Child Labour in Pakistan
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Published: Mon, 02 Oct 2017
WHEN I began this article, my reference points for a critique of globalization were the riots in Se- attle and the World Bank’s newest World Development Report on Pov- erty. Since then, the world has wit- nessed yet another clash between the forces of labor and those of capital.
This article deals with the issue of child labor, particularly the case of Pakistan, but within the framework of a new world order defined by the politics of the WTO(world trade organization).
The manner in which the activists-gathered from across the world-were treated by the Czech Republic outdid even the manner in which the Seattle police crushed its local protests.
However, ultimately, this article argues that demanding social rights-especially labor rights of any sort-in the current international political economic scenario increas- ingly dominated and defined by the WTO and its constituency is a losing battle and that even if these rights were granted in some limited fashion (for instance, by ensuring that chil- dren’s rights are implemented vis-a- vis labor, by making industries child- free) it accomplishes no more than papering the cracks being pro- duced by a system premised on the existence and perpetuation of inequalities-an intensified and increasingly global capitalism.
The World Bank’s 1997 World Development Report sustains the myth of globalization as the new development strategy-the path to economic well-being. The most recent World Development Report, on the other hand, is forced to deal with the issue of increasing and intensifying poverty across the world. However, in their infinite wisdom, World Bank economists insist that the answer to this is more, not less, globalization or, at the very least, “globalisation with a human face.”
Once upon a time when moore was a young man, “the word interna- tionalism was a noble word .. . but now the idea of internationalism has become something to be feared or at- tacked” (WTO 1999). Well, Mr. Moore, we can easily explain that: in your youth, “internationalism” was a word that connoted the solidarity of work- ing people across the world, whereas what we are now faced with is the in- ternationalization of capital.
The standoffs and organized boy- cotts and protests, whether in Prague or Seattle or in the form of strikes against liberalization and privatiza- tion across the world, and their after- math expose globalization’s reality not as ultimately empowering-or at the least benign-but as a con- sciously institutionalized political project backed by the military and police forces of the advanced indus- trialized North/West. As a political project, then, it can only be countered through political engagement and di- rect political action and not, as has been proposed, through the addition of social clauses within the WTO’s mandate itself. This is a contradic- tion in terms because of what the WTO is and the interests it is there to protect and promote.
What has emerged systematically from such contemporary and previ- ous critiques of the mainstream development project represented by the World Bank, and the crisis in development inaugurated by the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank in the late 1970s, is the stark reality that both absolute and relative poverty as well as inequality.
Mike Moore of the WTO did his bit for damage control in the wake of the Seattle protests by telling trade union workers that as far as he was concerned there simply was not any contradiction between trade and labor (WTO 1999). “Open economies, imperfect as they are have delivered more jobs, opportunities and security to more people than alternatives.” Here the veiled reference is clearly to the centrally planned economies because we are immediately informed that countries that have “embraced openness and freedom have increased the real incomes of their workers, which in turn has raised labour standards and reduced poverty. Countries that remain closed, remain poorer, underdevel- oped, cut off from the world of rights and freedoms.” This is, of course, patently false. The greatest tragedy of the 1990s has been the massive decline of welfare in the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, many of which have experienced increases in mortality, illiteracy, crime, malnutrition, and gender inequality (see, for example, Palast 2000).
What has changed from those early days is that, as far as the capi- talists are concerned, the world is their oyster. Samir Amin (1997) has pointed out that one of the major ef- fects of the globalization of the world economy has been to extend the re- serve army of unemployed persons across the world. And just as the re- serve army of the unemployed within a national economy gave the capital- ist the leverage he needed, vis-A-vis labor, to depress wages, so is the case today for multinational firms in an increasingly globalized world econ- omy. Chossudovsky (1997) -has called this the globalization of poverty.
Hence the need for more and better marketing of the free-trade system highlighting its multiple benefits for society at large and for workers in particular. This is, after all, what is called a hard sell.
