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2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Pakistan

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Pakistan, 9 June 2010, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 180,800,000
Capital: Islamabad
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111

Although the new Industrial Relations Act adopted in 2008 represents some progress, it remains partially at odds with international standards. Many workers enjoy limited trade union rights, and the right to strike is circumscribed by excessive restrictions. In practice, trade union rights are often violated. Several trade union activists were arrested, detained or discriminated against during the year. Private employers often refuse to recognise unions and commonly use union-busting tactics.

Trade union rights in law

Despite the improvements brought by the interim 2008 Industrial Relations Act, many problematic areas exist in the labour law. While the Constitution guarantees freedom of association, it is denied to workers in many sectors. Then union activities are hampered by the requirement that any gathering of more than four people is subject to police authorisation. The Registrar also retains wide powers to inspect the accounts and records of registered trade unions.

Furthermore, to be recognised as a collective bargaining agent, a union must represent not less than one third of the total number of workers employed. In addition, workers that are covered by the 1952 Essential Services Maintenance Act are denied the right to collective bargaining and to strike.

Finally, the federal government also has wide powers to prohibit any strike if it lasts for more than 30 days causing "serious hardship to the community" or is "prejudicial to the national interests". In the case of public utility services, strikes may be prohibited at any time before or after the start of the strike. The procedures for calling a lawful strike last at least one month, and illegal strikes, as well as go-slows and picketing, carry penalties of long imprisonments as well as fines. Workers in export processing zones are denied the right to strike.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Background: The February elections brought the return of a civilian government after General Musharraf's nine years in power. The protection of civil rights and policies has improved somewhat since then. Bomb blasts and political violence has been common throughout the year in many areas of the country. From April onwards, clashes between government forces and militants in the Swat region of North-West Pakistan displaced up to 130,000 people a day – the overall number of uprooted people is reckoned to be several million.

In addition, Pakistan has been hit hard by the economic crisis and unions are calling for an urgent increase in the minimum wage to cope with rising prices and harsh IMF repayment terms. Contract workers and rural workers face particularly bad working conditions and minimum access to labour rights. Poverty has continued to rise. The economic crisis has also led to a reported rise in child labour.

Employers circumvent legislation: Employers often strongly resist the unionisation of their employees, with management resorting to intimidation, dismissal and blacklisting. If an employer is opposed to the formation of a union, the procedures for union registration and the appeals process can take many years. Sometimes the employers artificially promote workers to managerial status, usually without the concomitant salary increase, so that they no longer qualify for union membership. The economic crisis has resulted in increasing numbers of businesses ignoring the law with the sometimes overt support of the authorities. This has led to reduced wages and benefits as well as weaker rights, since workers are more afraid to claim their rights in case they lose their jobs.

Strikes: illegal and dangerous: The strikes that do occur are, given the complications attached to organising a strike, usually illegal and short. They are often broken up by police and used by employers to justify dismissals. Marches and protests do occur regularly despite the repercussions. Some are successful. For example the demonstration by union workers at the Pakistan Electric Power Company (Pepco) led finally to management agreeing small increases to the salary grades for line workers in May 2009. Workers at the Wapda Hydro Electric Central Labour Union protested in July after linesmen's families were not compensated after workers were killed at the workplace in the escalating political violence. Other strikes, however, lead directly and quickly to violence and the arrest of union leaders.

Weak labour law enforcement by local governments: The Factories Act of 1934 provides for inspection of enterprises, but this authority has been increasingly devolved to provincial and lower level governments with the net result that labour inspections are hardly ever performed, and that employers are able to violate key provisions of the law on wages and conditions of work with impunity.

Anti-union discrimination in banks: In recent years, hundreds of trade union leaders have been dismissed under the terms of the Banking Companies (Amendment) Act, 1997. In 2009 in an effort to lift the restrictions on trade union activities in banks, Deputy Secretary General of the Pakistan Peoples Party filed a private members bill against the legislation. In addition, the Pakistan Workers' Federation has reported reprisals against trade unionists by the National Bank of Pakistan while in November 2009, Imran Usman, a member of the Muslim Commercial Bank Staff Union, was reportedly abducted for his union activities.

Bonded and forced labour continues: In February, thousands of peasants from Sindh province went on a 14 day march demanding amendments to the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950 which allows landlords to take large portions of their tenants' harvest in part repayment of original loans and the related interest, thereby keeping peasants in a state of perpetual debt akin to bonded labour. Peasants are also demanding the implementation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992. Recent ADB investment provided in order to eliminate the loans owed by the peasants has allegedly been squandered by local authorities leaving farmers remaining in debt.

Appalling working conditions for contract workers – unionist supporter arrested: In February, the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation (PCMLF), an affiliate of the Labour Confederation of Pakistan, staged a protest demonstration in Quetta to protest a mineshaft collapse at the Mach coal mine in which eight mineworkers died. In addition, the names of the contract staff working in the mine had not been registered, including the victims. This is common practice and presents yet another obstacle to organising the sector. The General Secretary of the Pakistan Workers Federation in the region, Haji Muhammad Ramzan Achakzai, was also detained on criminal charges for supporting the mineworkers as well as later being involved in the cases of 250 dismissed Merck employees in Quetta (see Violations 2009: Brutal repression of workers and unionists at the Merck Factory in Quetta).

