Thursday, July 06, 2006

A blow to workers, but a silver lining for women?

When the government promised a 'people friendly' budget yet again this year, conventional wisdom held that, with an election on the horizon, the government would likely dole out some palliatives.

But the working class was in for a rude shock: during the budget session in the national assembly, the government brazenly altered the laws governing working hours. Iqbal Haider, Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, summed up the changes made by the government:

"(B)y amending the Shops and Establishment Ordinance 1969, the government had increased daily working hours from eight to 12 hours.

"Similarly the compulsory closed weekly holiday has also been abolished, and through an amendment in Section 38 and 45 of the Factories Act has allowed the employers to make female workers work till 10pm in two shifts. Earlier, female workers were bared from working in factories before sunrise and after sunset. Besides, by changing the West Pakistan Standing Orders Ordinance 1968, the contract workers had been added to the categories of work without entitlement of overtime."

The effect of increasing the work day from 8 to 12 hours will be devastating for labourers. The reason is simple: already forced to work more than 8 hours, they will now be deprived of overtime pay unless they work more than an incredible 12 hours a day. If this is the government's idea of people friendly, one shudders to think what an unfriendly government would have cooked up.

However, in its zest to convert Pakistan's stores and factories into virtual prsions, the government may have unintentionally have empowered women. By allowing women to work beyond sunset and until 10 pm, the boost to businesses is what the government had in mind. Yet, the increased earning power of women will undoubtedly provide women with more leverage and leeway at home.

Researching the use of child labour in the carpet weaving industry several years ago, I was surprised to learn that families who put their young daughters to work at an early age actually ended up treating them better. The girls were married off later, allowed to watch TV and given a small measure of autonomy in their daily lives. Counterintuitive at first blush, the reason was that the increased economic value of girls meant that families would not be in a hurry to dispose of them through marriage, and the girls, knowing their increased worth, could afford to be more assertive at home.

Therefore, it's important not to be reactionaries and issue a sweeping denunciation of all the changes in the country's labour laws. Yes, it is important that adequate checks and balances be introduced to ensure women are not exploited. However, the emancipation of women is cause for celebration, not remonstration.

No comments: