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May 1, 2015

What befell the protectors of the workforce


May 1, 2015

Today, dozens of trade union associations and labour wings of political parties will mark the 129th International Labour Day by organising several gatherings and rallies across the city.
Leaders and trade union activists believe that working conditions of labourers in Pakistan still border on the deplorable, mainly due to the weakening of the trade union movement of yesteryears.
A report issued yesterday by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) suggests that there are 1,209 registered trade unions in the country with a total membership of 245,383, meaning that less than one percent of the labour force are unionised workers.
Sartaj Khan, a Karachi-based independent researcher studying labour movements, was of the view that neo-liberal policies and their direct ramifications have had a negative impact on trade union movements in Pakistan.
“Also, the Industrial Relations Ordinances introduced over the past years have also excluded a number of industries from the right of association, further affecting the labour movement,” Khan told The News.
Some labour activists associate the weakening of the labour movement with the capitulation of the Soviet Union and Zia’s dictatorial regime. Ayub Qureshi, a trade unionist associated with the Pakistan Trade Union Federation, said that Zia’s period not only weakened genuine political parties, trade union and student movements, but also damaged the trade union movement by forming phony associations and introducing corruption in the labour judiciary.

Divisions galore
Trade unions are legal entities formed to protect the interests of workers and prevent discriminatory and unfair labour practices. The constitution of Pakistan, as well as International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and United Nations declarations, all allow workers the right to form their associations or unions.
Pakistan’s population in 2012 was estimated at 180 million and, on

the basis of this population, the total labour force is estimated to be 60 million, according to an ILO report.
Activists say that the trade union movement in Pakistan has lost its momentum after divisions surfaced on the basis of political affiliations and ethnicity, and now the labour force is divided in several individual unions, federations and confederations.
Hundreds of small unions participate in elections or referendums in the country’s major industrial cities, especially Karachi and Lahore. However, trade union activists say the labour laws are also barring the workers from exercising their fundamental right to form trade unions.
Labour laws, with the exception of the Sindh Industrial Relations Act 2010, still exclude agricultural workers – who constitute 43.7 percent of the total work force – workers in administration, civil service, army, social sector (education and health), export processing zones and several public sector establishments from the right to form trade unions, the PILER report states.

Invasive politics
Activists also say that interference of political parties has also maligned the effectiveness of trade unions. Qureshi feels that workers should not go with political or religious parties and should support their own trade unions, so that they could gain back the sort of power they had in the 1970s.
Currently, Pakistan’s trade unions are affiliated with either political and religious parties or traditional and independent federal trade union organisations – all of them are mainly active in public sectors.
The most prominent of the former class is the People Labour Bureau (PLB), which is allied with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement has its own labour wings, while the National Labour Federation is a labour wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Some of the independent and centrist unions are Muttahida Labour Federation, Pakistan Trade Union Federation, National Trade Union Federation and the Pakistan Workers Federation.
Qureshi said that when the PPP formed the PLB, there were mass protests against the move and trade unionists at that time demanded that the party leadership focus on organisation at workplaces instead.

A tarnished cause
Background interviews with workers in various factories in Karachi reveal that a number of political and religious leaders, who are posing as trade unionists, have been working in factories as labour officers or serving as office-bearers of ‘pocket unions’.
“Political and religious parties active in different areas are not only forcibly stopping workers from forming trade unions, but are also dividing workers on a political and sectarian basis,” said Gul Hasan, a trade union leader at a textile mill in the Korangi Industrial Area.
He said that, in some industrial units, managements have formed ‘pocket unions’ whose leaders are from locally influential political parties.
In some cases, as trade union leaders in SITE area say, factory managements have been using religious and jihadi groups to refrain workers from observing strikes for their demands.
Labour activists believe that the formation of a labour wing by the Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat has set a new trend and other sectarian groups would also follow suit.
Sartaj Khan also feels that sect-based religious parties are replacing ethno-political parties by forming their own labour wings, and that this trend is on the rise in industrial areas and residential neighbourhoods.
Industrialists, too, are worried about increasing in interference of political and religious parties in factory affairs. A manager of a garment factory in Landhi said that political and sectarian parties were forcing them to recruit their party workers and to expel workers associated with rival groups.

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