Pakistan Bulletin

An up-to-date and informed analyses of key issues of Pakistan.

Fundamental Rights at Workplace

September 2023

The majority of Pakistan’s labour force grapples with decent work challenges, leading to continuation of informalisation, child and forced labour as well as increasing employment vulnerability and job insecurity. In this article, the writer sheds light on the challenges being faced by the country’s workforce while also pointing out structural challenges in Pakistan’s labour policy design and delivery in relation with complexity of the labour market economy.

In the midst of ongoing political and economic crises, decent work challenges faced by Pakistan are side-lined and seldom talked about. Employment conditions, social protection, rights at work, and social dialogue, the key elements of decent work, have witnessed a decline in Pakistan. Today the country’s labour market is characterized by expanding informality, lack of employment generation, eroding employment security, rising wage inequality, gender discrimination, unsafe workplaces and increasing curbs on freedom of association and collective bargaining. In the absence of a strong labour inspection system, labour laws violations remain the norm.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey (2020-2021), Pakistan’s total workforce comprises 67.25 million. The bulk (72.5%) of labour force makes a living in the informal sector. Out of the total employed persons in the informal sector, 35.5% are own-account workers and 21.1% are contributing family workers. The two categories — own account workers and contributing family workers — fall under the classification of “vulnerable” workers. Thus 56.6% of labour force comprises “vulnerable” workers.

The labour force participation rate remains low at 44.9%, with male participation (67.9%) more than three times the female participation rate (21.3%). The participation rate is impacted most by the level of education and training. More than 85% of the employed labour force falls below the category of secondary level of education. Also, malnutrition, poor health, disability and chronic illness affect the capacity to work. Poor human development indicators are the main reasons for low labour force participation rate in the country. According to a 2023 World Bank report Pakistan: Human Capital Review, “Pakistan’s human capital crisis is profound, silent and with far-reaching negative effects on the potential of the country and its people.”

While continued economic, social and political uncertainty is causing shifts in employment patterns in Pakistan. A notable example is the emigration of over 450,000 skilled and qualified professionals abroad in 2023 alone.  Furthermore, a recent study by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has revealed that between 2009-10 and 2020-21, nearly half of Pakistan’s working-age population is classified as part of the labour force, indicating a persistent decrease in workforce absorption by the domestic economy. In addition, recent trends indicate a significant decline in employment within the agriculture sector, while sectors with an ‘urban-centric’ focus such as services, wholesale and retail trade, manufacturing, construction and community and social services have experienced an upward trajectory. This has led to a rise in urban informalisation and vulnerable employment, making a departure from our traditional rural subsistence economy model which has been impacted by the forces of capitalism.

Recent trends indicate significant decline in agriculture sector employment, while ‘urban-centric’ sectors including services, wholesale and retail trade, manufacturing, construction and community and social services experienced an upward trajectory. The market economy model has led to a rise in urban informalisation and vulnerable employment.

Core Labour Rights Ratification

The year 2023 is the 25th anniversary of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, wherein the member states, including Pakistan, committed (in 1998) to uphold basic human values at workplace in the form of four core labour rights (comprising eight ILO Conventions). These include the right to organise and engage in collective bargaining; the right to equality at work, the abolition of child labour and the abolition of forced labour). All the eight Conventions were ratified by Pakistan.

In 2022, the ILO declared the right to a safe and healthy working environment as the fifth fundamental principle and right at work (C155 Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 and C187 Promotional  Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006). Pakistan has not ratified these two Conventions. Pakistan has ratified only 36 out of a total 190 ILO Conventions.

Despite, Pakistan has performed poorly in terms of ensuring compliance with ratified conventions. This underscores the need to analyse how capitalistic prescriptions, such as privatisation and incentivisation of investment, have influenced changes in the labour governance model. These changes have resulted in weakened labour inspection mechanisms and have left workers with limited ability to negotiate for their entitlements.

Legislative Framework

Unionization and collective bargaining

Though the Pakistan Constitution provides for the right to form associations or unions to every person, it makes the right conditional: “…subject to any reasonable restriction imposed by law in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality”. The current provincial industrial relations laws, enacted by the provinces after devolution in 2010, are based on repressive Industrial Relations Ordinance 1969. Industrial Relations Act (IRA) 2012, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Industrial Relations Act (KPIRA) 2010, the Punjab Industrial Relations Act (PIRA) 2010 and the Sindh Industrial Relations Act (SIRA) 2013, exclude numerous categories of workers from the right to forming trade unions and collective bargaining. Due to restrictive legislation imposed by the state the number and strength of the trade unions have diminished considerably over the years.

The 2023 Report of the UN Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations has urged Pakistan to ensure that the federal and provincial governments take the necessary measures to revise the provincial laws.

Equality at work

In 2020-2021, on average, men were earning three times more than women. Despite persistent advocacy, Pakistan has not as yet enacted legislation to protect the right to equality at work. In 2008, a bill was drafted with this objective but the legislators did not pursue it. Again, in 2020, a bill – the Working Women (Protection of Rights) Act – was introduced in the senate but no further progress has been made. According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2023, Pakistan stands at bottom 142 out of 146 countries in the world.

Child labour

The latest provincial child labour force surveys (2019-2022) indicate high incidence of child labour and widespread violation of laws against child labour. In the aftermath of the 2020 pandemic and 2022 floods, the number of out-of-school children expanded and child labour increased. Prevalence of child labour is much higher in rural areas than in the cities.  The sectors with high incidence of child labour include agriculture, brick kilns, carpet weaving, domestic work, waste picking, auto workshops and food catering services. The provinces have established laws and regulations related to child labour. however, there are gaps in the legal framework.

Forced labour

The country has constitutional safeguards and provincial laws against forced labour yet forced or bonded labour remains widespread, particularly in agriculture and brick kiln sectors. The Global Slavery Index 2022 indicated that Pakistan has a prevalence of 10.6 per thousand people living in modern slavery while 80.3 per thousand live in vulnerability for modern slavery. When bonded labour flee from the captivity, cases are never filed against their captors that are mostly landlords, many of whom are members of national and provincial assemblies. Non-implementation of law and the lack of political will of the state functionaries are the reasons for continuation of this inhuman form of labour relations.

As a way forward, Pakistan needs to revisit international vis-à-vis domestic labour policy challenges in relation to the complexity of the market economy. This entails allocating sufficient budget for education, strengthening the labour inspection system, addressing gaps in labour laws and bolstering trade unionisation to achieve workers’ political clout thereby to protect their fundamental rights and legitimate entitlements.

Is there a way forward?

Rights at workplace are intertwined with a multitude of socio-economic and political issues in Pakistan. Labour as a subject is placed at the bottom of the country’s agenda. Government does not recognise the importance of labour administration which plays a central role in ensuring an effective governance on labour matters. The labour departments suffer from lack of financial and human resources. Labour inspection systems, essential to implement and enforce labour laws, are almost non-existent. Low investment in human capital for the last 76 years has led to a massive vulnerable workforce.  It is essential that education is allocated sufficient budget according to the UNESCO benchmark – at least 6% of the GDP and 15-20% of its total government spending. Labour inspection systems must be strengthened to cover the total workforce of 67.25 million and the gaps in labour laws addressed. In the current situation, there is a need to revisit the international as well as domestic policy challenges in relation to the complexity of the market economy determinants. Workers unionisation has to be strengthened too, in order to achieve the political clout to protect their fundamental rights and legitimate entitlements.

Zeenat Hisam


The writer is a development researcher

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