Labour Day: A Meaningless Day For The Majority In Pakistan

Labour Day: A Meaningless Day For The Majority In Pakistan

Labour Day in Pakistan oxymoronic because the day is just another holiday for the better-offs in Pakistan while the labour class toils under the blazing sun. Perhaps on no other day does the class difference between the haves and the have-nots manifests itself as much as it does on this day. Throughout the world the day is marked to commemorate the struggle of the working class, however in Pakistan this class is deliberately kept unaware of its rights and when the ruling elite become an integral part of the state, the state becomes the exploiter.

Pakistan has ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81) in 1953.  Under this Convention, the government through its Labour Department is bound to ensure that employers and workers are educated and informed of their legal rights and obligations concerning all aspects of labour protection and labour laws; and advised on compliance with the requirements of the law; and necessary provisions are made to enable inspectors to report to superiors on problems and defects that are not covered by laws and regulations. The government has also not ratified ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health and Convention 187 of promotional framework for Occupational Safety and Health.

Labour Legislation

By virtue of the 18th constitutional amendment in 2010, whereby the power to legislate on certain matters was devolved to provinces, the federal government also devolved its power of labour legislation to the provinces. Unfortunately, the job of according provincial status to all labour laws, which was to be achieved in June 2011, remains incomplete, resulting in ambiguity in the application of law in case of a dispute. As of 2015 there have been 32 labour related laws operative in Pakistan. These include the Mines Act 1923, Employees Old Age Benefit Act 1976, Protection Of Women Against Harassment Act 2010, Industrial Relations Act 2012, Merchant Shipping Act 2001, Employment Of Children Act 1991, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, and the Factories Act 1934 etc. Labour laws are the enactment of the Constitutional provisions that enumerate the rights of the labour these include article 1, 17, 18, 25 and 37(e). Despite the plethora of labour laws, the labour class is denied the rights of a safe working environment and better pay. Unions are often discouraged and their demands are curbed using force.

Recently the workers and staff of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) went on strike against the privatization of the national carrier. Their peaceful assembly was interrupted when Rangers were called in to disperse the crowd and two senior employees lost their lives due to the indiscriminate firing!

Occupational and Safety Hazards

The legislation in Pakistan on occupational safety and health (OSH), lacks in many ways. For example Factories Act 1934 is not applicable to the enterprises employing less than ten workers. It also does not give coverage to the workers in the agriculture sector, informal/house-based workers and seasonal workers. Majority of the workforce in Pakistan is illiterate and not trained in occupational safety and health.

The mine workers in Pakistan work under some of the worst conditions. The terms and conditions of work in coal mines in Pakistan are worse than the conditions that existed 500 years ago. Though the Mines Act 1923 specifically spells out the provisions for health and safety and the responsibilities and duties of inspectors, owners, agents, managers and state officials, yet the officials and workers are unaware of the safety precautions that are mandatory as per the law.

The Hazardous Occupational Rule 1978 is also outdated and unable to manage the complexities associated with existing OSH. The main reason for the lack of implementation of OSH laws is the collusion of state officials with the owners, affiliated with the political elite, who cut the cost of production at the cost of the worker’s life and health. There is a need for the government to formulate comprehensive rules and regulations to improve OHS awareness and surveillance as well as reporting on occupational injuries so as to minimize the risk of injuries.

Bonded Labour

Pakistan is ranked third in the World Slavery Index with estimated 2,058,200 people in modern slavery – this is equivalent to 1.13% of the entire population. A weak rule of law, widespread corruption and poverty reinforce political, social and economic structures of modern slavery in Pakistan. Bonded labour is most common in the brick kiln sector with majority of kilns being in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. The government has a limited response to modern slavery, with very basic victim support services, a limited criminal justice framework, limited coordination or collaboration mechanism and little protection for those vulnerable to modern slavery.

By virtue of Darshan Mashih vs. State (1990) the Supreme Court banned bonded labour as unconstitutional. Subsequently, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 was promulgated and enacted. However, despite the enactment, the law was not implemented in the earnest. The brick kiln workers were not made aware that they didn’t have to break their backs to pay off any old debts, magistrates were not informed of their responsibilities and members who were proposed to be a part of these vigilance committees were not cognizant of their roles.

