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- Saturday, February 09, 2013 - From Print Edition

When a fire started at the Ali Enterprises factory in Baldia Town, Karachi on September 11, 2012, the factory’s only door (and way out) was locked, presumably to keep the over 800 workers from stealing garments. This fire eventually led to the deaths of about 300 workers. It is safe to assume that if the factory had an active labour union, the door would not have been locked and the workers would not have been trapped inside. When the prime minister issued directions to drop murder charges against the factory owners of the burnt down factory a couple of weeks ago, an active labour federation in the country would have called a nationwide strike. None was seen. The failure of labour to appear as a bargaining agent in one of the worst industrial fires in Pakistan’s history requires at least a moment of sombre reflection.

Collective bargaining is a fundamental right for labour – however the constitution of Pakistan does not admit it and our statute books do not protect it. The result is that active labour unions are the most repressed institution in the country. On the other hand, owners of the means of production and distributors are free to create their associations as bargaining tools. These associations have come into the public eye by demonstrating their ability to shut segments of the economy, a task earlier thought to be reserved for labour. At various moments in the last two years, the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (Aptma), the All Pakistan CNG Association and the Pakistan Pharma Manufacturers Associations have shut shop.

One the other end, labour unions are almost non-existent here, barring a few major industries – mostly multinationals and public sector organisations. Industrial action (or strikes) has been limited to public sector unions, faced by the threat of privatisation (in other words, losing their jobs), and the few more militant labour unions, such as the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM) in Faisalabad. However, while industrialist-run associations face no consequences for shutting down, labour unions on strike have been slapped with terrorism charges. Such were the charges faced by the KESC workers in 2012, LQM workers in 2010 and PTCL workers in 2006. Six LQM workers are currently serving a sentence of 99 years each for allegedly burning down a factory.

It is state-sector workers who have borne the worst of the strong arm of the Pakistani state’s neoliberal turn. Employees of the power sector, the railways and PTCL have been continuously protesting over the last three years. They have been joined by lady health workers, those from the education sector, sewerage workers and others. While public sector employees have carved out a tweaking space to take out public protests, it is the private sector – which employees the bulk of the industrial and service sector workforce – where labour unions are most needed.

The places where labour unions do exist they are mostly operated as puppet unions – the so-called union leaders being relatives of the factory owners or on their payroll. In other cases, ‘independent union leaders’ have been offered – and have accepted – cars, plots and cash to give up key demands in a strike. This is in stark contrast with the early trade union history of Pakistan, which began with the Communist Party of Pakistan allied Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF) led by railway workers’ leader Mirza Ibrahim. During the industrialisation in the Ayub era, the labour union movement was able to entrench itself in both Lahore and Karachi and played a key role in raising a slogan against the ‘22 families’ during the movement against Ayub and created the pressure base on which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was forced to nationalise key industries.

Bhutto, however, waged a clever three-pronged attack on effective unions: one, allowing the registry of multiple unions in each factory; two, creating patronage-based unions affiliated with the PPP; and three, using the violent arm of the state apparatus on the more militant workers in Karachi and Kala Shah Kaku. Following the PPP’s patronage of labour unions, the 1980s saw the Zia-government actively push other parties (such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Nawaz Sharif etc) to create government and capitalist-friendly unions. Unions were further divided along ethnic grounds. This period also witnessed divisions emerging within the left wing unions which continued to split into smaller groups. The various left wing labour unions entered the 2000s ‘divided and antagonistic’, with their internal fights sometimes more crippling than the state repression they faced. The period combined to the current status quo where labour unions were either non-existent, repressed or toeing the line of capital owners.

An important question to answer here is: how does a left-wing labour union differ from a right-wing labour union? One can try to answer by way of an example: the left-leaning Railway Workers Union was calling on workers to “save the Railways” and “not strike” to “expose the railways administration”, the right-wing PREM union was taking out strikes for unpaid wages, at times with the direct encouragement of the railways administration. A genuine left-wing union bargains with the future in mind, while right-wing unions seek immediate interests.

The current labour battles have shifted from improving wage and working conditions to saving the jobs of contracted workers. One such battle is currently being waged in the Korangi Industrial area, where a garments factory has shut shop without paying around 1,000 workers any compensation. The more ‘progressive’ battles have become either about converting contracted workers to permanent workers – an example of which was an almost one year fight at the Pearl Continental Lahore – or fighting for minimum wage, a successful example of which has been by the janitors at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). However, in both cases, a number of workers were fired before combined pressure forced the administrations to re-hire them on reduced terms.

Questions on improved working conditions: removing locks and grills from factory doors and windows, ensuring fire-fighting equipment and medical supplies in work spaces are barely asked or responded to. One example of the weakness of unions and the government’s apathy to workers is that minimum wage rates are the only government-given rate increase that is hardly ever implemented in full. The price of sugar, wheat, petrol, gas and so forth increases a day before the notification is issued. In the absence of active labour unions and united national federations, NGOs and research think tanks, such as Piler and the Labour Education Foundation (LEF), have emerged as labour rights advocates. However, they don’t have the ability to create working class unity on a national level, nor do some of them appear interested in doing so.

Capitalist unity is quite visible; more so under fear of labour unity. And the most prominent recent example of this is that of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) being able to lobby the prime minister and the governor of Sindh to get the Baldia factory owners absolved of the more serious charges over the Baldia Town fire. In Pakistan, the old Marxian adage has been reversed: capitalists are united while labour is divided. The answer to the Baldia factory fire is not better enforcement of weak laws (the fine for inadequate fire protection is Rs500) by the state. The answer rather is the revival of labour unions: to advocate for labour rights and ensure their enforcement in workspace. Without strong unions, another incident like the Karachi fire is just a loose wire – and locked door – away from recurring.

The writer is the general secretary (Lahore) for the Awami Workers Party. He is a journalist and a researcher by profession. Email: [email protected]