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Labour Legislation and Trade Unions in India and Pakistan

By Ali Amjad (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2001)

This rather slim volume on ‘Labour Legislation and Trade Unions in India and Pakistan’ is, more
or less, a summary of labour laws in Pakistan, with a brief account of some of its historical
background. Ali Amjad is a well known labour-lawyer-cum-trade-union-leader of Karachi. In
this book, he offers a summary of labour legislation which is wholly uncritical. Amjad does not
make any attempt to examine the consequences of the web of legislation and the institutional
network within which the process of collective bargaining in Pakistan is entrapped. One of the
consequences of this legal and institutional framework is the creation of middlemen, a class of
labour-lawyers, who pose as labour leaders but whose interests do not entirely coincide with
those of the workers themselves. Ali Amjad carefully avoids any reference to that central issue.

Labour legislation and the relevant institutions, such as the Government’s Labour Departments,
Labour Tribunals and Labour Courts, impose major constraints on the process of ‘collective
bargaining’, which therefore is not free. The imposed need to cope with such laws and
institutions, affects, inter alia,the kind of the so-called trade unions who can operate from the
system. By virtue of that they carve out careers for themselves as collective bargaining agents,
the middlemen between the workers and the legal system that stands above them. Labour
leadership is thus forced out of the hands of the workers themselves. They are forced by the
system into the hands of professional labour-lawyers, who pose as trade union leaders, but whose
interests do not always coincide with those of the workers. Collective bargaining is laced into the
‘safe’ hands of these labour-lawyers-cum-trade-unionists, who after all are professional middle
men, entrepreneurs who make a living out of opportunities provided to them by our complicated
and extensive labour legislation.

This is not to say that there are no dedicated trade unionists leaders who are fully committed to
service in the cause of workers. Such leaders make great sacrifices in serving that cause. There
are many truly dedicated souls, who have resolutely soldiered on in the service of the workers
and made very great sacrifices indeed. They deserve to be honoured. But such dedicated men are
at a great disadvantage, for not all of them are trained lawyers and experts in labour law, though
many of them, surprisingly, are. Our web of labour laws put a premium on legal expertise.
Workers are forced to hand over their affairs to professional labour-lawyers-cum-trade-unionists
without whom they can get nowhere.

We tend to take at face value the idea that our labour-lawyers-cum-trade-unionists, of whom
there are many, are true representatives of the working class. Such professional leaders have a
vested interest in the exiting system. They have therefore no interest in criticism of the legal
system in which their own livelihoods are embedded. We cannot expect them to voice demands
for a reform of our present most undemocratic labour laws and institutions which bring the
authority of the state to bear on what should be free collective bargaining directly between
workers and their employers. Ali Amjad voices no such concerns.

The web of labour legislation and legal and quasi-legal institutions into which labour relations
are forced as a consequence of the Government’s labour policy, limit the freedom of collective
bargaining for our working class. Workers in other countries, such as those in Europe, enjoy far
greater freedom. The state in such democratic societies does not have any role in the process of
collective bargaining, except to exempt trade unionists from liability for damages, in case
employers want to sue them. To come up to democratic standards, our own restrictive regulations
will have to be done away with.

Amjad, being a labour lawyer himself, does not touch upon this central issue at all. Instead he
celebrates some of the worst anti-labour examples of labour legislation, such as Air Marshal Nur
Khan’s 1969 law about the appointment of officially recognised ‘Collective Bargaining Agent’
which was imposed under the Martial Law regime of Yahya Khan. Many trade union activists
condemn this law. Instead of that Amjad is full of praise for it. He describes Air Marshal Nur
Khan’s ‘Statement of Labour Policy’ and the new industrial disputes legislation, as a
‘surprisingly radical document’ ! The legal category of a ‘Collective Bargaining Agent’, which
was established by Nur Khan, is a charter for the class of labour-lawyers-cum-trade-unionists,
the middlemen, who earn a livelihood by mediating in the process of collective bargaining. It
keeps out activists who come up from the shop floor. Many trade union activists, whom I have
spoken to, have condemned this law and given me examples of how that vitiates the worker’s

By virtue of the legislative and institutional framework set up by colonial and post-colonial
governments, shop floor workers are kept safely in the background in processes of collective
bargaining. Not surprisingly, the class of labour-lawyers-cum-trade union-leaders do not voice
demands for the elimination of legal impediments and the whole paraphernalia of laws that
obstruct the free operation of collective bargaining between workers and their employers. The
fate of the workers is, instead, forced into the hands of the professionals, the lawyers-cum-trade-
union-leaders, whose interests do not always coincide with those of the workers. This is a matter
to which little thought has been given. A work of substance in this field that comes to mind is the
unpublished but well known (in academic circles) Ph.D. thesis of Dr. Zafar Shaheed, which was
researched and written under my guidance at the University of Leeds in England about 25 years
ago. Shaheed is now an official of the ILO at Geneva.

