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Army Takes Over PTCL As Workers Go On Strike Aganist Privitisation
REPORT BY THE NEWS: Even as the government on Saturday set June 18 for holding bids for the sale of 26 per cent shares of the Pakistan Telecommunications Company Ltd (PTCL), personnel of the Pakistan Army, Rangers and Police were deployed at sensitive installations across the country.

The government decided to move ahead with the privatisation process as the third round of talks between the four-member ministerial team - IT & Telecom Minister Awais Khan Leghari, Privatisation Minister Dr Hafeez Shaikh, Labour & Manpower Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan and Information Minister Shaikh Rashid - and leaders of worker unions failed.

The ministers told a press conference that government was offering an unprecedented package of Rs 2.4 billion in salary raise and perks to the PTCL workers. The same will swell to Rs 4.2 billion if added to the 2.6 per cent stock shares offered at lower prices for employees on the eve of privatisation of 26 per cent shares of the company.

PTCL President Junaid Iqbal Khan told The News that the package would be applicable from July 1. Rejecting the olive branch, the PTCL employees gave a complete strike call while setting June 14 deadline for fruitful talks or a system breakdown on the 15th.

The government had earlier postponed PTCL bidding scheduled for June 10 owing to concerns voiced by the protesting employees. In a bid to woo the PTCL workers, the government's "unprecedented" package comes with 30 per cent raise in monthly salaries, 40 days leave encashment to all the employees of the PTCL, separately totalling around Rs 1.5 billion. The IT& Telecom minister also announced to waive off any outstanding debts for the late employees of the Company besides offering jobs to the children of those PTCL employees who died during service. It also announced to reemploy the retrenched daily wages employees.

The minister said 20 per cent raise is also being offered in uniform allowance to the Company's employees.

The government also accepted the employees demand that 10 per cent of the 26 per cent privatised shares be sold to them. The package also offers a two-year job security to the contractual and daily-wage employees of the PTCL.

Leghari claimed the unprecedented package was the first of its kind and would please the unduly worried employees.

Federal Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh hoped the package would help the employees feel secure and value the government decision of privatisation of the company.

Responding to a question, he downplayed fears of similar blackmail by employees when other companies such as OGDCL and Wapda would be sold out. "We have been offering packages before privatisation to the companies
but those were not known to the public as they concluded quietly," he said. Hafeez said the incentives package was purely on the basis of government's decision and not resulting from blackmail by worker unions.

On the other hand, the PTCL Workers Action Committee leader Ziauddin and Malik Maqbool rejected the package, saying they would not compromise their principled position as a bargain for the sale of government entity.

"We have decided to give a strike call to our employees and would hope the government would come to the negotiating table with a free mind," said Ziauddin while talking to The News by telephone.

He said it was the unanimous decision of the 26-member committee of the employee unions that the privatisation should be rejected outright. Zia said, "The government's time-buying tactics will not work any more and if the talks remain fruitless we are going to jam the entire system on the night of June 14."

The News learnt that some 10 employees, including three union leaders, have been arrested or missing with their mobile phones switched off. In a brief remark, the Telecom Association of Pakistan hoped the deregulation process would continue unhindered with the army's
takeover of the installations.

The mobile operators, LDIs, WLL, LL, pay phone card etc have been suffering heavily since May 25 when the PTCL employees started their strike as their systems installed in telephone exchanges could not be serviced and expanded.

After successful talks on June 3, PTCL President Junaid Iqbal Khan and Privatisation Secretary Tahseen Iqbal had called off the Company's sale. This was followed by two rounds of talks by a three-member government body comprising Privatisation Secretary Tahseen Iqbal, Interior Secretary Kamal Shah and IT &T Secretary Khalid Saeed with the PTCL union leaders last Friday.

At that time, the telecom giant had agreed to offer 20 per cent raise in salaries to all cadres (BPS 1 to 15) who have worked for over 20 years. The PTCL had also agreed to revise the pay scales of employees and their medical as well as leave incentives with different employees unions. The company also consented to offer a job to one family member of any employee.

Moreover, the general managers all over the country would be empowered to make promotions from BPS 1 to BPS 15 at their own discretion without seeking permission from the headquarters.

According to some estimates, only private sector suffered losses worth Rs 50 million from May 25 to June 3 while the losses faced by the PTCL are beyond anybody's calculation.

By June 5, the IT & Telecom added fuel to fire by stating that bidding would be held sooner than later and then once again the three-member secretarial committee held fruitless talks with the employees' union. The failure resulted in formation of a four-member ministerial committee, which ignored union concerns and offered a lucrative package for employees while seeking security and technical assistance from the armed forces.

PTCL's potential shortlisted buyers include Singapore Telecommunications Ltd, China Mobile, Telekom Malaysia Bhd, Kuwait's Telecommunications Co, Saudi Oger Limited, Saudi Telecom, Emirates Telecommunication Corporation of the UAE and Turkcell.

