05/02/2014, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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May Day brings Christians and Muslims into the streets for workers' rights

by Shafique Khokhar
The government's proposal to introduce a minimum wage comes in for harsh criticism because it "fails to fight poverty." Demonstrators demand a "living wage" based on the real cost of living as well as "social and legal protection" for workers engaged in the informal sector.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) - Activists, both Christian and Muslim, staged at a rally in front of the Faisalabad Press Club on Wednesday, on the eve of International Workers' Day. Their goal was to push the government to calculate the real cost of living in Pakistan and ensure that workers get a "living wage rather than a minimum wage" so they can lead "a life of dignity," free from debts, bondage and violence. To do this, they want the government to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions for the protection of domestic workers (ILO C -177) and extend social and legal protection coverage to workers engaged in informal sector.

The rally was organised by the PHD Foundation, the Association of Women for Awareness and Motivation (AWAM), Adara Samaji Behbood (ASB) and the Inter-religious Council for Peace and Human Rights as part of their 'living wage campaign'.

Protesters criticised the government's minimum wage policy, which is expected to raise incomes by US$ 10 per year. Instead, they want action against skyrocketing inflation and high energy prices. They also demand the government in Islamabad to take "tangible steps" to protect workers' rights and ensure a living wage for all.

This is first time for this kind of labour action in the country. "Pakistan's working class is one of the most underpaid and overworked in the world," said PhD Foundation director Suneel Malik. Under present circumstances, it cannot "come out of poverty despite because of low wages and unenforced employment laws".

AWAN director Nazia Sardar is also greatly concerned about domestic and home-based workers "who need employment security, income security and social security." For this reason, "the ILO Convention No. 177 should be ratified."

Human rights activist Naseem Anthony said that a living wage differs from government minimum wage because the latter "fails to meet the requirements of a worker to have a basic quality of life." What is more, poverty and low pay are "closely associated with social disadvantages including poor health, substandard housing and personal debt".

For Muslim Union leader Arif Ayaz, unregistered factories and brick kilns must be included since most of them fail to uphold labour laws, and should be required to respect child labour legislation.

In defence of the government, Muslim lawmaker Najma Afzal noted at the end of the rally that "The government is committed to the protection of workers' rights," and will take "all appropriate measures to improve working conditions of workers, implement existing labour laws and policies, and soon regularise those workers who do not have statutory protection, thus ensuring the legal protection of their rights."

With a population of more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, the second largest Muslim nation after Indonesia.

About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are 20 per cent. Hindus are 1.85 per cent, followed by Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).

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