Though the horrors of the increasing number of cases of Covid-19 and unexpected excruciating deaths in isolation wards infuse terror into the bravest of hearts, Pakistan’s pandemic – induced economic poverty is now driving families to the brink.
Protecting and generating jobs is, as elsewhere, perhaps the second biggest problem after Pakistan’s health crisis. In the current setting, the neglect of this problem may prove suicidal as it dismisses the coronavirus as a sham.
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, learning from the lessons of the first wave, agreed in theory not to enforce a full lockdown during the current increasing wave and instead to recognise Covid-19 hotspots for a smart lockdown. In order to keep the wheels of the economy spinning to protect all lives and livelihoods, the prime minister categorically confirmed that factories and corporations must follow standard operating procedures (SOPs).
During the first lockdown in April that stretched for three months, businesses were offered incentives via cheap loans to cover wage bills and retain workers. Beyond that the government at all tiers seems to have done little in the way of keeping itself abreast of the labour market situation for apt policy interventions.
PIDE projects job losses of up to 18.5m depending on the intensity of Covid-19 and the government’s containment strategy
The Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), for a change, made a commendable attempt to project Covid-19-triggered unemployment in the absence of reliable job evidence. Based on data from the Work Force Survey 2017-18, PIDE dissected and deduced useful patterns in a series of Covid-19 bulletins using new analysis methods on occupational job counts. It sought to capture the labour market transition during the pandemic, identified distressed markets, predicted potential employment losses at various levels of the severity of the health crisis, and extrapolated results to share provincially anticipated job cuts with other dynamics.
In an earlier bulletin, depending on the severity and the containment policy, PIDE estimated Covid-19-induced work losses of up to 18.5 million. In Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the new addition to the PIDE bulletin expected higher work losses than in Sindh and Balochistan.
The exercise offered useful insight into the changing complexities of the work market. It was too busy for the government leadership, including labour secretaries and ministers, to reflect on the effects of PIDE research or to use it for more educated interventions.
PIDE Vice Chancellor Dr Nadeem ul Haque, speaking to Dawn from the United States by phone, expressed dissatisfaction at the lack of seriousness towards critical issues in society and the administration. He criticised the under-use and misallocation of scarce human capital for the economy’s under-performance. We’re lazy and they’re delusional. Without working systematically toward this goal, we wish to achieve. Nepotism’s dysfunctional structure is deep-seated and attempts and resources are frequently misdirected. The country’s poor rates of production are not unintentional. The future will continue to elude this country, he said, unless we get serious.
He assumes that charity from people, corporations or the state will provide the vulnerable with temporary relief at best. The poverty trap for employable millions in Pakistan can be broken only by gainful jobs.
Attempts to receive formal comments were not effective from provincial labour ministers and secretaries. Insiders privately told Dawn in Sindh and Punjab that the relevant political leaders and officers are innocently unaware of the work that PIDE or others have done in this regard. A senior in the Sindh government pointed out that the Planning Commission is not publishing the 2018-19 Work Force Survey as figures were considered to be politically humiliating showing rising unemployment.
Minister of Planning and Development Asad Umar’s office promised a response to Dawn’s questions, but it did not arrive until this report was submitted.
Seeing a group that took office on the promise of wiping out graft, vacating the state’s elite blockade and generating 10 million workers in its term is frustrating, commanding retrenchments from state-owned firms and watching helplessly as cartels play the sector.
Without binding them to equally compensate workers and create new opportunities and more tax revenue, the government spent precious billions to woo the private sector. Historically, simple government money lands in speculative trade on the capital and property markets for fast returns with zilch employment or revenue profits, a market watcher commented, indicating the age of General Musharraf when barons, bankers and traders colluded at the expense of industry and farmland to increase their fortunes many folds.
As the economy stagnated and the GDP growth rate plunged from over 5% in 2017-18 to 1.5% in 2018-19 to negative 0.4% in 2019-20, Dr Hafiz Pasha, former finance minister, raised a red flag on several occasions regarding job losses. He predicted the effect of economic deceleration on the working masses well before the pandemic struck. Over the following two years, he predicted 2.2 million work losses after 1 million were made unemployed in the previous year.
As widespread and serious labour market disruptions have persisted, the global work-hour reductions are expected to be 8.6pc instead of 4.9pc projected earlier in the fourth quarter of 2020 relative to the same timeframe last year which correlates to 245m full-time equivalent jobs, according to the sixth edition of the International Labour Organisation Monitor named Covid-19 and World of Work.