THE international Labour Day is being celebrated this year at a time when tens of millions of workers across the world have lost their jobs in the wake of the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 has thrown up one of the biggest challenges for labour across the world, with joblessness growing as governments have shut down economies as part of social-distancing measures to stop the spread of the contagion. Economic experts say the world economy will take a few years to get back on its feet. Yet not all the jobs lost so far will be revived, leaving massive numbers unemployed and over 100m more people slipping below the poverty line.
The situation in Pakistan is no different. With most factories closed and economic growth projected to contract by 1.5pc for the first time in 68 years, the next few years offer little hope to the working classes. The federal planning and development ministry has already estimated job losses resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown at 18m or so, mostly daily-wage earners employed in informal services or industrial sectors. A third of these jobs will not be available when the lockdown is lifted and the wheels of the economy are allowed to move at full steam, which is unlikely to happen for at least a year. Most people left jobless were already living on the margins. Sadly, there is no one to raise a voice for workers owing to a fragmented labour rights movement, which has been emaciated further by successive governments’ bias towards powerful business lobbies and investors, and weak implementation of whatever labour laws exist. Millions of our workers in the informal sector or hired on contract by businesses are not allowed to unionise. The workers do not have collective bargaining rights in many sectors. In other sectors, legal requirements make it impossible to unionise labour. And labour unions in most public-sector organisations have lost their edge owing to the weakened financial position of their employers. The worst thing is that collective bargaining rights for labour are not on the agenda of any political party. It is obvious that when politicians talk about the economy they are actually thinking about maximising the profits of business owners rather than improving the working and living conditions of labour in the country.
May Day is a celebration of human dignity. It reminds us of what Martin Luther King once said about no work being insignificant. Indeed, the economic hardships caused by the pandemic will continue to plague our working classes for a long time. However, our decision-makers can use this time to mitigate the pain now and in the future by strengthening workers’ rights to unionise for collective bargaining with their employers to protect their economic interests. Employers need to realise that their businesses will prosper quickly if they keep their employees happy.
Doomed peace pact?
WHEN the peace pact was signed between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban in Doha in February, few believed it would magically usher in an era of harmony and prosperity in the war-torn nation. There were too many spoilers at work, and a wide gulf of mistrust between all involved — the Taliban, the Afghan government and the Americans. While optimists believed that the deal was the groundwork for a broader intra-Afghan reconciliation process, the unfortunate fact is that chances of peace are unravelling fast as violence has not abated. The Taliban may not be targeting American troops, but deadly exchanges between the militia and Afghan soldiers are a regular feature. This goes to prove that any foreign-sponsored peace process in Afghanistan is bound to fail unless all parties inside the country own and honour it.
The options for Afghanistan are grim. If the foreign forces stay, the status quo will continue, as the Taliban continue to hammer the weak dispensation in Kabul. Moreover, nearly two decades of foreign intervention have failed to give the Afghans a functioning state that can deliver the basics. If the foreign forces leave and there is no agreement between Afghan factions, the country is likely to implode and return to the chaos of the post-Soviet Mujahideen era. Neither of these is an attractive option for the Afghan people. Aside from the various Afghan ethno-political factions and the Taliban there are the Islamic State terrorists, who play by a different set of rules altogether. Therefore, from these unpalatable options, the Afghan factions will have to choose the least unattractive: learn to tolerate each other and fight their battles through the ballot box. This is easier said than done, as efforts to ‘implant’ democracy by the Americas have met with less than stellar results. Meanwhile, an ugly power struggle is playing out in Kabul, as Ashraf Ghani’s presidential victory — validated by the Afghan election commission — has not been recognised by Abdullah Abdullah, the erstwhile ‘CEO’ of Afghanistan and Mr Ghani’s chief rival. Perhaps the traditional Afghan jirga can be used as a platform to bring all tribes and ethnic groups together to discuss the way forward. The Taliban should be part of such a process and any agreement must pledge to protect the rights of Afghan women, all sects and tribes. Such an effort may bear more fruit than foreign efforts.
Prisoners with disabilities
AS noted in a recent webinar by Justice Project Pakistan and NOWPDP, the disruption of life as we know it caused by the global pandemic offers us a rare opportunity to re-examine many a broken system. Shining a spotlight on the intersection between prisoner rights and disability rights, the two organisations discussed the current plight of at-risk inmates in Pakistan’s overcrowded and underserviced jails, as well as the more chronic issues plaguing our criminal justice system. According to JPP, Pakistan has at least 2,100 prisoners with physical ailments, about as many with chronic communicable diseases and around 600 with mental illness, all of them particularly vulnerable to contracting Covid-19 and transferring it to overworked wardens who also double as their caregivers. Consider the case of Abdul Basit, a death-row inmate whose execution was stayed in 2016 on a technicality requiring that a prisoner stand on the gallows, which he — paralysed from the neck down — could not. He remains imprisoned, entirely dependent on prison staff to feed and clean him.
How we treat the most vulnerable among us, in times of plenty and of hardship, speaks volumes for us as a society. Human tragedies such as that of Abdul Basit’s unfold every day in unsafe and unsanitary prisons across Pakistan, out of sight and mind of the inhabitants of the pristine halls of power. Efforts to revamp the country’s prison systems have gone nowhere, as the utility of inflicting cruel and unusual punishment in the form of denial of basic rights to prisoners with disabilities continues unabated, even under the current extraordinary circumstances. Punjab minister Abdul Aleem Khan recently announced his intent to upgrade and reform the province’s prisons, such as setting up ‘model’ jails to ensure humane conditions for prisoners and prison staff alike. It is hoped that this time round some substantive progress is made, and that in the process we learn to recognise and better uphold the right to life and dignity of all incarcerated persons.