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May Day Optimism

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By Farooq Sulehria

May Day commemorates a heroic fight by Chicago workers in 1886 for an eight-hour working day. The police fired upon their peaceful rally killing several people, and the courts executed four workers' leaders on November 11, 1887.

The first May Day marches were held across the world in 1890 in memory of the Chicago martyrs and to re-launch the campaign for the eight-hour work-day: a right Pakistani workers still denied. Today, no worker in Pakistan can make ends meet on an eight-hour job. People often take on two jobs, part-time jobs or indulge in some small business after work to survive. All our governments, whether khaki or civilian, have had the same IMF-World Bank dictated neo-liberal agendas on offer: privatisation, downsizing, and an end to subsidies. It may have been different had there been a workers' party built by trade unions taking part in mainstream politics. But Pakistan's trade unions are too weak and divided to build even a united national centre, let alone a party of their own.

Over 41 million of Pakistan's estimated population of nearly 150 million constitute the labour force. A little over 48 per cent is employed in agricultural sector with no legal cover to form unions. The level of organisation is extremely poor even among non-agricultural workers: one million (3 percent) workers are organised in 7,204 unions. Even worse: only 1, 905 unions have collective bargaining agent (CBA) status.

What explains the plight of Pakistan's trade union movement? There are no easy answers. The destruction of the trade union movement has been a combination of external (state and employer) repression and self-inflicted wounds. The process started the day the new state was born. Like the Left, Pakistan's trade union movement is a child of the trade union movement of united India. United India had two national trade union centres: communist All India Trade Union Congress and reformist Indian Federation of Labour.

Both were reorganised in Pakistan as Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF) and Pakistan Labour Federation, later renamed as All Pakistan Federation of Labour (APFOL). The former was not acceptable to the new confessional-Islamic state. Its charismatic leader Mirza Ibrahim was arrested in 1948. Three years later, he was convicted in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. When Mirza Ibrahim died in 2000 aged 94, he had spent almost a quarter of his life behind bars.

The APFOL on the other hand was patronised by the government, and its training centre in Karachi indoctrinated trade union workers against communism – funded by Washington's then front organisation Asia Foundation.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, having declaring trade unionism repugnant to Islam, decided to "Islamise" trade unionism in the early sixties by launching Pakistan Federation of Labour (later National Labour Federation -- NLF). The NLF remained isolated until General Zia started patronising it and now has a strong presence in public sector establishments. One "Islamic" theme that the NLF introduced is to oppose May Day, as workers observe this day in the memory of non-Muslim workers of Chicago. The NLF would rather observe Youm-e-Khandak.

The formation of fundamentalist trade unions further divided the trade union movement. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did the same. He encouraged forming PPP-supported unions. Later his daughter Benazir formed a labour wing of Pakistan Peoples Party: Peoples Labour Bureau. Others copied the trend set by Bhutto. Now all parties, from right wing-Muslim League to MQM, have their trade union fronts. Although initially implanted by the state, over a period of time, the division has been aggravated by the trade union leadership. At present this is a problem of their own making, despite attempts to overcome it.

Such steps include the formation in 1994 of the Pakistan Workers' Confederation (PWC), a body comprising ten federations. At least ten unions join to form a federation, as opposed to the earlier legislation that allowed two unions to form a federation, leading to a mushroom growth of federations. The change has come with the new labour legislation introduced by the Musharraf regime, but it's hard to say whether there are good intentions behind it. The rest of Musharraf's Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) 2002 is far from being worker-friendly in line with the tradition set by Pakistani rulers from day one, for whom anti-trade union legislation restricting trade unionism has been a time-tested tool.

In 1952, the founding fathers of Pakistan introduced the draconian Essential Services Maintenance Act in 1952. The Industrial Dispute Ordinance was promulgated in 1959 during the first military dictatorship, banning workers from striking in public utility services, in which employers were given the right to hire and fire. But these decrees proved useless when workers took to streets in 1968 and forced the first military dictator to resign -- a great victory for the young working class of Pakistan.

For next few years, workers would simply occupy, strike or lock out the management to get their demands accepted. The state was too weak to intervene on industrial areas. The newly formed Pakistan Peoples Party's open support to the workers led to a whole new layer of working class and its leadership joining the party.

It was in this background that on November 23 1969 the Yahya regime promulgated the Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO 1969) that strengthened the institutional framework for labour participation and dispute settlement. It also extended the scope of the Essential Services Maintenance Act 1952, thus depriving a big chunk of working class from being able to participate in trade unions.

Bhutto did the same. He announced an ambitious labour policy on February 10, 2021 but never implemented it. His period remains the best and worst period of Pakistan's trade union movement. On the one hand, the trade union movement reached its 'peak' during this period: a record number of unions were registered, their memberships underwent an upsurge, the number of industrial actions went high and some pro-trade union reforms were introduced.

On the other hand, Bhutto unleashed a reign of terror against trade union leadership and workers, with police even firing at striking Landhi workers in 1972. By the time, Zia removed Bhutto, the trade union movement had ebbed. General Zia declared a state of emergency, banning strikes, lockouts and demonstrations. His misrule left the trade union movement in bad shape. The memories of Colony Textile Mills have not yet faded: in January 1978 police firing left hundreds dead.

The restoration of democracy in 1988 kindled many hopes among workers. The Benazir government lifted Zia's ban on trade unionism in certain public sector establishments and reinstated many workers fired during his regime, yet nothing concrete happened. Soon Nawaz Sharif replaced her, and proved to be as anti-worker. (Sharif did not tolerate trade union in his own factories.)

When Musharraf took over, he appointed Omar Asghar Khan as his Labour Minister. Omar took a few initiatives: he restored the May Day holiday that Nawaz Sharif had cancelled, lifted the ban on trade union in WAPDA, raised minimum pension from Rs425 to 700 and minimum wage for unskilled workers from Rs2, 150 to 2, 500, and announced a welfare package on April 30 2001. After a lapse of 11 years, a tripartite conference was held. But repression against the trade union movement continued, and trade union activity continued to be curbed. The Musharraf regime appointed military officers as heads of many public sector utilities and harassed the trade union leadership opposing his privatisation plans.

In short, the last nearly quarter of a century has been a period of defeats for the working class in Pakistan. But like elsewhere Pakistan's working class is recovering too. Also, one must remain optimistic. For optimism is May Day's message.

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