Shaheed’s study was based on field research in factories in the SITE area in Karachi, at a time
when there was a powerful (but sadly short-lived) upsurge in the labour movement during the
opening years of the regime of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Shaheed’s study is quite different in style and
scope from Amjad’s bare summary of laws. Saheed’s work has by no means lost its value
because of the passage of time, although there is urgent need for a similar study now. Shaheed’s
work throws much light on both the internal shop-floor leadership of the workers as well as on
the impact of labour legislation and institutions, (such as the Government Labour Department,
Labour Courts and Labour tribunals) in much more detail than in Amjad’s brief summary. It is a
great pity that Shaheed’s study remains unpublished, though scholars in Europe and North
America do have access to it, by virtue of their library system, and they have quoted from it in
their writings. Our own scholars unfortunately do not enjoy such advantages.

As an uncritical summary of labour laws, Amjad’s book is far more limited in scope. It is a
lawyer’s perspective, though it is unlikely to be of much use to lawyers also, because of its
brevity ! There is little attempt in Amjad’s work to illuminate the effects of labour legislation on
the leadership of the working class and their freedom to engage in collective bargaining. He
does, however, offer a brief account of the historical evolution of the legal and institutional
framework within which employer–employee relations, and government mediation, are played
out in our country. There are many such well known studies which have been carried out in
India, whose legal heritage is identical to that of ours. They would be of great help to anyone in
Pakistan engaged in a similar work.

Amjad touches on the well known fact that the colonial labour policy in India was driven by the
concerns of the Lancashire based British textile industry, which had begun to face stiff
competition from the burgeoning Indian cotton textile industry by the late 19th century.
Lancashire industrialists, and British trade unionists also, complained that this was because of
over-exploitation of Indian labour and their extremely low wages. They demanded that the
colonial government should remedy the situation by helping to improve wages for Indian
workers. Because of pressure from British textile interests, a paternalistic colonial labour policy
emerged, which was ostensibly designed to improve wages and working conditions of Indian

In response to demands from the powerful Lancashire textile interests the colonial government
passed the ‘Factories Act of 1881’, to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of the conditions of
Indian labour. Amjad quotes Indian historians who pointed out that the 1881 Act was violently
attacked by leaders of the Indian national Congress who alleged that this Act was passed despite
the ‘complete absence of any complaint or demand of the workers themselves who were willing
to work for long hours quite voluntarily’ !

The colonial government’s paternalism, however, did not mean that Indian workers were to be
free to organise and seek an improvement in their conditions by means of their own organised
shop floor strength. Attempts to organises shop floor power met with Government repression.
Not surprisingly the colonial rulers feared the emergence of the independent organised strength
of the Indian worker that might threaten it have in the political sphere. Therefore, they developed
instead an elaborate legal framework and institutions through to implement their policy of
paternalism-cum-repression. Furthermore, state paternalism created a framework of ‘Tripartite’
institutions, with the colonial government in the saddle, as a referee between industrialists and
workers. An elaborate framework of labour laws was created, including Provincial Labour
Departments, Labour Courts and Labour Tribunals, which forced the leadership of the workers
into the hands of a class of comfortable lawyers who presented less of a threat to the alien
government than genuine shop floor leaders of workers. Genuine leaders of the workers were

Because labour relations were enmeshed within an elaborate legal and institutional framework,
workers have had little option but to hand over the leadership of trade unions to lawyers, for few
amongst them had the expertise that was needed to deal with the complex legal framework that
had been created. Those who selflessly take up the task of serving the workers and who have also
acquired a working knowledge of the legal procedures are a dedicated few. In general, the main
object and the consequence of the elaborate network of labour legislation has been to keep
militant shop floor organisers out of the game. That, indeed, was the intention of the colonial and
also the post-colonial governments. The professional labour-lawyers-cum-trade-union-leaders
were in effect allies of the government, insofar as they performed a useful function as far as the
Government and employers were concerned. They were in a sense, each other’s allies. thus
allies. Amjad, himself a labour-lawyer-cum-trade-unionist, understandably does not point out
these aspects of labour legislation that are contrary to the interests of workers themselves. It is
left to the people at large to protest against this undemocratic legal framework and demand their

Throughout the colonial world, the relationship between capital and labour has been presided
over by the colonial state, and later the post-colonial state, to ensure that labour is kept under
control. A tripartite structure, involving the State, the employers and labour (as represented by
the middlemen) evolved. It has been widely used as a frame within which worker-employer
relationships are contained. At the international level colonial capitalist interests set up the ILO
as an organisation through which they might propagate and impose their purpose, namely to
protect industrialised countries from the competition from poor colonised societies where labour
is cheap, as a reflection of their poverty. The workers wages and working conditions were to be
improved, within limits, without encouraging any trade union militancy there. After all colonial
capital was itself a major employer and its interests were to be protected.

Amjad does not consider the great change that has come about as a result of internationalisation
of capital (dominated by North American and European capital) followed by internationalisation
of production, by virtue of which low technology labour intensive processes of production are
transferred to the so-called ‘Third World’ where wages are low. Globalisation, so-called, is thus a
manifestation of the global domination of multinational capital. Following internationalisation of
capital and the internationalisation of production, globalised multinational capital, has set up
enterprises in the ‘Third World’. Metropolitan capital no longer supports the policy of
paternalism towards workers, a policy that had once imposed limits on super-exploitation of
industrial labour in the ‘Third World’. Organisations like the ILO are thus becoming redundant
for the purposes of today’s globalised multi-national capital. It seems, therefore, that the ILO is
being sidelined. It appears to have a bleak future before it, though it may continue to exist by
virtue of the law of inertia of International Organisations which, once created, continue to exist,
even if there is no role for them anymore. Amjad does not touch upon such major changes that
affect labour.

In saying all this, it must be emphasised that even in British India colonial labour policy was by
no means always paternalistic. There were regional differences, labour being a provincial
subject. For example, British capital dominated Jute industries in Calcutta and tea plantations in
Bengal and Assam. There was, therefore, much less ‘paternalism’ in Bengal Presidency labour
legislation where labour laws were. More repressive. Amjad takes note of this briefly,
recognising differences between Bombay and Bengal legislation.

After the Partition, Pakistan inherited the framework of the Bombay Presidency labour laws. But
that was soon to change. Paternalism in labour policy disappeared with independence. The
influence of British textile interests, for example, was no longer a factor. The elaborate legal
framework within which relations between workers and employers had to operate was adopted
enthusiastically by our own ruling bureaucracy in Pakistan. Through the tripartite structures that
they inherited the ruling bureaucracy was quite happy with the tradition of active state
intervention in this area. That was, of course, also in the interests of both local and foreign
capital in Pakistan. There is no more room for paternalism in Pakistan.

We find hardly any discussion of such issues in Amjad’s account. His book does not have even a
whiff of challenge to the established order. It reads more or less like a plain summary of the legal
framework, which it is. He has little to say about the effects of the legislation on the worker. An
exception perhaps is Amjad’s enthusiastic welcome for the 1969 Labour policy of Air Marshal
Nur Khan, during the Yahya regime. We might recall that this policy, by virtue of its key concept
of ‘Collective Bargaining Agent’, offered a charter for the professional lawyer-cum-trade-union-
leaders, who by and large qualified as the officially recognised ‘Collective Bargaining Agents’.
‘Unofficial unions’, based on shop-floor initiatives of workers, and led by labour activists, were
ruled out. If by chance any such Union got a majority vote, the law enabled the authorities to
drag them into endless litigation that bankrupts them.

Amjad’s book, taken as a whole, fails to touch on problems that underlie our iniquitous system of
labour legislation. We need a more penetrating and critical study of the subject. What is needed is
a group of competent persons from amongst genuine leaders of the workers and legal experts to
examine our system of labour laws and institutions in order to generate proposals for their reform
or abolition. We can also hope that the democratic movement in Pakistan will demand
democratisation of our labour laws along with the democratisation of our political system.