Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Pakistan organized the second National Labour Conference in Islamabad, where labour leaders from across Pakistan gathered to address social injustice and explore how trade unions can more effectively enforce workers' demands for decent working conditions. Dr. Niels Hegewisch, Country Director FES Pakistan, pointed out that FES is committed to facilitate unity among Pakistani trade unions and to exchange and discuss challenges of the labour movement in Pakistan. Dr. Hegewisch also informed the participants that in 2023, FES will be launching Pakistan Labour Academy and the National Coalition for Social Justice in Pakistan which is a tool for strategic planning that helps analyze the strengths and weaknesses for all social organizations to strengthen this coalition.
At the conference, Karamat Ali, a veteran trade unionist, praised FES for organizing all labour leaders under one roof and working tirelessly to strengthen labour unions in Pakistan. Ali presented a holistic reflection of labour in the country and said that the Trade Unions Act 1926 was promulgated due to the advocacy of workers by Mr. Jinnah. However, the number of active labour unions has depleted from 25% at the inception of Pakistan to only 1% unionized labour force. Privatization and nepotism are depleting the rate of productivity in industries, so the workers are suffering directly. Health and safety standards in the country need to be upgraded and enforced, Mr. Ali said.
Saghir Bukhari, Senior Programme Officer-ILO Pakistan, addressed the topic of labour issues and international commitments and stated that ILO and trade unions. He pointed out that according to their latest research, the role that primarily belongs to trade unions could be taken up by other stakeholders in the future. Trade unions need to adapt to new challenges to protect the fundamental rights of domestic and informal workers.
Dr. Aliya H Khan, a senior economist, discussed the impact of foreign debt on labour rights in Pakistan. According to Moody's latest findings, debt restructuring is imminent, and Pakistan is on the verge of economic collapse and default which will naturally harm workers all over the country.
The Chairperson of the Sindh Human Rights Commission, Mr. Iqbal Detho, discussed Pakistan's Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which happens every five years. Mr. Detho stated that Pakistan under the GSP+ scheme is required to ratify, maintain ratification of, and implement 27 international conventions that are related to labour and human rights, environment protection, and good governance. He emphasized the need for a collaborative effort between political leaders, the business community, and human rights institutions to consolidate democracy in Pakistan. He also stressed the importance of strengthening ties with the EU parliament and democratic structures to seek expertise and support.
Zulfiqar Shah, one of the speakers at the event, highlighted that the European Union parliament has unanimously voted to review Pakistan's GSP+ status, adding urgency to the need for collaboration between labor unions and civil society to achieve sustainable results on labor and human rights compliance. Shah also discussed the results of recent research conducted by his team, which focused on the status of labor rights in Pakistan in relation to foreign debt. Despite taking out loans for education and health, the status of these sectors has deteriorated, and workers continue to struggle to receive their compensation and pensions. Shah noted that trade unionists are not being consulted before loans are taken out for their institutions and called for more attention to be paid to the needs of workers.
Another speaker at the conference, Ume Laila, Executive Director of HomeNet Pakistan, highlighted the challenges facing home-based women workers in Pakistan. She pointed out that the informal labor sector is growing in the country, with 73% of workers in Pakistan being informal sector workers. The percentage of home-based workers has also increased between 1998 and 2004. Laila stressed the need for collaborations and alliances to achieve common goals and improve the wellbeing of workers.
The conference also featured a session on challenges facing workers in different provinces, with Ch. Muhammad Yaseen (Punjab) highlighting the challenges facing labor leaders, including a lack of transparency and continuity of democracy within the trade union system. Mr. Sultan Khan (Balochistan) called for provincial tri-partite conferences and institutional arrangements to be made for holding these conferences on a regular basis.
Other speakers, such as Mr. Qamrul Hasan (Sindh) and Mr. Rana Abdul Sammi (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), discussed the need to abolish the contract system in all industrial establishments and to legislate for equal pay for equal work. Followed by the session on challenges of media workers moderated by Shahzada Zulfiqar (Ex-president PFUJ) and the detailed Questions and Answers session led by veteran trade unionists Mr. Abdul Latif Nizamani.
At the conclusion of the conference, the labor leaders passed a joint declaration calling for a review of labor policy, legislation, and institutional arrangements to identify gaps hindering the protection of workers' rights in Pakistan. This declaration is a step towards creating a more just and equitable labor environment in the country.