institutional development, which has occurred in the midst of constantly changing governance patterns and paradoxically unchanging continuity of institutions of power and authority. While Pakistan has recently conducted its third consecutive on-time election and successful government transition, the democratic project overall remains precarious. CSIs generally play a critical role in consolidating both the ideas and institutions of democracy.

It is clear that restrictions on CSIs are impeding Pakistan’s overall development. These restrictions pose serious obstacles in the way of realizing the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all 193 UN Member States,2 especially those relating to ending poverty and fighting inequality and injustice. Organized labour contributes to the achievement of these goals, as well as towards tackling the issue of climate change by 2030.

General Zia-ul-Haq headed the most repressive regime (1977-1988) in Pakistan’s seven-decade history. During this period of absolute undemocratic politics, clothed in the unchallengeable Islamic sophistry of Zia’s martial law, massive volumes of foreign aid were flowing into Pakistan. During this period the country was never below the third-highest recipient of US aid, behind Israel and Egypt, and sometimes was the second highest. This gave unequivocal support to Zia’s draconian policies from sources generally claiming and presumed to be the bastions of democracy. Ironically, some of the country’s most progressive, radical and longest-lasting CSIs emerged during this period. These, in their turn, produced highly differentiated CSIs which focussed on particular issues within their respective spheres of operations. The best example of this is the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), created in 1981 during Zia’s most repressive Islamization processes, which particularly targeted women, minorities and labour.’ WAF, in its turn, generated many highly respected and effective woman-focussed CSIs, such as the Aurat Foundation and Shirkat Gah. The internationally renowned and respected Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also has an association with WAF: Ms Asma Jahangir helped to found both organizations.

The other significant example is the Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education and Research (PILER). Although initially established in 1973 with the specific goal of educating labour leadership, PILER reconfigured itself into a major critical political instrument during Zia’s regime. It was generally acknowledged as one of the main instruments of resistance against all the non-democratic and Islamization policies and practices of that martial law. At the same time it was the only organization fighting Zia’s policies specifically against organized labour. Zia completely gutted the trade unions and introduced unprecedented levels of contract labour, all in violation of workers’ fundamental rights. This led to an unparalleled growth of the precarious workforce, which has continued ever since. A huge proportion of the workforce in the industrial and other manufacturing sectors in Pakistan now operated as if they were temporary construction workers with no rights or protections of hiring and firing. Workers could not form trade unions and were therefore unable to fight for any of their basic rights. The denationalization and privatization of industries, set into motion under Zia and completed under Nawaz Sharif’s first government (1990-1993), further jeopardized workers and their rights. The net result of this four decades later is that today less than 1 per cent of the workforce are part of organized labour, and even that is shrinking.

PILER, in its turn, led to the generation of a number of critical labourbased CSIs, like the Pakistan Fisher Folk Forum, established in 1998; National Organisation for Working Communities (NOW Communities), founded in 2007; the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurants, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), finally established also in Pakistan in 2009, and the Workers Education and Research Organisation (WERO) established in 2010. The latter led the fight for the unionization of Lady Health Workers, as they are named in Pakistan, a group that had not been allowed to unionize as they were conveniently designated as ‘essential workers.’

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