World, Asia - Pacific

Millions of Pakistani laborers struggle amid COVID-19 lockdown

Around 75% of the country's total 65 million labor force is unregistered, according to labor unions

Aamir Latif  | 30.04.2020 - Update : 30.04.2020
Millions of Pakistani laborers struggle amid COVID-19 lockdown FILE PHOTO

KARACHI, Pakistan

Hundreds of charged laborers, including women, gathered outside a garment factory in the eastern district of Pakistan's commercial capital Karachi to protest against their forced layoff only a week before the International Labor Day.

They, in fact, came to receive their salaries but they were verbally informed that the factory no longer required their services due to the financial losses caused by a lingering lockdown imposed by the government to curb the raging coronavirus outbreak in the country.

A few kilometers away, another demonstration was held outside a famous textile company, which also laid off hundreds of laborers citing the same reason.

"It's happening in all over Pakistan [nowadays]. Laborers, especially daily wagers, and contract employees are being laid off without any notice," said Shams-ur-Rehman Swati, president of National Labor Federation (NLF), a conglomerate of different labor unions in Pakistan.

"Every day, hundreds of laborers are being laid off across the country since the government imposed the lockdown last month," Swati told Anadolu Agency.

The massive layoffs coincide with Prime Minister Imran Khan's call for not firing the employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has recently announced incentives for the private companies who will not fire their employees due to the ongoing economic slowdown. However, according to the labor unions, thousands of laborers have been fired in the last two months in the country.

In addition, the government has launched Ehsas (care) Emergency Cash Program to provide financial assistance of 12,000 Pakistani rupees ($75) each to some 12 million families affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Pakistan has been under lockdown since last month and will continue until May 9 as the country reported a total of 15,759 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 346 deaths so far.

Different Labor Day

According to the Ministry of Planning, 12.3 million to 18.5 million Pakistanis will lose their jobs, whereas the economy will concede a colossal loss of 2-2.5 trillion Pakistani rupees ($12.42-15.52 billion) due to “moderate to severe shocks from the coronavirus outbreak.”

The informal laborers -- which according to labor unions, account for 75% of the country's total 65 million workforce -- will be the worst hit. Around 40% of them are in agriculture sector, while remaining work in services, manufacturing, and other sectors, according to the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and & Research (PILER), a non-governmental think tank, which deals with labor affairs.

"These informal laborers are not registered anywhere. They do not have any social security or legal cover. Millions of them will lose their jobs, I fear," Karamat Ali, the secretary of Pakistan Labour Council and executive director of PILER, told Anadolu Agency.

The Labor day is going to miss the traditional fanfare this year due to the coronavirus lockdown.

"This will be a completely different Labor Day as the laborers never faced situation like this. On the one hand, they are facing unemployment, and hunger, while on the other, a deadly disease like coronavirus," Ali observed.

There will be no rallies, seminars, and other public gatherings to mark the day for the first time in the country's 72-year history.

"We are not worried about that. We are worried about millions of our laborers, who have already been laid off or are going to lose their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis," Ali maintained.

The PILER plans to hold some online events to discuss ways of dealing with the massive layoffs on May 1.

Swati said: "Pakistani laborer today is not thinking about the May Day. He is more worried about the hunger looming on him, and his family due to unemployment.”

System exposed 

Swati observed that the ongoing wheat harvesting, the reopening of construction and some other low-risk industries, and Ehsas program by the government provided some relief to the laborers.

Liaquat Ali Sahi, a Karachi-based trade unionist, opined that the coronavirus crisis has exposed the country's labor system.

"Our government has now come to know that the country's 75% to 80% labor force is unregistered, and informal. They have no appointment letters. They are working without any social security or the legal protection," said Sahi, who is also the secretary of State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP) employees union.

"It's a settled law as per Pakistan's Constitution that any person who works for an organization for 90 consecutive days, is automatically considered a permanent employee, and deserves social security, and other benefits. But where on earth this law is being followed," he told Anadolu Agency.

"Even in the SBP, a majority of low-ranking employees have either been hired through a third party or are working on contract basis," he claimed.

The government has bound the employers to provide the lists of their employees, and their bank account details to the banks, if they wanted to borrow loans exclusively announced for the coronavirus-hit industries.

"Most of the employers have no such lists and bank account details because their employees have been hired through a third-party," Sahi said, adding: "But, even if they provide the required details, they will have to tell the government why their employees are not registered with the social security department."

The coronavirus crisis, he thought, had provided an opportunity to the government, and the private sector to overhaul the entire employment system in the country.

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