Ship breakers organise yellow union: In February, at the Gadani ship breaking yard, workers went on strike over appalling conditions including low pay and most importantly the almost complete lack of safety protections. Between February and April, four men died working and many workers die each year from fires, explosions, falls and exposure to toxic chemicals. The six-day February strike resulted in an agreement between the Pakistan Ship-breakers Association Gadani and Ship-breaking Labour Union Gadani, in which the ship breakers promised to provide safety gear, emergency transport and increased regular wage payments, although this has not been implemented. At least one worker was later banned by the local administration for his participation in the strike while workers have been complaining of a "pocket" (yellow) union organised by the companies.

Pearl Continental Hotel refuses any dialogue with the unions: The workers of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi have been fighting for over seven years for recognition of their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The management has consistently refused to recognise the union formed in this hotel, which is a member of the "Pakistan Hotel, Restaurant, Clubs, Tourism, Catering and Allied Workers' Federation", an affiliate of the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF). Several members and leaders of the union have been sacked, threatened, harassed and imprisoned. Due to the ongoing violence in the city, the police had prohibited a May Day activity organised by the Pearl Continental Hotel Workers Solidarity Committee, however the evening rally in question was held.

Night time raids to arrest scores of unionists: In May, in various cities in Punjab Province, including Lahore, 34 union activists and labour leaders were arrested in late night raids. Police also filed cases against 1,300 workers for their involvement in union activities in an alleged attempt by local businessmen to prevent the formation of trade unions. According to the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) and the National Trade Union Federation Pakistan (NTUFP), 30 belonged to the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM), an organisation of textile workers, and were arrested on fake charges of attempted murder and kidnapping. The four others arrested in Lahore included Niaz Khan, general secretary of Ittehad Labour Union Carpet Industries Pakistan and leader of the National Trade Union Federation, who was arrested on allegedly false charges of robbery probably brought by the owner of Interwood.

Brutal repression of workers and unionists at the Merck Factory in Quetta: Workers at the German MNC Merck Marker Quetta factory complained of low wages, especially for contract workers who make up almost two-thirds of the staff. Management responded with threats of factory closure and direct threats of dismissal. After the sacking of 24 employees in June, workers formed a factory action committee and stopped overtime work. Despite negotiations between union representatives and the provincial authorities, the factory went ahead with the threatened dismissal of at least 252 contract works on 10 July. A police complaint against eight union office holders was issued by the company while the secretary general of the Merck Employees' Union, Manzoor Baloch, was arrested and charged with target killings, disturbing law and order and terrorism. He was released after one month's detention. After more protests, local government forces attacked and detained 120 Merck workers on criminal charges. The General Secretary of the Pakistan Workers Federation in the region, Haji Muhammad Ramzan Achakzai, was also detained on criminal charges for supporting the Merck workers and the mineworkers in Quetta (see Appalling working conditions for contract workers – unionist supporter arrested).

On 9 August, leaders from the Pakistan Workers Federation (PWF) and the Pakistan Workers Confederation (PWC) undertook a train rally to Islamabad over the illegal dismissal and beatings. The PWF also lodged a complaint with the ILO over the case.

Two union organisers arrested: Two members of the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign (PTUDC) were detained on 22 June while distributing leaflets outside the Karachi Pakistan Steel plant. They were released two days later.

Oil workers dismissed and beaten for complaining: In July, 29 workers at the Pak Arab Oil Refinery (PARCO) were dismissed summarily after over 18 years service in Punjab. The workers went to the local Multan Labour Court to complain at the unfair dismissal. The court decided in favour of these workers and ordered the company management to reinstate the workers. However, the order was not carried out. Instead, when the workers went to the factory with their court orders, they were threatened and beaten by security staff.

Unilever's abuse finally ends in settlement for tea workers: In recent years, Unilever has been systematically employing temporary workers, who have been unable to join the company union and have received far lower wages and benefits. In October, a negotiated settlement between Unilever and the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) finally resolved the conflict over the rights of precarious workers at the company's last directly-owned Lipton/Brooke Bond tea factory in Khanewal, Pakistan.

Previously, the factory had employed 22 permanent workers – union members covered by a collective agreement – while another 723 workers had been hired through six contract labour agencies. The contract workers organised an action committee, and the Unilever Mazdoor Union Khanewal supported by the National Federation of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Workers of Pakistan helped them file petitions to obtain permanent employment, union membership and better conditions. Unilever responded by denying work, threatening and demoting those who joined the action committee while hiring new contract labour.

The settlement between the IUF and Unilever includes new permanent positions for action committee members, 200 additional direct permanent jobs, lump sum payments to contract workers to make up for missing social security and pensions and importantly the non-discrimination of union members.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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