The Global State of Workers' Rights - Pakistan

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Workers' rights are broadly protected in several articles of the constitution, including Article 17, which covers the right to form trade unions. The constitution also grants unions the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. An interim Industrial Relations Act (IRA), passed in 2008 to replace the Industrial Relations Ordinance of 2002 and scheduled to lapse in April 2010, allows workers to form and join trade unions of their choice, but it also places some restrictions on union membership, the right to strike, and collective bargaining, particularly for workers in industries deemed essential. Groups excluded from the right to organize altogether include those associated with the armed forces; state employees other than those working for the railways and the postal service; the security staff of airlines and energy companies; public-sector health workers; managerial staff; workers in export-processing zones; and agricultural workers. Likewise, workers in export-processing zones and public employees of nearly all types are not allowed to bargain collectively. The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency estimates that these excluded groups represent more than 60 percent of the country's labor force. The IRA lays out at least a month of procedures before a strike can be legally declared, and the federal government is empowered to end strikes lasting more than 30 days if they cause "serious hardship to the community" or are "prejudicial to the national interest." According to the International Trade Union Confederation, in the case of public utilities, strikes may be prohibited at any time before or after it commences. Although the registrar of trade unions is empowered to inspect union accounts and records, the official can no longer cancel a union's registration.

Other laws can and have been used to restrict freedom of association. The 1952 Essential Services (Maintenance) Act is often used to bar strikes and industrial action by public-sector workers. Under the 1999 Anti-Terrorist Ordinance, which is still in effect, illegal strikes, "go slow" actions, and picketing are considered forms of "civil commotion" that can be punished with fines or seven years to life in prison. In addition, Section 144 of the criminal procedure code makes any gathering of more than four people subject to police approval.

Approximately 70 percent of the workforce of 50 million is employed in the informal sector and is not represented by unions. Unionized workers comprise about 4 percent of the total workforce. Unions are generally independent of the government and are not controlled by a particular political party, although some do have party affiliations. Strikes and other forms of industrial action take place occasionally, but they are usually illegal, short-lived, and ultimately ineffective. Authorities regularly crack down on strikes and other union activities. For example, in June 2009, two members of the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign were arrested and allegedly tortured by security personnel for handing out pamphlets to striking steelworkers. In September, workers at Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation were violently suppressed by the state and management while protesting outside the company's headquarters over its failure to fulfill promises of higher pay.

Despite legislation outlawing bonded labor and canceling enslaving debts, illegal forced or bonded labor is widespread, with an estimated two million bonded laborers living primarily in Sindh province. In 2006, the National Coalition against Bonded Labor was formed to combat the ongoing problem. According to news reports, there is a growing trend in which bonded laborers sell organs, particularly kidneys, to repay debts or escape their servitude. The enforcement of child labor laws remains inadequate. Recent surveys have indicated that there are at least 10 million child workers in Pakistan, and those found to be employing children often avoid punishment. Pakistan is a largely agrarian society, much of which remains organized along feudal lines, and there are a number of organizations representing farmers and peasants, such as the Kissan Rabita Committee, an alliance of 22 peasant organizations. However, given the close ties between landowners and politicians, such groups have limited influence or ability to protect the rights of those they represent.

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