Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
Most of the labor force is under the jurisdiction of provincial labor laws. In 2012 parliament passed an industrial relations act that took International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions into account but, due to the 18th amendment, it applied only to the Islamabad Capital Territory and to trade federations that operated in more than one province. The only federal government body with any authority over labor matters was the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, whose role in domestic labor oversight was limited to compiling statistics to demonstrate compliance with ILO conventions. At the provincial level, laws providing for collective bargaining rights excluded banking- and financial-sector workers, forestry workers, hospital workers, self-employed farmers, and persons employed in an administrative or managerial capacity.
Without any federal government entity responsible for labor, the continued existence of the National Industrial Relations Commission remained in question. The law stipulates that the commission may adjudicate and determine industrial disputes within the Islamabad Capital Territory to which a trade union or federation of trade unions is a party and any other industrial dispute determined by the government to be of national importance. This provision does not provide a forum specifically for interprovincial disputes but appears to allow for the possibility that the commission could resolve such a dispute. Worker organizations noted the limited capacity and funding for labor relations implementation at the provincial level.
The law prohibits state administrators, workers in state-owned enterprises and export-processing zones, and public-sector workers from collective bargaining and striking. Nevertheless, state-owned enterprises planned for privatization faced continuous labor strikes. Provincial industrial relations acts also address and limit strikes and lockouts. For example, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Act specifies that, for power distribution, gas, and other essential public service providers, when a “strike or lockout lasts for more than 30 days, the government may, by order in writing, prohibit the strike or lockout” and must refer the dispute to a labor court. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws, and the penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
Federal law defines illegal strikes, picketing, and other types of protests as “civil commotion,” which carries a penalty if convicted of up to life imprisonment. The law also states that gatherings of four or more persons may require police authorization, which is a provision authorities could use against trade union gatherings. Unions were able to organize large-scale strikes, but police often broke up the strikes, and employers used them to justify dismissals. Enforcement of labor laws remained weak, in large part due to lack of resources and political will. Most unions functioned independently of government and political party influence. Labor leaders raised concerns regarding employers sponsoring management-friendly or only-on-paper worker unions – so-called yellow unions – to prevent effective unionization.
There were no reported cases of the government dissolving a union without due process. Unions could be administratively “deregistered,” however, without judicial review.
Labor NGOs assisted workers by providing technical training and capacity-building workshops to strengthen labor unions and trade organizations. They also worked with established labor unions to organize workers in the informal sector and advocated policies and legislation to improve the rights, working conditions, and wellbeing of workers, including laborers in the informal sector. NGOs also collaborated with provincial governments to provide agricultural workers, brick kiln workers, and other vulnerable workers with national identification so they could connect to the country’s social safety net and access the benefits of citizenship (such as voting, health care, and education). The federal government, with financial support from the World Bank, created approximately 100,000 jobs for youth to plant trees in their local areas.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, cancels all existing bonded labor debts, forbids lawsuits for the recovery of such debts, and establishes a district “vigilance committee” system to implement the law. The ILO raised concerns, however, that laws prohibiting some workers in essential services from leaving their employment without the consent of the employer allowed for criminal penalties that included prison labor.
The law defines trafficking in persons as recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining another person (or attempting to do so) through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of compelled labor or commercial sex. The penalty for conviction of trafficking in persons is sufficient to deter violations. Regarding sex trafficking, however, by allowing for a fine in lieu of imprisonment, penalties were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as rape. Lack of political will, the reported complicity of officials in labor trafficking, as well as federal and local government structural changes, contributed to the failure of authorities to enforce federal law relating to forced labor. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate.
