Labour Rights in Islam
May 1st, the internationally recognized day of labour rights, also known as May Day, was chosen as the date for the International Workers’ Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International (a federation of socialist parties and trade unions) to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago, where a bombing had taken place at a labour demonstration in 1886. But even before that – and before Karl Marx and his Marxist theory and Lenin and his Communist plans for the Soviet Union – someone had advocated to “pay the labourers their wages before their sweat dried”. That someone was Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), a predecessor of labour rights advocacy. So labour law is not some recently developed philosophy – the principles of labour rights have always been embedded in Islam.
At a recent NGO training seminar led by a team of foreigners, I reiterated these words to emphasize for the skeptic circles in Pakistan that Islam too has always advocated for labour rights, it’s the national implementation of laws that has left a lot to be desired. The employer-employee relationship is considered a sacred bond with rights and corresponding responsibilities in Islam. In an era when slavery and indentured servitude was the norm, Islam came to liberate and give much-deserved rights to the people. We also have some Shariah texts that clarify the principles and regulations of this relationship.
For example, it is the right of employees to have their wages specified in advance by the employer and for the labourers to get their wages in full and on time. The Prophet once said that whoever employs people to work for them, must specify their wages in advance. The abstract idea of keeping wages uncertain is a violation of the labourer’s rights, yet it is a norm in modern labour practices.
Another narration mentions that “God said, ‘I will be the opponent of three on the Day of Judgment: … and one who hires a workman and having taken full work from him, does not pay him his wages.'” This is a serious rebuke of the Divine against those who withhold wages and abuse their power over their employees. Hence, the employers who hire workers and then delay their wages by a month or longer are in serious violation of the labourers’ rights.
One of the most known sayings of the Prophet is to “pay the labourers their wages before their sweat dries.” This revolutionary idea challenges even our typical understanding of the salaried pay, i.e. where the common belief of monthly salary is considered, it should, in reality, be paid daily! If one wants to consider revolutionary labour rights, the primary sources of Islamic Law might be an interesting reference – a standard not achieved even in so-called ‘developed’ countries.
Moreover, the employer has no right to force the worker to do more work or work longer than the time or work agreed upon. Sadly, we often see a pattern of behaviour in our workplaces that saddles workers with work beyond their job requirements and with the hidden threat or risk that they might lose their jobs otherwise. They are held back beyond closing hours and until ridiculous hours, without even being considered for their right to overtime pay!
I recently came across a paid advertisement in DAWN newspaper which suggested that because Sindh had passed a bunch of labour laws it was progressing significantly – quite an overstatement I would say. There hasn’t been any meaningful change on the ground because of corruption and the lack of implementation of not just the new laws but even the old ones! The lack of awareness among the people regarding their basic rights as employees only adds to the dilemma. I have personally worked with an initiative called Qaaf Se Qanoon to alleviate this ignorance through seminars, but it is only a drop in the bucket for what needs to be done.
‘Knowledge is power’ as they say, so one must educate oneself regarding his or her rights and not be afraid to challenge and stand up for what is right. Moreover, the Quran also directs employers to, “Fulfil [all] contracts” (Quran 5:1). So it is only fair for employers to fulfil their duties towards their employees.
 Narrated by Abu Sa‘eed Al-Khudri [Musannaf ‘Abdur-Razzaq]. Similar Hadiths were also narrated by Ibn Abi Shaybah in his Musannaf on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, Abu Sa‘eed and Uthman.
 Narrated by Abu Hurairah. Interestingly there is mention of this in the Bible as well in Deuteronomy 24:14-15 which reads: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be a sign to you.”
 Narrated by Abdullah ibn Umar.
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