In the subcontinent, railway stations are identified by their iconic red-uniformed porters – commonly referred to as “coolies” – who rush to greet trains and vie for the chance to carry passengers’ luggage, often balancing the bags on their turbaned heads. Although the picture seems romantic, porters face a myriad of issues in their daily employment stemming from their lack of rights as labour, as employees of a government institution and as human beings.
Since the year 2000, when the then-President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, appointed Javed Ashraf Qazi as Minister of Communications and Railways, the management of the coolies is auctioned to the highest paying contractor. Porters are now effectively daily wage earners, scraping by on any amount that they are able to earn. In addition to their uncertain and meagre earnings, they are also responsible for paying their contractor a daily commission of 30%. To worsen an already dismal situation, porters are also required to pay a fixed monthly fee to their contractor amounting to 750 rupees (approximately $7) as well as a further tax known as jugga tax. When considered in light of the fact that porters earn about 200 rupees daily (under $2), there is no doubt that the system in place at the railway station is oppressive.
The motives behind the shift to the present contractual system are unclear. Prior to 2000 (and subsequent to 1994), porters were managed by private contractors to whom they were required to pay an annual fee and before 1994 they were employees of Pakistan Railways itself, receiving wages in exchange for their employment. It is arguable that the current contractual system would be acceptable if the porters received employment benefits in exchange for their payments. The reality however, is starkly underwhelming. Porters have no fixed wages, no benefits (housing, health or retirement), no employee benefits such as discounts on travel, no holidays and no union (despite their right to establish one under Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973). They are, quite literally, deprived of even the fundamental constitutional right under Article 37(e) of the Constitution guaranteeing just and humane labour. As one porter stated in a documentary by a local news channel, “whether a dog dies or a porter, it is like the same thing”.
It was against this background that on 1 April 2016, the contractor at Cantt Railway Station in Karachi announced that the daily commission was increased from 30% to 40%. Outraged porters staged a protest, refusing to work until their demands, including the removal of the current contractor, were met. On 6 April 2016 however, several porters were beaten by unidentified men (with perceived links to the railway’s management) resulting in many being admitted to hospital, while others were arrested and jailed on false charges of rioting, concealing, and rioting with deadly weapons. Though the detained porters received legal assistance through local NGOs, including ‘Qaaf Se Qanoon’, Legal Aid Office and PILER, and things went back to “normal” at the station, this result is the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a gash: it doesn’t address the underlying issue.
The legal position of porters under contractors is unclear since they are not considered employees of Pakistan Railways. A 2014 judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in the case of Fauji Fertilizer Company Limited v National Industrial Relations Commission and Others, was of the view that employees would be deemed to be employees of a company if the contractor had hired them specifically for the purpose of running the affairs of the company and not some independent purpose – which appears to be the position with the porters. However, this interpretation has not been utilised with regard to the porters and, as matters stand, no specific law has been applied to their circumstances.
Across the border, in India, a similar contractual system is in place. Theirs, however, is regulated by rules making the system better organised and ensuring greater protection of porters’ rights. There is a dire need for reform in Pakistan, some of which is underway including replacement of the traditional red uniform with a green and yellow one. There is no doubt however, that it is going to take real legislative change rather than just colours to raise the porters out of poverty and to the dignity required by international and local laws.