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Express Tribune Editorials – 20th May 2016

The debate on labour rights

It is no secret that labour rights in Pakistan are rarely implemented and ensuring worker safety is barely a concern for employers everywhere in the country. This is symbolised by the deplorable conditions that workers at Gadani’s shipbreaking yard are forced to work in, something that was recently pointed out by the National Trade Union Federation. The work involved in the shipbreaking industry is often dangerous and requires employers to provide safety equipment for their workers as well as ensure that all precautionary measures are taken to make the working environment as safe as possible. Unfortunately, this is something that is routinely ignored, leading to accidents occurring on a regular basis. In the last two months, two workers at the yard have died after meeting with fatal accidents. The workers are deprived of safety shoes, leather gloves, protective helmets, and even basic fire extinguishing equipment. This is in addition to the meagre wages and lack of access to social security, with labour laws being flouted with impunity.

This state of affairs is not limited to Gadani. Factories, mines and businesses all over the country have little regard for the safety of their employees. There is the recent case of five factory workers who died in Karachi after being instructed to clean an underground chemical tank without being provided with any safety equipment. Human life, apparently, is so cheap in Pakistan, that it is cheaper for factory owners to risk the lives of workers than buy them gas masks. It is shocking that in a country, which witnessed one of the most horrific factory fires of recent times, there is barely any debate about labour rights. One of the outcomes of the Baldia factory fire should have been a shake-up in the way labour laws are implemented. But even the brutal death of nearly 250 people did not result in the required push to ensure worker safety. One wonders how many deaths will it take before labour departments become serious about protecting vulnerable workers who form the backbone of our economy.

Sovereign immunity at risk

There are codes and guiding principles that underpin international relationships. One of these is what is known as ‘sovereign’ immunity by which the sovereign state itself cannot commit a legal wrong and is thus immune from being served a civil suit or criminal prosecution. The principle is expressed by the legal term ‘rex non potest peccare’ — meaning ‘the king can do no wrong’. This may be about to be challenged with the US Senate passing a Bill allowing the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their relatives to sue the Saudi Arabian government for its alleged role in them. This is a prospect that we view with profound unease.

The White House has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the bill, and President Obama went to Saudi Arabia in a fence-mending exercise in April, presumably conscious of the possibility of the Bill going through the US Senate. Such a change to international law would render the US as well as every other sovereign state vulnerable — liable — to court systems everywhere and there is no shortage of states that would seek to avail themselves of the opportunity to seek to prosecute the US. Given the level of international engagement that it has, this is a level of exposure that could be disastrous to international relations. Americans working abroad would immediately be vulnerable, as would the national of any state working out-of-country in a state that was litigiously engaged with their home country. At the heart of the matter are 28 pages of unreleased material in the official report into the 9/11 attacks. These 28 pages remain classified and some commentators speculate that they implicate low-level representatives of the Saudi government; this being the reason why the Bill was proposed in the US Senate. Other commentators equally speculate that the Bill has little chance of ever making it on to the legislation books, as it now will have to pass through Congress but the fact is that for the first time there is the possibility of a challenge to sovereign immunity — and it may not be the last.

The world of doublespeak

It is often mistakenly thought that George Orwell invented the term ‘doublespeak’ in his dystopian novel 1984 — but he did not. Orwell created ‘newspeak’ and taken as a package, these portmanteau words describe saying one thing while meaning another, and Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah has just delivered a master class in arcane communication. He says that legal action against militant groups that he named as Jamaatud Dawa and Jaish-e-Mhammad (JeM) was not possible because the “state itself is involved”. He was speaking to BBC Urdu, and when asked why no action had been taken against these proscribed groups, he said that because they were proscribed they could no longer carry out any activity in the province. He did not detail in what way the state was involved with either organisation in such a way as to make legal action against them impossible. He went on to refute the allegation that Punjab and particularly south Punjab had been spared operations against extremist groups and that in fact many thousands of people had been arrested and prosecuted and that was the reason why the province had a comparatively good law-and-order profile. Further denials came regarding south Punjab as a locus for extremism.

On the one hand, Mr Sanaullah was saying that the state in some indefinable way had a finger in the pie of two large, powerful and very wealthy banned organisations that continue to operate openly, and on the other that there was no problem — the ‘no problem’ that necessitates an operation which is ongoing and according to the law minister may take several years to complete. Logic and coherence have by this time disappeared from the ministerial map; and we are left yet again with a senior representative of the government speaking on the record with a global news organisation and making a web of contradictory statements. The government is said to have been hand in glove with two extremist groups and a reality is robustly denied — namely that extremist groups are not a problem in south Punjab. We recommend urgent training for all ministers on the fundamentals of communication. And newspeak.

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