Child Labour

UNICEF defines child labour as some type of work performed by children below the age of 18. Pakistan today has the world’s third largest children’s workforce according to ILO, though the trend is on decline throughout the world. ILO has put the number of child labourers at 12 million children employed in several hazardous industrial works such as coal, brick kiln, leather tanning and carpet weaving. In December 2014, the U.S. Department of Labour’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labour or Forced Labour reported 9 goods of which 6 are produced by child labourers in Pakistan.

Pakistan has passed Employment of Children Act 1991 in an attempt to limit child labour but the law is universally ignored. 12 million children, aged four to fourteen, still keep the country’s factories operating, often working in brutal and squalid conditions.

Factory Workers

September 11, 2012 will remain etched in the collective memory of Pakistan. On that day 259 labourers were burned alive inside a garment factory of Ali Enterprises. The incident is unprecedented in the industrial history of Pakistan and was termed as 9/11 for the labouring class of Pakistan. In a detailed report the New York Times had stated that a prominent factory monitoring group heavily financed by the industry gave a clean bill of health to a Pakistani apparel plant in the previous month, just weeks before a fire engulfed the premises and killed nearly 300 workers – many of them trapped behind locked exit doors.

According to the report in August, two inspectors who visited the factory to examine working conditions, gave it a prestigious SA8000 Certification, meaning that it had met international standards in nine areas, including health and safety, child labour and minimum wages.

Despite a lapse of 3 years, the heirs of the victims have still not received any compensation from the state or the factory owners. The joint investigation team found the incident to be a result of an arson, thus giving a new twist to the ensuing legal battle and the owners of the factory took it as an opportunity to absolve themselves of the responsibility, thus the matter of compensation is still in doldrums.

Article 37 of the Constitution guarantees the right to secure and humane working conditions yet in Pakistan the situation of occupational health and safety is deteriorating fast. There is no independent legislation on health and safety except the Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963 under the Factories Act 1934. The concerned laws are obsolete and do not conform to international practices.

Issue of Minimum Wages

In Pakistan, exploitation of workers by most industries, factories and other business organizations is rampant due to the lack of effective mechanism of checks and balances on minimum wages by the government. It seems as if there is no existence of law in the country to curb the exploiters and violators. On the face of it, the provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh have raised the minimum wage from Rs. 12,000 to Rs 13,000 per month for unskilled workers, Balochistan province has also raised its minimum wage from Rs. 9,000 to Rs13, 000 per month, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has decided to fix its minimum wage at Rs.15, 000 per month, but the ground realities speak otherwise. According to ILO the wages of the workers are as follows:

Polio drops worker 250 Rs per day that is 7500 Rs. per month
Security guard 6000-10,000 Rs. per month
Courier workers 5000 to 10000 Rs. per month
Workers at filling stations 5000 to 7000 Rs per month
Mine worker 5000 to 10,000 per month


The state of the pensioners is no different either. Through an amendment in the Employees Old Age Benefits Act, 1976 in 2005, monthly contributions payable by the respective employees and employers under the EOBA were linked to the wage under the Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers Ordinance, 1969. However despite the fact that the minimum wage was increased from Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 per month effective from July 1, 2013, the EOBA contributions are still paid at Rs 8,000 due in part to the difference in minimum wage in the provinces. Consequently, the meager EOBA pension of Rs 3,600 per month has not been increased for 354,632 pensioners in Pakistan. (UPDATED: It is now Rs 5,250 per month).


The labour and working class in Pakistan has suffered in silence the vicious cycle of poverty brought in by the economic meltdown which has forced the labourers into the worst forms of servitude and slavery. The state is constitutionally obligated to protect the beleaguered labourers and safeguard their rights, however the state must do a little more than pay lip service to the cause. Merely enacting labour laws will not serve the purpose, the implementation of these laws is the responsibility of the state and must be ensured at all costs. It is about time the state plays its role in ensuring the socio-economic well-being of labourers and fulfills its obligations as enunciated in the international conventions and its own Constitution.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any organization with which she might be associated.

Javeria Younes

Author: Javeria Younes

Javeria Younes is an advocate and social activist vying for an egalitarian society free from torture.