LAHORE - A small-town teen shared with this scribe his struggle for survival in Lahore, providing a crude picture of the life of working class in capital of the ‘most-developed’ province of the country.

The eldest son of a retired Lance Naik of Pakistan Army, Zaheer (unreal name) hails from Jhang area and he’s a sales-man – I am quite unsure if the 19 years old should be called a ‘man’ at all.

He has been working at a Raiwind Road bakery for Rs9,500 monthly salary and is given Rs50 daily in lieu of food expense, making it total Rs11,000 per month. He shares a shabby accommodation provided by his ‘benevolent’ employer with his other colleagues.

Considering that the ‘free’ accommodation makes up for the Rs2,000 gap between the government-determined minimum wage of Rs13,000 per month and what Zaheer is being paid in cash (Rs11,000), things seem to be quite good. Wait! There are some twists in the story.

Zaheer is now relatively a senior employee. “Boys are employed at Rs7,000 and they get Rs1,000 raise after a year but never issued any appointment letter,” revealed the boy in black trousers and orange shirt – the bakery uniform.

Sharing his own life story, he said he was compelled to abandon studies after matriculation because of the sudden death of his mother, and he moved to Lahore in 2013.

“I send home Rs7,000 while my retired father gets Rs9,000 pension. This somehow covers my family expenses. But more importantly, my younger brother and sister are going to school back home; this makes me feel happy,” the boy said with a sparkle in his eyes. As he said this, his body language smacked of a proud warrior who had just achieved a splendid victory in a tough battlefield.

“I myself wanted to resume my studies; so, I got admission to the Allama Iqbal Open University a few months ago,” the manly boy went on. “But, I could not send home money that month,” he recollected while staring into the air.

When I asked him if he was happy with his job, he replied, “I don’t have a better option yet as working conditions are almost the same everywhere in our field.”

When I asked Zaheer when he would be leavening for home to celebrate Eid, he remarked: The area managers are used to stop our salaries before every Eid and we are not allowed to go home on all such occasions.

This reminded me of another sales boy who I had met a year ago on Eid day. I went at a Johar Town outlet of the most successful and fastest-growing eateries brand, which has a French name that sounds like government, if we keep ‘r’ silent and pronounce it in typical Desi way. I asked a guy over there if he was from Lahore and why he did not go home for celebrating Eid. He saw towards his colleague from the corner of eye and muttered, “I am from Narowal. We can’t go, Sir!”

I asked him if he could help me with taking the stuff I had bought to my car parked outside, he looked towards his bearded in-charge who permitted with a nod. When outside, I asked him what would happen if he went home without permission. “I will be fired!” he replied. Then, he hurriedly shared with me how much he was missing his family, as a couple of tears fled his eyes despite his utmost effort to stay composed. I tried to give him some money which he refused and went back.

“This year, I got to know that someone among us complained to the GM (general manager) and he has directed for payment of salaries to all staff before Eid, Zaheer told me. “Our outlet manager has told me that we will get the June’s salary on July 15,” Zaheer said with a smiling face, as if giving them the due even with a 15 days delay was some great act of generosity on part of the employer.

“Thank God, I will celebrate Eid with my family after two years, as I will also get two holidays this time,” he said as he blushed like a kid.

There thousands of Zaheers working in Punjab alone who have been deprived of their basic rights and facing unending exploitation for years, thanks to the government. The bakers’ outlet Zaheer works at incidentally happens to be on the road that leads to the palace of the king of this province who has been reigning this most populous province of Pakistan for years.

Media keeps highlighting works plight from time to time but the government machinery is used take ‘notices’ and seek ‘detailed’ reports, which end up in dustbins.

I interviewed 15 colleagues of Zaheer who all had similar heart rendering stories to tell. Working in tough conditions, usually for more hours than they are paid for, they get no holidays except the weekly off-days. Their five-day salary is deducted against one leave if they absent from work, even in case of illness or some emergency.

Expressing concern over the labour condition, activist Shaheena Kausar said: The workers mostly are not given appointment letter and unable to approach the labour courts for their rights. They don’t have the rights to unionism.

She added: The workers of all famous eateries are deprived of social security. Their health condition is worst; 90 per cent of them are low paid and work more than the duty hours.

She took a swipe at the Labour Department for helping the powerful owners of such eateries exploit the workers. She said the government never conducted even a survey to compile the data of labourers.

“Next year the country has to present report for attaining GSP Plus status. It requires us to improve the working conditions of the labour class at least to the minimum level set in the developed countries,” Shaheena informed.

She also pointed out that in most occupations the female workers were almost absent – that too primarily because of unsuitable working conditions. “How can we progress as a nation if half of our population (females) are simply kept out of the economic sphere?” she raised the question, demanding the government give immediate and honest attention to the problems of working class.