WORKERS in both the agriculture and fishing sectors are defined as formal labourers under the Sindh Industrial Relations Act 2013.
However, a big question mark hangs over the Act’s implementation as its relevant rules — those that ensure the unconditional right of association — have not been framed, something that the existing law does not permit.
Thus farm labourers are denied their right of association — their own union that will enable them to become a collective bargaining agent — a right guaranteed under Article 17 of the constitution.
Section 3 of the SIRA 2013 on ‘trade unions and freedom of association’ says that ‘workers without distinction, whatsoever, shall have the right to establish, subject to the rules of the organisation concerned, joint trade unions and associations of their own choice without previous authorisation’.
Farmers have been demanding their right to form unions so that they can organise themselves into a unit for collective bargaining enabling them to address the menace of bonded labour.
A recent study on cotton pickers of the Matiari district by Javed Hussain, who runs a non-governmental organisation, has highlighted the plight of women who work in the cotton sector.
Farm labourers are denied their right of association — their own union that will enable them to become a collective bargaining agent — a right guaranteed under Article 17 of the constitution
They get poor wages and remain vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation. They are denied women rights and are exposed to the poisonous effects of pesticides in the absence of desired safety measures.
A noted labour rights activist Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research says SIRA 2013 has been enacted, but until the list of exclusion is minimised in different labour laws, its implementation would remain a huge challenge.
He stressed that the right of association has to be unconditional. “These restrictions or exclusions limiting the number of office-bearers must go if workers are indeed to be protected. And an employer is to be clearly identified under the rules. Existing rules don’t allow a union’s formation”, he says.
He points out that the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950 described a hari as a ‘share cropper’. The act was amended and this definition done away with.
Therefore, he says, it is important that new rules of SIRA 2013 must be framed otherwise this legislation, too, would be considered eyewash. According to him, the same is the case with fishing sector workers. The government must address these issues without delay and come up with clarity. “Since our elected upper and lower houses mostly have landed gentry, they rarely come up with pro-worker laws”, he observes.
Sindh Abadgar Board’s Vice President Mehmood Nawaz Shah says that unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labourers are working in the agriculture sector and it is encouraging indeed that they are being covered under some law at least because the Sindh Tenancy Act deals with only a specific category of haris.
Under the SIRA 2013, two unions of farm workers were registered in Mirpurkhas and Dadu districts with assistance from the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF). These unions have membership of 150 agriculture workers each and farmland owners are seeking their own registrations as employers.
These farmland owners are small and middle class landowners. Unions would, however, remain dysfunctional as they are treated as collective bargaining agents and the employer is clearly defined.
NTFU’s Nasir Mansoor asserts that initially these unions are seeking occupational, health and safety measures by employers’ and focusing on how a crop’s income and expenses are to be shared. “It is a positive sign that something has happened considering the fact that it is an evolving process”, he maintains.
Mansoor believes that multiple laws are applied to different segments of workers and these laws are simultaneously generalised and special in nature.
He says the government has to elaborate how cases of agriculture and fisheries workers are to be addressed: whether are to have separate courts or labour courts.
Under the SIRA 2013, farm and fishing sector workers are entitled to social security cover and protection under the Employees’ Old Age Benefits Institution for which their respective employers have to make some contribution.