The use of forced and bonded labor was widespread and common in several industries across the country. An NGO focusing on bonded labor estimated that 4.5 million workers nationwide were trapped in bonded labor, primarily in Sindh and Punjab, but also in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The UN Development Program reported an estimate that more than 70 percent of bonded laborers were children. Traffickers also targeted lower-caste Hindus as well as Christians and Muslims with lower socioeconomic backgrounds especially for forced and bonded labor. Bonded labor was reportedly present in the agricultural sector, including the cotton, sugarcane, and wheat industries, and in the brick, coal, and carpet industries. Bonded laborers often were unable to determine when their debts were paid in full, in part, because contracts were rare, and employers could take advantage of bonded laborers’ illiteracy to alter debt amounts or the price laborers paid for goods they acquired from their employers. In some cases landowners restricted laborers’ movements with armed guards or sold laborers to other employers for the price of the laborers’ debts.
Ties among landowners, industry owners, and influential politicians hampered effective elimination of the problem. For example some local police did not pursue landowners or brick kiln owners effectively because they believed higher-ranking police, pressured by politicians or the owners themselves, would not support their efforts to carry out legal investigations. Some bonded laborers returned to their former status after authorities freed them, due to a lack of alternative employment options. In Sindh the Bonded Labor Act of 2015 has no accompanying civil procedure to implement the law. Of the 29 district vigilance committees charged with overseeing bonded labor practices, 14 were active as of November, and the Sindh Government had signed an MOU with the International Labor Organization for the purpose of activating the remaining committees.
Boys and girls were bought, sold, rented, or kidnapped to work in illegal begging rings, as domestic servants, or as bonded laborers in agriculture and brickmaking (see section 7.c.). Illegal labor agents charged high fees to parents with false promises of decent work for their children and later exploited them by subjecting the children to forced labor in domestic servitude, unskilled labor, small shops, and other sectors.
The government of Punjab funded the Elimination of Child Labor and Bonded Labor Project, under which the Punjab Department of Labor worked to combat child and bonded labor in brick kilns. They did this by helping workers obtain national identity cards and interest-free loans and providing schools at brick kiln sites. NGO contacts noted that the Punjab government’s 2020 order setting standard wages for brick kiln laborers wages continued to be poorly implemented. In addition, many brick kiln laborers continued to lack national identity cards.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh ministries of labor reportedly worked to register brick kilns and their workers to regulate the industry more effectively and provide workers access to labor courts and other services. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, kilns with fewer than 10 employees do not qualify as “factories,” so many employed fewer than 10 workers to avoid registration.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The federal government prohibited child domestic labor and other hazardous labor via an amendment in 2020 to the Child Employment Act of 1991, which covers the Islamabad Capital Territory but requires the same amendment be passed by each province to be adopted. No province had adopted similar legislation as of October 19. The constitution expressly prohibits the employment of children younger than age 14 in any factory, mine, or other hazardous site. The national law for the employment of children sets the minimum age for hazardous work at 14, which does not comply with international standards. Provincial laws in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh set the minimum age for hazardous work at 18, meeting international standards.
In August, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa raised the minimum wage for daily wage workers (from (16,000 rupees ($103) to 17,900 rupees ($115) per month), and mandated women and transgender workers receive pay equal to that of male workers. The government also banned child employment in domestic home-based jobs.
In May the Balochistan government passed the Balochistan Forced and Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Bill of 2021. The law defines and prohibits bonded and forced labor and provides for two to five years’ imprisonment and fine as punishment for the crime.
On April 26, the Balochistan Assembly passed the Balochistan Employment of Children Prohibition and Regulation Act, providing protections for children, setting the minimum age for hazardous work at 14 years and setting the minimum age for coal mining at 15 years. Despite these restrictions, there were nationwide reports of children working in areas the law defined as hazardous, such as leather manufacturing, brick making, and deep-sea fishing. Most domestic workers were still hired informally with no limits put on their hours.
By law the minimum age for nonhazardous work is 14 in shops and establishments and 15 for work in factories and mines. The law does not extend the minimum age limit to informal employment. The law limits the workday to seven hours for children, including a one-hour break after three hours of labor, and sets permissible times of day for work and time off. The law does not allow children to work overtime or at night, and it specifies they should receive one day off per week. Additionally, the law requires employers to keep a register of child workers for labor inspection purposes. These national prohibitions and regulations do not apply to home-based businesses or brickmaking.
