Multan, 31 January. At a labour rights convention held by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), speakers agreed that it was essential to empower workers by strengthening labour unions, abolishing the exploitative practice of peshgi [advance payment], resurrecting district vigilance committees, and raising the minimum wage to reflect the real cost of living.
Opening the convention, HRCP Council member Nazir Ahmed expressed his concern over the sharp decline in labour union membership, saying that HRCP had always stood with the bonded labour and peasant communities of Pakistan, including southern Punjab.
boShaista Bokhari, director of the Women Rights Organisation, said that minor girls hired as domestic workers by feudal landlords were often relegated to the same status as bonded labour.
Pointing out that women bonded labourers were usually hired under a male relative’s name, Muniza Hashmi, a district vigilance committee member, said that they were not aware of the rights to which they were entitled under the law.
Speaking on behalf of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), labour rights campaigner Mahar Safdar Ali pointed to the wide gulf between what bonded labourers earned and what their employers earned in a year. Advocate Nafees Ansari said that political leaders invariably sided with kiln owners rather than workers.
Syeda Ghulam Fatima, secretary-general of the BLLF, urged all bonded labourers to invest some of their time and earnings in setting up and sustaining labour unions. ‘I understand it is very difficult to speak out against your kiln owner, but that will become easier when you unite to seek your rights,’ she added.
Following a resolution of demands presented at the end of the convention, HRCP director Farah Zia said that labour unions across the country faced curbs: this was a larger problem that required not only workers to unionise, but also for human rights organisations to bring labour rights back to the forefront.