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Monday, April 19, 1999 Published at 19:43 GMT 20:43 UK

World: South Asia

Pakistani unions fear for workers' rights

The report challenges child labour and union-free contracts

By Owen Bennett-Jones in Islamabad

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has issued a report expressing its concern about workers' rights in Pakistan.

The ICFTU says that a shifting alliance of feudal landlords, rich industrialists, senior bureaucrats and military officers has managed to manipulate Pakistan's legal structures so as to maximise profits for the upper classes.

The report raises a number of specific issues, such as bonded labour, child labour and union-free contracts signed by foreign companies in the Pakistani Government.

It also challenges government figures on unemployment, which officially stands at 5.3%, but which the unions believe is really between 15% and 20%.

In addition, it argues that the process of privatisation currently underway poses new threats to Pakistani workers.

Unions banned

The ICFTU says that trade union activities have been banned in many industries and, most recently, the electricity sector - after the army was drafted in to combat corruption there.

The government says it had no choice because the unions were preventing the management from taking disciplinary action against corrupt employees.

Union leaders argue that their country has, in the past, signed some international conventions governing workers' rights, but, they say, violations of those rights remain systematic and pervasive.

For its part, the government says it is quite aware of its international and constitutional obligations and committed to upholding workers' rights.

The unions are now approaching both the World Bank and the IMF in the hope that the international financial institutions can put pressure on the government to reform labour law and practice in the country.

Union membership rates remain low in Pakistan. The unions believe that just 2.8% of the work force are union members and less than half those have the right to collective bargaining.

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