Pakistan Bulletin

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

The Future of Trade Unions in Pakistan: Challenges and Prospects

April 2024

There are significant barriers to the formation of trade unions in Pakistan.

Trade unions in Pakistan face significant obstacles in their mission to safeguard workers’ rights and improve working conditions for labour. According to a recent report published by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research less than one per cent of the total workforce in the formal sector in Pakistan is organised under trade unions. Despite existing government regulations and international labour standards, many private enterprises persist in exploiting workers by violating labour rights in the areas of wages, working hours, contracts, and most importantly by suppressing the formation of trade unions.

One of the primary challenges faced by trade unions in Pakistan is that the formation of trade unions is often suppressed or discouraged by private corporations, despite being mandated under the Factories Act and Industrial Relations Act. This anti-union sentiment impedes the collective bargaining power of workers and hampers efforts to address workplace grievances and improve labour conditions.
Furthermore, the enforcement of labour laws and regulations remains weaker, particularly at the provincial level. Labour inspections, conducted by provincial labour departments, are infrequent due to a shortage of trained inspectors. The devolution of labour regulation to the provinces following the 18th Constitutional Amendment has exacerbated this issue, as provincial governments struggle to appoint and deploy labour inspectors effectively. As a result, violations of labour rights persist unchecked in many industrial establishments.

Trade unions can strengthen their advocacy efforts by forging alliances with international labour organisations and leveraging international pressure to hold employers and the government accountable for labour rights violations.

The Industrial Relations Ordinance 1969 (now provincial acts) provides for trade unions to get themselves registered and access their rights of collective bargaining status by holding referendums in their respective organisations. However this is rarely followed in letter and spirit.

As reported in a research¬† “Mapping Trade Unions in Pakistan” conducted by The Knowledge Forum with support from FES , trade unions complain that the government has created many hitches for trade unions including adding the National Industrial Relations Council (NIRC) as a federal institution. NIRC has been given quasi-judicial powers to decide about intra-provincial unions affairs. This has not only created problems for trade unions, but this provision of the law is exploited by the factory owners. NIRC has been made an authority parallel to labour courts to decide inter-provincial union matters. In fact labour courts are functioning under the provincial level. Trade unions call for abolishing NIRC as its main objective was to develop the capacity of the trade unions instead of deciding on disputes.

Owing to their weak numerical strength, limited solidarity by broader civil society, and with the expansion of informality in the economy, trade unions struggle with capacity as they seek to in address workers’ issues effectively. At times, they find themselves at odds with each other, and obstacles hinder the process of holding referendums for electing collective bargaining agents. The prevalence of pocket unions, often orchestrated by management, is becoming increasingly common, particularly in many industrial units where union leadership lacks organisation and coherence. These challenges underscore the urgent need for strategies to rejuvenate and empower trade unions, ensuring they can effectively advocate for workers’ rights and interests.
Despite numerous challenges, there are opportunities for trade unions to play a vital role in advocating for workers’ rights in Pakistan. One potential avenue is through international partnerships and alliances with global labour organizations. By leveraging international support and solidarity, trade unions can amplify their voices and pressure the government and employers to uphold labour standards.
Those industries, which produce products for foreign brands are compelled by their foreign buyers to implement various labour standards, which have been signed by Pakistan under various conventions of the UN body International Labour Organisation (ILO). Pakistan has ratified total 36 ILO conventions, which also include eight core labour standards including Conventions 87 and 98 (freedom of association and collective bargaining). Similarly, under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus by the European Union, Pakistan has ensured the implementation of 27 international conventions and covenants which also include eight core standards. This means all companies, which are exporting their products to the European markets are obliged to implement all these standards to avail the GSP Plus facility of tax holiday.

Efforts must be intensified to bolster the strength of trade unions themselves.

Capacity building of trade union leadership is imperative to ensure the effective representation of labour interests. To achieve this goal, labour-supporting institutions, including provincial labour departments, should take proactive steps to strengthen trade unions. This can be accomplished by conducting regular training sessions and workshops aimed at enhancing leadership skills, negotiation techniques, and advocacy strategies. By equipping union leaders with the necessary knowledge and tools, they can better serve their members and navigate complex labour issues. Additionally, these efforts can foster unity and collaboration among unions, leading to a more cohesive and influential labour movement.

Shujauddin Qureshi


Shujauddin Qureshi is associated with The Knowledge Forum where he works as media expert.

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