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Pakistan’s labour movement: a reality check

Pakistan’s labour movement: a reality check

Jul 20, 2023

Trade union membership in Pakistan is no higher than at independence in 1947, causing the country and its citizens to miss out on the potential benefits of a strong labour movement. The political and other restraints on workers’ organizations need addressing as a matter of urgency.

Last month, Pakistan celebrated its diamond jubilee of independence with passion. Memorial ceremonies were organized from Karachi to Kashmir and Gilgit to Gwadar amidst a devastating monsoon which has already killed more than 1,500 people including 550 children and impacted more than 35 million mostly poor citizens, especially farmers, peasants, daily wage earners and domestic workers who are now displaced and homeless. But one thing missing amid the humanitarian crisis is the united voice of workers in Pakistan.

The strength of the labour movement in Pakistan has receded and flooded over the 75 years of the country’s history, and is arguably at its weakest point in recent memory due to internal fights and a lack of capacity to nurture the new leadership. Even though Pakistan was founded by a trade union leader – Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was the elected president of the All India Postal Staff Union – Pakistan’s trade union movement has never managed to build a strong foundation which shows the failures of the country’s development trajectory.

At the time of independence, for a population of 32 million, only 75 registered trade union organizations in Pakistan had a mere 58,150 members. This can be compared with 1,725 registered trade unions in the United India, which claimed 900,000 union members. Whereas, in today’s Pakistan, there are 7,096 trade unions with a membership of 1,414,160 for a 60 million workforce in a country of 220 million people according to a recent ILO’s study – which is contested by the labour leadership in Pakistan as they believe that less than one per cent of workers in Pakistan are organized in trade unions. Because of the lack of data and non-reporting by the trade unions to the registration authorities, official, precise data about the number of trade unions is not available.

From independence to current times, Pakistan has witnessed a series of political and military-led governments in which labour reforms have never been on the agenda of the ruling elite, except for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government, which brought in several pro-worker reforms. His government’s drive to promote unionization, in combination with other provisions such as giving a share in profits, promoted a movement to form trade unions in small and large industries.


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