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Justice for labourers

Huzaima Bukhari

“Give to the worker his wages before his sweat dries”―Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) iriam (Ibn-Majah)

If it were not for labourers toiling in the fields, the factories, the works etc., it would not be possible to raise crops, utilise the many commodities that humans need on day to day basis, live in houses and apartments, travel to near and distant places on the network of roads or even do housework in many countries of the world. Although machines are rapidly taking on the role of these workers, yet they seem indispensable in hundreds of thousands different ways. Their contribution towards development, creating comfortable environment, raising standards of life for others and facilitating usage of technological advancements cannot be determined in terms of money and is definitely disproportionate to the amount they receive as wages. The same holds true for employees engaged as workforce in different organizations. They are the ones who enable their employers to make good profits while their own wages or salaries might constitute a small percentage of these earnings.

Generally, when we hire the services of labourers, particularly in Pakistan, there is a tendency to squeeze out the last drop of energy from them in return for peanuts and those too many a times, not immediately but after considerable delay. Even if given soon, it is done so after deducting a few moments of lapses. The fact is that labour, especially manual and/or unskilled, is not given due importance although had it not been for these workers’ efforts, our cities would not appear beautiful, our country would not be connected with railway lines, roads and bridges. The expert architects and engineers may have conceived many fantastic structures on paper but it is the labourers who convert them into realities. Every brick is laid out, not by machines, but human hands together with the sweat of their brows. These are not easy tasks more so when the blazing sun or the chilly winds can force many of us indoors. Instead of appreciating their hard work, we are prone to treat them inhumanly and the most heinous thing we can do is to deprive them of their true wages.

In an act of ‘generosity’ the Government of Pakistan, in the annual budget 2021, announced minimum wages at Rs. 20,000 (approximately US $ 116) per month. All provincial governments have adopted the same figure in their respective budgets. What a remarkable sense of justice for those without whom we are totally helpless! Imagine if we have to mix cement and sand to reinforce some loose bricks of our wall or we need to paint our house or fix our bathroom plumbing. In the West there are do-it-yourself (DIY) recipes but here in our own country, the laid back life-style where people are not used to hard work prevents us from doing ‘menial’ jobs for which we require labourers. However, unfortunately, we refuse to acknowledge their worth. To make matters worse, we do not even allow them to live a decent life because we do not consider them deserving and that is why their wages are based on irrational assumptions because of which they are forced to live in dilapidated and unhygienic dwellings, and are treated as the scum of this earth. 

In the modern age Karl Marx is credited with recognizing the efforts of labourers and assigning them share in the profits of their employers in addition to regular wages but long before, divine religious teachings had already established the sanctity of labour and significance of a labourer. Human being’s dignity stands established as all Abrahamic religions unanimously agree that humankind was created in the image of God therefore degrading humans by justifying financial structures that force some classes to live in poverty while a few prosper at their expense is offensive to sensibility. Both the Bible and the Quran mention prompt payment of wages before sundown and before a worker’s sweat has dried. Catholic tradition considers refusal to pay just (fair) wages as one of the four great sins to be avenged by God. The main thing is that wages should not only be paid immediately but they should also be just which implies that they must ensure respectability of the worker and sufficient enough to take care of his fundamental needs therefore irrational fixation of minimum wages merely provides false satisfaction of having mentioned the poor, nothing else.

A company that churns out billions of worth of profits should have a magnanimous approach to its employees, especially those who have low salaries or work on daily wages. Albert L. Reyes, president and CEO of Buckner International says: “Generosity is the key word here, if at all possible and commensurate with skills, experience, and the marketplace. Your staff is the most important asset of the company or organization. They provide the fuel that makes the organization function. The worker is worthy of his or her wages.” After all, they are heads of their respective households and have to cater to their needs.

While formulating the budget of the country, the government’s financial team must consider the budget needs of the poor before determining minimum wages. Besides, it is not enough to just announce a figure. Efforts should be made to enforce this law ensuring that those who violate it are properly taken to task.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).

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