Getting down to business: Tackling business and human rights in Pakistan

Human rights in business is a critical issue in Pakistan. The country’s sixty million strong work force faces serious human rights issues, including but not limited to salaries well below the legal minimum, between two and three million children performing child labour, obstacles to trade union formation, and unsafe work conditions. But despite its impact on the lives of millions of Pakistanis, the nexus of business and human rights is not yet on the radar of many key stakeholders.

Provincial governments have as central a role to play in protecting human rights within the workplace as they do outside of it. This is especially true since the devolution of powers to the provinces from the federal level and the formation of dedicated provincial departments for human rights, among other policy areas. However, the limited awareness among departmental officials of the link between business and human rights represents an obstacle to provincial governments fulfilling their end of the bargain and improving respect for human rights in Pakistani business.

In November and December 2017, DRI conducted knowledge sharing sessions in Islamabad and Karachi which sought to raise awareness among and impart officials with the key facts and standards on business and human rights. In particular, the sessions focussed on how provincial governments can work towards enhancing respect for citizens’ rights in line with the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The sessions trained a total of 68 participants hailing from all four of Pakistan’s provinces and who together represented a cross-section of provincial government departments, including but not limited to departments for human rights, law, labour, social welfare, and women’s development.

Participants highlighted the limited attention that the nexus of business and human rights receives in Pakistan and for some, it was the first time they had realised the importance of the link between them. “I had no idea business and human rights were so intrinsically linked” said Mr. Najeeb Aslam of the Government of Punjab, who noted the value of DRI’s work to raise awareness on the issue as “most other organisations working on human rights have not made such a link”. This was echoed by Mr. Shakeel Asghar of the Law Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who conceded that although he works extensively on the legal framework for human rights in the province, he had not made the connection between human rights and business until participating in the training. He recommended that similar trainings be held for all departments, and especially for top-level officials who are in key decision-making positions.

How government departments can help to bridge the information gap on business and human rights and communicate more effectively on the issue was central to the discussions in Islamabad and Karachi. Mr. Shan Ahmad from Labour Department of Punjab underlined that “it is imperative for the State to make employees, consumers and community at large aware of their rights.” Participants put forward proposals to this end, suggesting public service messaging through radio and television and the setting up of information desks at district level. They also highlighted the need to better inform employers of their responsibilities and for inclusive dialogue with the business community and other relevant stakeholders.

In Karachi, departmental officials were joined by members of the Sindh Human Rights Commission, the province’s independent human rights body. Justice (retired) Majida Rizvi, Chairperson of the Commission, highlighted the implications that poor practices, sometimes taken for granted, can have on human rights. This, she said, was especially true in businesses and that all too many rights abuses go unheard because of a lack of accountability in the sector.

The knowledge sharing sessions represent the latest in a series of discussions that DRI has held on business and human rights in Pakistan with the support of the German Federal Foreign Office. In the process, DRI has provided recommendations to Pakistani stakeholders on how they can work together to enhance the protection of human rights while reaping the benefits of business. To find out more, read DRI’s briefing paper.

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