In Pakistan, missed paydays are a persistent problem


A roadside money changer arranges coins in front of a Standard Chartered bank branch in Karachi, Pakistan, on July 30, 2012. While it’s hard to get a decent job in Pakistan, getting paid is becoming increasingly difficult. (Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg)
August 21, 2012

It’s hard enough to get a decent job in Pakistan. But those who do are finding it increasingly difficult to get paid.

The country’s top court recently had to step in to order that three months’ back wages be paid to public-sector female medical staff, known here as “lady health workers.” The problem also extends to doctors: A group of newly recruited physicians, hired to replace striking doctors in Punjab province, say they have not received pay in six weeks.

And last year, Pakistan Railways employees shut down the country’s train system for days in a protest over unpaid wages.

The situation cuts across myriad professions and appears to be on the rise, evidently a symptom of general economic distress that includes currency devaluation, high inflation, poverty and a persistent energy crisis.

Last month municipal workers in Karachi staged a protest in which they were beaten back by police with batons and tear gas. The workers were demonstrating because they had not been paid in two months.

“The [salary] delays are recurring frequently and for longer periods,” one city official told the Express Tribune, an English-language daily.

With the onset of the Eid holiday — a time of gift-giving and family celebrations — unpaid workers have expressed increasing despair. A young journalist with a small newspaper in Lahore recently leapt to her death, allegedly because she had not been paid for at least two months.

Media organizations, including newspapers and cable television channels, are often behind on payroll or pay only portions of salaries, journalists frequently complain. But they aren’t the only ones.

“I’m facing so many troubles in this company,” said a 36-year-old computer specialist at a medical service firm in Lahore. “We have not received our salary from July.”

The worker asked not to be identified because, he said, his employer would fire him. He and his wife have been living with his parents, he said, hoping at least for money for Eid, which was celebrated this week..

The firm has more than 100 employees, he said. The boss says, “‘I will pay you tomorrow, I will pay tomorrow,’ ” the worker said. “I am very discouraged.”

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Eid holiday that follows contribute to the problem by adding stress to a financial system that already makes it hard for companies to borrow.

“The banks typically go through a significant liquidity drain during this season because not only do individual customers withdraw a lot of cash, but companies also sometimes hand out Eid bonuses to employees,” Farooq Tirmizi, a senior financial writer for the Express Tribune, explained in an e-mail.

“The central bank’s rules effectively prohibit the banks from lending to large swaths of the economy, especially the services sector and agribusiness,” he said. “So even some very sizable companies cannot borrow to pay their Eid bills.”

The government-reported poverty rate was 23 percent in 2006 — the last major survey done — but that figure has been challenged and is likely double that, especially in rural parts of the country and the semiautonomous tribal areas.

Underemployment in urban areas is another problem: Educated people are settling for any job they can find, even if wages are low — and even if they might not get a paycheck for months.

Said the unpaid computer specialist, who has 18 years of experience in his field: “I still go to work because I have no other option.”

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