The government owns 88 per cent shares of the company as the last divestment occurred in 1994 when it raised $900 million by selling 9 per cent of the PTCL shares on the international market in the form of global depositary receipts (GDRs).

The government also sold 3 per cent of its stakes to the domestic market that year to list on the Karachi Stock Exchange.

PTCL, which had 4.9 million fixed lines in service in December, has been earmarked for sale for years, but a downturn in the global telecommunications sector and past political instability and violence in Pakistan led to delays.

The PTCL has 65,000 workers, most of whom are upset with the privatisation process.

Azfar-ul-Ashfaque adds from Karachi: troops of Pakistan Army took over vital installations of the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) on Saturday in what an Army spokesman described to provide technical support to the company to avoid any disruption in the country's telecom network.

An Army spokesman Colonel Idrees said the Army was being deployed at the International Gateway Exchange and if needed, it would go to other installations. He said the Army deployment was aimed at providing technical support to the company's communications so that no hindrance could take place in its operations. "Police and Rangers are already there for security," he said, adding that it was for the fourth time in the country's history that the Army came to the PTCL (formerly called T&T).

However, workers said the Army troops had been deployed at International Gateway Exchange situation, near Jubilee, and Pak Capital Exchange at main University Road. The two exchanges interlink the overall country's telecom system and provide bandwidth to cellular companies, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and call centres.

Leaders of various unions of the PTCL, who were earlier negotiating with a government team on the privatisation issue, had gone underground to avoid possible arrests.

The central president of the Employees Union, Ziauddin told The News that all leaders of the Unions Action Committee were in contact with each other and any decision would be taken after consultation. He evaded replying in affirmative whether he would ask PTCL workers here to observe another strike. No worker has been arrested in Karachi so far, he said. PTCL officials said they had called in the Army to provide security to some exchanges in the metropolis.

"They (troops) are very much here for the protection of company's interests. Our technicians will continue working at the places where the Army deployed but if they go on strike, Army's Signals Corps will come for our help," said a senior PTCL official on condition of anonymity. Ghulam Haider adds from Lahore: The Pakistan Army's Signals Corps on Saturday took over the sensitive installations of the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) across the country.

The development came soon after Privatisation Commission Chairman Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh announced that the company would be sold on June 18.

The Pakistan Rangers and police on Saturday evening took over control of the PTCL telephone exchanges, sub-exchanges, control rooms, transit exchange, main distribution frames and fibre optic centres to prevent any acts of sabotage.

Contingents of the Pakistan Rangers and police reached the PTCL installations around 4.30pm and took over PTCL installations in the provincial metropolis.

A large number of PTCL workers on evening duty were denied entry to the offices and buildings by the personnel of law-enforcement agencies (LEAs). Majority of the employees were unaware of the deployment of the LEAs. The security personnel did not allow any of the PTCL workers to enter the PTCL buildings and exchanges in the provincial metropolis.

"We are not terrorists or criminals. We just want acceptance of our demands through democratic means," said PTCL Unions Action Committee member Rana Tahir. He said they would set up hunger strike camps in front of PTCL offices and buildings. He said the PTCL Unions Action Committee would hold meeting on Sunday (today) to chalk out the future line of action. "We will continue our protest whatever situation may be," he vowed.

He said the government was bent upon selling the profit-earning entity at throwaway prices and they would resist it at all costs. SP Security Ahmad Mobin said police and personnel of the Pakistan Rangers had been deployed at around 38 telephone exchanges and other PTCL installations. He said the deployment was done as a precautionary measure and for smooth functioning of PTCL exchanges and communication network.

Personnel of the Traffic Police were also seen moving in the provincial metropolis with barricade to be placed outside PTCL installations and offices.

Agencies add: IT Minister Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari said the decision of the government to privatise the national entity is irreversible and those who try to damage national assets will be dealt with severely according to the law of the land.

He said an unprecedented increase has also been proposed in education grant for children of PTCL employees while the loans of those PTCL employees who died during service would be written off.

Awais said directives have also been issued to immediately promote PTCL employees and added the government has also decided to offer 20 per cent transportation allowance to the employees.
The minister said these incentives are far greater than what the employees' representatives had demanded in meetings with the special ministerial committee.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Labour and Manpower Ghulam Sarwar Khan said the incentives, estimated at Rs 4.2 billion announced by the government, primarily focus on the workers' welfare.

He said after the announcement of such a lucrative package, the call for staging a strike by workers representatives has no moral and legal grounds.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Privatisation Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh said besides accepting 27 demands of the employees, the government has also decided to offer 10 per cent share to the employees in addition to the Rs 4.2 billion welfare package. He said it would make a total of around Rs 5 billion package.

Responding to another question, Leghari said the government has already announced around Rs 15 billion package for the subscribers and assured more affordable and efficient service after the privatisation.

Abdul Hafeez Sheikh the successful bidder will have to offer 133 million, or 10 per cent, of the 1.33 billion shares being sold, to PTCL employees at a discounted rate.

"The privatisation process is very important for the development of the country and that's why we are announcing a new date," Hafeez said.

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