A usual sight at a busy chowk in Lahore: Scores of people are huddled together, usually on a pavement, with a variety of tools in their possession, looking out for potential ‘employers’ — random individuals or contractors (thaikaydaar) — who would pick them up for work on hourly or daily basis.
They are the unskilled labour; their tools being the bricklayer’s hammers, mason’s trowels, and so on.
At Chauburji Chowk, recently, I was witness to an interesting routine: Every time a biker or motorist pulled along, the labourers would dart towards them, not wanting to miss the ‘chance.’ This would create a mad rush.
The labourers would crowd around the visitors and engage with them for a few minutes. Soon some of them were ready to take off for work. In some cases, it seemed no agreement between the parties had been reached and everyone went their own way.
These ‘visitors’ are either the contractors or individuals looking to hire cheap labour for some sort of construction or paint work.
Shahzad, 50, is an unskilled worker from Shahdara who sits at Chauburji Chowk with several others every day. He can be seen puffing on a cigarette and creating circles of smoke in the air. He appears distressed. When prompted, he reveals that his children back home are starving and he hasn’t earned a penny so far.
If he gets work, he manages to earn up to Rs600. He has “no other means of livelihood.” He comes to the same chowk every day because the contractors and builders have grown familiar with the labour sitting around at the place. Shahzad himself has become aware of how these contractors and builders work. He demands and gets a reasonable wage, and well in time. He fears he shall find no work if he moves to another place. It’s about developing links you’re your employers and establish your credibility as a competent and honest worker.
Not every one of the labourers at the chowks is lucky enough to find work every day. They may be seen rushing in the direction of a vehicle or a person bringing them free food. For the information of the readers, there are several charitable organisations and philanthropists in the city that recognise chowk labour as deserving and needy, and hence arrange free food for them quite regularly.
But, as common citizens, do we also understand their issues? Do we even have an idea where these poor labourers are coming from, and how risky are the tasks they take up? Do they get a decent wage? Are they skilled at all? A recent study by MEHNAT, a not-for-profit organisation, in collaboration with All Pakistan Workers Ittehad Federation, attempted to look at all of the above, based on a series of surveys and interviews. It also sought to suggest solutions and ways to improve their lives.
According to the study, the chowk labour means “mini labour markets located on the roadsides.” They are of different categories and bargain or offer services on daily or hourly basis. It’s a very common phenomenon in the big cities. Workers move from their houses located in slums of big cities and nearby villages to these open ‘markets’ and find work through direct contacts with the employers or contractors “on prevalent daily rates of wage.”
Javaid Gill, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), MEHNAT, also a former officer of Punjab Labour department and an expert on labour issues, says that the study found the wages of unskilled labour, masons and painters to be in the range of Rs600, Rs1000, and Rs1,200 respectively. “On average, a labourer here finds work for 11 days max, and is without work for the rest of the month,” he tells TNS.
“The monthly income of the unskilled workers does not exceed Rs 15,000.”
Regarding sample size and profile, Gill says their teams visited 10 chowks including Khokhar Chowk (Johar Town), Akbar Chowk (Faisal Town), Township Main Market (College Road), Liaquat Chowk (Sabzazar), Chowk Yateem Khana, Chungi Amar Sidhu, Walton Road, Multan Road, Jorra Pul, and Allama Iqbal Town. The teams “interviewed 213 workers during early hours (from 8am to 10am) and found a large number of them had come from Kasur, Soye Aasal, Shahdara, Mughalpura, Bhaati, Sanda, and Mozang. There were others who had come from as far away as Sheikhupura, Kasur, Pindi Bhattian, Sahiwal, and Multan.”
Gill points out that these labourers are deprived of medical facilities, the right to decent wages, a social security cover, accidental coverage in case of injury or death while at work and so on.
“They do not have proper working hours and have to wait endlessly to find work which is something more painful than work itself.” He suggests that these labourers should be registered and an online application or platform be developed to link them with prospective employers. Besides, he says, “the government must think about giving social protection to them under the labour laws.”
Tahir Manzoor, Director Labour, Punjab finds hurdles in following these suggestions. He says the labour laws cannot apply on chowk labour because their employers are invisible. Moreover, they work for three or four days in a week, so the government under the law cannot consider them ‘workers.’
However, he suggests the government should introduce a special policy for them and earmark funds for their welfare.
Saad Muhammad Chaudhry, Chairman, Pakistan Workers Federation (PWF) Youth Committee and Titular Member of International Trade Union Confederation Youth Committee, is of the view that labour laws cannot be implemented in this case until the government considers chowk workers as labourers and amends the existing labour laws to accommodate them. He suggests that these workers should be educated and trained about their own safety and well-being. “They are vulnerable to accidents because they can be careless and are hardly aware of precautionary measurements that must be taken during several construction-related activities,” he says.
Syed Hasnat Javed, former director, Punjab Labour department, says if coolies can enter into a contract with passengers for a short while why cannot the chowk labour do so. His point is that the latter is engaged for a much longer time.
To this, Manzoor replies that the coolies are contracted under the special law of Pakistan Railways and the labour laws are not applicable on them. “This type of labour can only covered by amending the existing labour laws and legislation a new one.”
Given this scenario, the customers are of great importance. Rizwan Ahmad, a frequent employer of chowk labour, says the workers are available on low wages because most of them are not adept at their work. “But some of them are really good. It would be great if they are registered and their skills measured and enhanced. This would bridge the trust gap between the prospective employers and labourers and the latter shall no more go without work on any day of the week.”