Federal law prohibits the exploitation of children younger than 18 and defines exploitative entertainment as all activities related to human sports or sexual practices and other abusive practices. Parents who exploit their children are legally liable.
Child labor remained pervasive, with many children working in agriculture and domestic work. There were also reports that small workshops employed many child laborers, which complicated efforts to enforce child labor laws. Poor rural families sometimes sold their children into domestic servitude or other types of work, or they paid agents to arrange for such work, often believing their children would work under decent conditions. Some children sent to work for relatives or acquaintances in exchange for education or other opportunities ended in exploitative conditions or forced labor. Children also were kidnapped or sold into organized begging rings, domestic servitude, militant groups and gangs, and child sex trafficking. Media reported that due to COVID-19, more children were dropping out of school and that many children turned to the workforce to lessen the economic burden their parents experienced due to the pandemic. The NGO Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child claimed that more than 12 million children were forced to practice child labor.
School closures resulting from the pandemic affected more than 30 million children, with the school dropout rate in urban areas increasing from 10 percent to 25 percent during the year.
Coordination of responses to child labor problems at the national level remained ineffective. Labor inspection was the purview of provincial rather than national government, which contributed to uneven application of labor law. Enforcement efforts were not adequate to meet the scale of the problem. Inspectors had little training and insufficient resources and were susceptible to corruption. Authorities registered hundreds of child labor law violations, but they often did not impose penalties on violators; when they did, the penalties were not a significant deterrent. Authorities generally allowed NGOs to perform inspections without interference.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
While regulations prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, gender identity, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status, the government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations. Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on these factors persisted. Women constituted only 22.5 percent of the labor force despite representing 49.2 percent of the population. The Special Economic Zones Act of 2012 provides for limited protections, and the status of national laws dealing with labor rights, antidiscrimination, and harassment at the workplace remained ambiguous. Penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The 2010 passage of the 18th amendment to the constitution dissolved the federal Ministry of Labor and Manpower and devolved labor matters to the provinces. Some labor groups, international organizations, and NGOs remained critical of the devolution, contending that certain labor matters – including minimum wages, worker rights, national labor standards, and observance of international labor conventions – should remain within the purview of the federal government. Observers also raised concerns regarding the provinces’ varying capacity and commitment to adopt and enforce labor laws. Some international organizations, however, observed that giving authority to provincial authorities led to improvements in labor practices, including inspections, in some provinces.
Wage and Hour Laws: The minimum wage as set by the government exceeded its definition of the poverty line income for an individual, which was 9,500 rupees ($60) per month. The minimum wage was 20,000 rupees ($127) per month. The minimum wage was greater than the World Bank’s estimate for poverty-level income. Authorities increased the minimum wage in the annual budget in 2020, and both federal and provincial governments implemented the increase. Minimum wage laws did not cover significant sectors of the labor force, including workers in the informal sector, domestic servants, and agricultural workers; enforcement of minimum wage laws was uneven.
The law provides for a maximum workweek of 48 hours (54 hours for seasonal factories) with rest periods during the workday and paid annual holidays. The labor code also requires time off on official government holidays, overtime pay, annual and sick leave, health care, education for workers’ children, social security, old-age benefits, and a workers’ welfare fund. Many workers, however, were employed as contract laborers with no benefits beyond basic wages and no long-term job security, even if they remained with the same employer for many years. Furthermore, these national regulations do not apply to agricultural workers, workers in establishments with fewer than 10 employees, or domestic workers. Workers in these types of employment also lacked the right to access labor courts to seek redress of grievances and were extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The industry-specific nature of many labor laws and the lack of government enforcement gave employers in many sectors relative impunity regarding working conditions, treatment of employees, work hours, and pay.
