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The First Day of Bhatta Workers Strike

Report: Farooq Tariq

The first day of Bhatta (brick kiln) workers national strike for indefinite period started on 18th April was marked by violence, kidnappings arrests and torturing of Bhatta workers by the bosses and police all over Pakistan. Over 20 workers got injured, several dozens arrested or disappeared and many more tortured in different parts of the country mainly by the owners of the brick kiln factories (Bhattas). In most cases, police sided with the bosses and did not register the cases against the owners.

Despite all this, workers in many districts of Pakistan refuse to work and went on complete strike. The strike call was given by Pakistan Bhatta Mazdoor Union (PBMU) against the non implementation of the courts decisions for abolition of Peshgi (advance) system. The system makes Bhatta workers bonded and are treated as slaves by the Bhatta owners. The other demands include a minimum of Rupees 500 for making 1000 bricks and registration of all the brick factories by the government.

After Supreme Court of Pakistan, federal Shariat Court also decided to abolish this Peshgi system. The bosses refused to accept the verdict and continued to force the workers to pay the so-called advances. The PBMU after launching a campaign and mobilization of the workers decided to call a national strike of the workers, the first of its kind in history of Pakistan. There are over 1.8 million workers involved in this industry, mostly un-unionized. The PBMU has only nearly 4000 membership and was established in 2004.

A complete strike was observed mainly in Punjab and North West Frontier Province (NWFP). But the news of the strike is reaching in other parts of Pakistan and more and more workers are calling the union office for posters and information to start the union and strike.

Today, there were public meeting organized by the Bhatta workers at Qasur, Rawalpindi and Wah cant despite a ban on the public meetings. At Qasur where most of the PBMU leaders were present, workers remained in front of the Labour department for over eight hours. Speaking at the public rally Mehmood Butt, general secretary PBMU vowed to continue the strike for n indefinite period if demands are not met. Over 400 workers participated in this public meeting despite police had warned to arrest any one if they participate in the meeting. Several leaders of Labour Party Pakistan including myself also spoke in solidarity with the union. There was a very militant mood among the workers and they felt that it is the time to do something. They stressed the need for unity among the workers.

At Rawalpindi, over 800 participated in the first public meeting of PBMU and a complete strike was observed in all 250 factories in the district. At Wah, 150 workers went to police station to protest over the torturing of workers by the bosses. Here 13 workers got injured by the gangsters of Bhatta.

At Raiwind, some 16 workers have disappeared after they were taken by men in police uniform. They were picked up as they were leaving for the public rally organized by the union in Qasur. Police stations in different close by towns and Raiwing police is denying the arrests of these workers. They include Manzoor Masih, one of the main leaders of the union in the area. The Qasur district Police Officer DPO has been giovenb an application to register a case against the Bhatta bosses for kidnapping, so for no case is been registered.

Complete strike is also observed in Toba Tek Singh, Faisalabad, Gujrat, Qasur, Gojranwala, Lahore, Sialkot Sheikhupura and other districts of Punjab.

Government has invited the Union leaders for discussion on 20th April. The labour secretary of labour department and other high officials of the ministry will take part in the negotiations. The PBMU has decided to meet the ministry officials but refused to call off the strike as was demanded.

Today in another development, the government used some of “their” organizations among Bhatta workers to declare that they are not part of the strike. They include one section of Bonded Labour Liberation Front BLLF (Ghulam Fatime Group). They have issued press releases printed by some papers that they have nothing to do with the strike and the strike be called off. There has been many complaints against this group of corruption and nepotism in using the funds of BLLF.

The Bhatta Owners Association also held their national convention today in Lahore and asked the government to take action against the outsiders and NGOs who are provoking the “innocent” Bhatta Workers for their own ends. According to their press release, over 500 participated in their convention.

The Pakistan Bhatta Mazdoor Union has called a press conference tomorrow in Lahore to protest against the arrests and torturing of workers. The union asked workers to remain on strike until government declare in clear terms that Peshgi system in over and that they will take actions against the bosses who are not accepting the decision of the courts.

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