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75 Million stateless workers

Of the 79 miners who died since 1st January 2024 in the deadly coal mines of Pakistan, not a single miner was registered to EOBI.  They were all born as citizens of Pakistan.   They were not refugees. They did not give up their citizenship.  They did not give up on the state. But the state gave up on them.  The state abandoned them, refused to recognise their existence, and reduced them to ‘state-less’, benefit-less nonentities.   By their exclusion from EOBI, the state short-changed them into a future of poverty and dependency.   This incomprehensible cruelty is orchestrated by a single government department called Employees’ Old-age Benefits Institution (EOBI).

Pakistan has an informal workforce of 75-80 million workers engaged in industrial, agricultural, domestic, and commercial activities.  It is their sweat and labour that turns  the wheels of industry and commerce.  In return 60 percent of them are not given even the minimum legal wage.  The monthly EOBI contribution is deposited for only 4.7 million or 6 % workers.     The state has no concern or interest in knowing about the remaining 94 percent workers of Pakistan.  Do they exist at all? What and where do they work? Who are their employers? How will they survive with zero post-retirement pension?  It is impossible to fathom why a state will knowingly design a dark and miserable old age for its 75 million workers.

Imagine if there was a law that prohibited pension for any grade-22 government officer, unless there were at least 5 or more Grade 22 officers working in the same department.  Bizarre that it may seem, this is exactly the law we have for the 80 million workers of Pakistan. Thus, the insane law permits all those employers who employ less than 5 employees (and there are millions of them) to not register their employees to EOBI.  No Pakistani leader has ever understood that every worker above the age of 18 years ought to be registered with EOBI, regardless of the nature of work, number of employees or type of employment, i.e. regular, temporary, contracted, daily wage or through a 3rd party contractor.  Millions of daily-wagers and  3rd party workers in  government and statutory bodies, are currently excluded from the ambit of EOBI for no fault of theirs.   Even an unemployed or self-employed individual should also be able to avail EOBI registration by personally contributing the requisite amount.

The existing EOBI ought to be dissolved, replaced by professional management, completely digitized, and linked with NADRA.  The bureaucratic and cumbersome procedure for enrolment of a new worker and payment of his / her monthly contribution ought to be hugely simplified with a mobile phone App, that requires no human interaction, visiting offices or banks, filling forms or producing photocopies.   The EOBI monthly contribution rate ought to be standardized across Pakistan to enable seamless continuity for workers changing jobs or locations.

EOBI has been immensely damaged by an ‘Inspection’ system that follows an unwritten 10 percent rule. You register only 10 percent employees, and we look the other way –  in return of an amicable under-the-table transaction.  EOBI ought to jettison all its inspectors and two third of its existing 657 employees, and control all its functions using a handful of professionals and electronic databases.   A publicly accessible on-line database should reflect each registered employee’s name, CNIC, phone number, employer’s name, latest EOBI contribution  and total contribution made thus far.  An effective database  can monitor and ensure that every single worker of Pakistan is included in the EOBI scheme.

Every registered worker must receive an automatic SMS, by the 10th of each month to confirm the amount contributed on his / her behalf.  The system should automatically invoke progressively increasing penalties for employers delaying payments beyond the 10th of any month.  On reaching the age of sixty years every worker should be given a choice to either opt for the regular monthly pension or to accept the lump sum amount accumulated during his / her entire years of contribution.  In both cases the amount must be immediately deposited in the worker’s designated bank, without giving bureaucratic runaround of visiting EOBI offices or providing fresh affidavits, photographs, or certificates.

Pakistan is the only country in the world that pays a pension of Rs1 million to superior judges and a pittance of Rs10,000 to its workers. This amounts to an obscene and immoral compensation ratio of 1:100.   We ought to slash all government pensions above Rs200,000 to half and increase the workers’ pension to 75 percent of the applicable minimum legal wage.  It is time for Pakistan to end its fixation for the rich and instead focus on the 80 million abandoned stateless children – awaiting recognition, minimum wage, EOBI and a sliver of humanity.

Dawn 3 June 2024