The internationalism and solidar- ity that trade unionists have stood for is suddenly presented as having been in the service of nothing but universal freedom, an essentially lib- eral creed! What Moore is doing, and not coincidentally, is nothing short of conflating internationalism with globalization. The sleight of hand is so seamless, it leaves one breathless.
Next, consider the presentation of the trade policy for the year 2000 by the finance minister of Pakistan, in which he declaims, The minister declared that he was confident that the Pakistani nation could rise to the occasion, but note under what conditions he considers this possible: “We can do it if every Pakistani-the worker, the farmer, the producer, the exporter, the civil servant, the house wife-everyone- is committed to the cause of exports,” but “we can not hope to make a break through in exports unless we make our agriculture an industry more ef- ficient; more competitive.” A commit- ment to exports becomes the sine qua non of the national interest, and all class and gender distinctions are flattened in its face.
It should be noted that this informalization of labor makes unionizing impossible under Paki- stan’s labor laws. The report also cites 4000 industrial mills as being sick, of which 152 were in the textile sector-one of Pakistan’s export- oriented sectors. Out of a total of 442 spinning units with over 1 million spindles, 90 were shut down. And that all occurred in one year alone
The issue of child labor and the efficacy of ILO conventions must be seen in this context. Recently, the ILO passed its Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, Con- vention No. 182. Pakistan has yet to ratify it, although nongovernmental children’s rights organizations and movements against bonded labor have been exerting pressure on the government for years. Pakistan’s minister for manpower (and, signifi- cantly, industries, among other port- folios), Umar Asgher Khan, disclosed early in the year that Pakistan was seriously considering its ratification.
Yet Pakistan’s child labor force is estimated at around 30 mil- lion in the 5-18 age group or 20 mil- lion in the 5-15 age group (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan 1998, 226), most of it in the urban informal and agricultural sectors, However, even those forms of child labor that are covered by these constitutional provisions are not curbed, due to the lack of political will on the part of state elites
Neoliberalism has exposed the seams within the historic compro- mise between capital and labor, and with it the ideological and political basis of the ILO. The contradictions inherent in trying to accommodate the needs and rights of workers and the poor in a socioeconomic system based on the accumulation and real- ization of profit and surplus value have now become painfully exposed.
The civil-military bureaucracy and the landed elites have benefited under every regime in Pakistani history, with a few shifts in the balance of power between them but no serious threat to their overall status. This has resulted, among other things, in the continuation and intensification of existing feudal structures; there have never been more than cosmetic land reforms under any regime, ensuring that the feudal power structure remains undisturbed. This has severe impli- cations for the incidence and forms of child labor and labor practices in gen- eral. Moreover, labor laws have been draconian, even under the populist “socialist” government ofZulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It is only recently that NGOs and movements such as the BLLF and the Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz have been able to pressure the govern- ment to pass a law such as the Bonded Labor (Abolition) Act. Although we cannot look upon this as an absolute victory-laws are, after all, only as good as their implement- ers, and the implementers are still feudal/tribal elites-this act has enabled thousands of bonded labor- ers to be freed by lawyers working with the BLLF.
All these explanations for the exis- tence of child labor have important implications because they form the basis of particular policies designed to address this issue. Thus if child labor is caused by poverty, then we must have poverty alleviation pro- grams and development (once again understood as economic growth). If child labor is part of a vicious cycle that is caused by lack of education or primary schooling, then we must ensure that children go to school. And there are several initiatives, both local/domestic and interna- tional (and usually a combination of the two), specifically geared to address this lack.
The real issue is, of course, that child labor is a function of poverty but that poverty is not just an unfortunate feature of life in Pakistan. Poverty is structurally created, maintained, and now under the pro- cess of intensifying. The structural reasons are both domestic and inter- national and, under the current international political regime, are unlikely to be reversed without political intervention.
The ILO is an existing institution with a history of work on behalf of labor, but activists, intellec- tuals, and critical development experts need to think seriously about either turning it into a more powerful organization or designing and estab- lishing a new institution that can work as a watchdog on behalf the world’s exploited workers.
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