Provincial governments have primary responsibility for enforcing national labor regulations. Enforcement was ineffective due to limited resources, corruption, and inadequate regulatory structures. The number of labor inspectors employed by the provincial governments was insufficient for the approximately 64 million persons in the workforce. Many workers, especially in the informal sector, remained unaware of their rights. Due to limited resources for labor inspections and corruption, inspections and penalties were insufficient to deter violations of labor laws. Minimum wages and labor law disputes are settled by internal dispute resolution mechanisms as opposed to being dealt with national courts, further contributing to corruption. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
The 2019 Sindh Women Agriculture Workers Act recognizes the rights of women who work in farming, livestock, and fisheries. The law provides for minimum wages, sick and maternity leave, set working hours, written work contracts, the right to unionize, collective bargaining, and access to social security and credit, among other protections.
The comprehensive occupational health and safety law enacted by Sindh Province in 2017 had not been implemented by year’s end. In 2020 the Punjab government enacted the Medical Teaching Institute (Reform) Ordinance, which amended several existing pieces of health-care legislation and instituted boards of governors composed of private-sector professionals for state-run teaching hospitals. Mayo Hospital Lahore, Punjab’s largest state-run teaching institute, became the first public-sector teaching institute where the ordinance was enforced. A newly formed board of governors took over the administrative and financial control of the hospital.
Occupational Safety and Health: Implementation and enforcement of health and safety standards in multiple sectors of labor remained weak, particularly at provincial levels throughout the country. Given weak implementation of health and safety standards in various sectors of labor, this raised doubts abroad as to its reliability as a source country, for imports, particularly in the garment and textile sectors. The country’s failure to meet international health and safety standards raised doubts abroad as to its reliability as a source for imports. There was a serious lack of adherence to mine safety and health protocols. Many mines had only one opening for entry, egress, and ventilation. Workers could not remove themselves from dangerous working conditions without risking loss of employment. Informal-sector employees, such as domestic and home-based workers, were particularly vulnerable to health and safety dangers. There were no statistics on workplace fatalities and accidents during the year. Factory managers were often unable to ascertain the identity of fire or other work-related accident victims because these individuals were contract workers and generally did not appear in records.
On February 10, a fire in a thread-manufacturing factory in Baldia Town, Karachi, killed three workers. Fire officials stated the deaths occurred due to lack of emergency exits in the building. On August 27, a fire in a Karachi luggage factory, where exits and windows had been barred shut, killed 18 workers. Investigators said the factory had no emergency exits nor fire alarm system, and its fire-extinguishing system was nonfunctional. Labor rights activists claimed the factory was not registered with the government labor department. Police arrested the owners and a supervisor, and the trial continued at year’s end.
Labor rights activists observed that workers often had to work in dangerous conditions and that private-sector mining companies failed to provide workers with health and safety facilities. On March 12, six coal miners died and two miners were rescued in the Marwar coal mine field in Balochistan. The miners were trapped approximately 1,000 feet below ground when a buildup of methane gas exploded. Coal mine workers were also targets of attacks by militants due to their ethnicity or religious affiliation. On January 3, militants killed 11 Hazara Shia coal miners in Macch, Balochistan. On April 9, the remains of 16 coal miners abducted by militants in September were recovered from a mass grave in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On August 23, militants killed three Pashtun coal miners at a coal mine near Quetta.
According to the Pakistan Mine Worker Federation’s statistics, more than 200 coal miners died nationwide in 2020. The government did not effectively enforce occupational safety and health laws; penalties for violations of such laws were not commensurate with those for crimes like negligence.
Informal Sector: There was a significant number of workers in the informal sector. Although recent data on the size and sectors were unavailable, in 2019 the ILO reported the informal economy was large and that workers had limited access to labor welfare services. A labor force survey from 2017-18 stated that the informal sector accounted for 71.7 percent of the employment in main jobs outside agriculture – more in rural areas (75.6 percent) than in urban areas (68.1 percent). Occupational health and safety laws and inspections do not apply to the informal sector.