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July 10, 2006

Trade union movement has lost much of its vigour

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July 10, 2006

KARACHI: Despite immense sacrifices by a large number of activists, the trade union movement in the mega city of Karachi has lost much of its sugar during the last 20 years, essentially due to repressive policies of successive regimes and retrenchment.

“Pakistan signed the Structural Adjustment Programme with donor agencies in 1988 that paved the way for liberalization of the economy, deregulation and privatization and the contract system initiated during the Ziaul Haq regime was given a final shape that became a prelude to the erosion of the trade union movement,” says Karamat Ali, director, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), a non-government organization (NGO).

“The majority of workers were no more the direct employees of the factories they worked for. They not only became vulnerable but were also denied fringe benefits, like paid weekly holidays, old-age benefits, annual and medical leaves, casual leaves despite an eight-hour working day,” he points out.

“Cost cutting led to de-centralization of production, paving way for small, home-based units whose workers didn’t even know which factory they were toiling for,” says Ali.

The darkest period in trade union history in Pakistan remains the Ziaul Haq era (1977-88) although the final blow to the movement was given during the Nawaz Sharif government in 1991 when privatization of large units started and tens of thousands of workers were retrenched from big units.

The manufacturing sector was quickly privatized and a major chunk of workers sent home through so-called “golden handshakes”. Ironically, some of them were re-employed but this was done under the contract system. “The situation can be gauged from the fact that out of some 80,000 units in the country hardly 1500 could boast of having a union today and they too are not capable of mobilization. Ninety per cent of these establishments are small units,” says Ali.


despite the fact that the Founder of the Nation, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, conceived Pakistan as a secular, democratic entity with the unrestricted right of association but his predecessors transformed the country into almost a rogue state where military and civil dictators have ruled through coercion and demagogy denying the basic rights to the populace.

“Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a member of the Postal Union while Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had been the president of All India Trade Union Federation. However, while India has emerged as a big regional power due to its democratic polity, Pakistan has lagged behind miserably due to long spells of military and civilian dictatorships,” says Ali.

The Trade Union Act 1926 allowed everyone, except the uniformed section of the army, to form a union but it was repealed by General Ayub Khan who enacted the Industrial Relations Ordinance 1969 (IRO-1969). “Most of the labour courts have no judges and thousands of cases are pending,” says Ali.

The fragility of the trade union movement could be gauged from the fact that merely two per cent of the existing unions are entitled to act as collective bargaining agents (CBAs) as compared to seven per cent in the late 1970s.

Besides, although the total workforce in Pakistan numbers around 40 million, the agrarian workers have been excluded from the definition and thereby denied the right to organize in the CBAs. Meanwhile, a plethora of legislation has ensured that a considerable segment of industrial workers remain outside the CBAs’ purview.

“While the unions have increased from 209 in 1951 to 7,025 in 1990, the average membership has declined over this period from 1,880 to 135,” says Sabur Ghayur in his study “Trade Unions, Democracy and Development in Pakistan.”

“More than 50,000 staff in the banking industry, 35 per cent of them hailing from Karachi, has been retrenched since 1997,” says Saeed Ghani, former general-secretary, Muslim Commercial Bank Staff Union. “I was the first victim of Section 27/B which was inserted in Banking Companies Ordinance 1962 in May 1997 and sacked. As many as 28 office-bearers of the MCB union were sacked and according to Section 27/B they were not entitled to hold a union office,” he says.

“Previously if a sacked worker sought justice from a court of law his job remained intact until the court made a decision and he also remained part of union but Section 27/B deprived him of the right to hold a union office,” says Usman Baloch, a leader of Muthahida Mazdoor Federation that played a vital role in the trade union movement in Karachi.

“As many as 35,000 workers in Shershah in SITE are sitting idle because there are no jobs. The lucky ones are working as contract labour without fringe benefits. If, for instance, there is a power breakdown, contract labour is not paid for that period although it is not responsible for the breakdown,” says Baloch.

“In October 1993, during the government of interim Prime Minister Moeen Qureshi, the Defence law was introduced in Pakistan Railways and about 80,000 workers employed on main lines were denied the right to take part in trade union activity. While the ban continues, the top leadership of trade unions in Pakistan Railways has been dismissed or retired,” says Manzoor Razi, President of the Railway Workers Union.

“The trade union activity was further curbed with the implementation of IRO-2002 and thousands of workers were sacked from Pakistan Railways, Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works, Karachi Port Trust, Karachi Electric Supply Corporation and Pakistan Steel Mills Corporation,” he regrets.

“One important development that occurred during the last 20 years is that the army officers and ‘jawans’ were inducted in KESC, Pakistan Railways, Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, Pakistan Steel, Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works, Pakistan National Shipping Corporation and several other organizations and they were deadly opposed to trade union activity,” says Manzoor Razi.

“Previously the trade unions flourished along with progressive political parties e.g. Communist Party of Pakistan and National Awami Party but after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the ideological politics suffered badly and an NGO culture flourished whose main activity was organizing seminars through foreign funding and holding rallies in front of Karachi Press Club for photo sessions,” says Razi.

“Small wonder then that ethnicity filled the vacuum and one witnessed emergence of trade unions on the basis of language like Pakhtoon Labour Front, Sindhi Mazdoor Tehreek, and

so on.”

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