On 2 February, 2016, two workers of PIA were killed while dozens of other protestors were injured when paramilitary forces of the Pakistan Rangers and Sindh Police indiscriminately opened fire on a rally of hundreds of PIA workers. These workers were protesting against the privatization of PIA being carried out under the dictates of IMF.
Workers of Pakistan International Airways (PIA) were protesting on all airports of the country against this draconian policy for many weeks prior to this incident, through token strikes and demonstrations, but the government would not accept their demand to end privatization. On 2 February, workers gathered in big numbers at Karachi Airport and marched towards the Jinnah Terminal against the planned privatization of the national flag carrier. Before the gunfire, the Sindh Police had viciously baton charged the hundreds of gathered workers. But when the workers could not be subdued with batons, the paramilitary Rangers outfit were called in, whose first and only act of crowd control was indiscriminate firing on peacefully protesting men and women. As a result, two workers were killed while many others were injured. In this brutal act of repression the federal government of PML(N), led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; the provincial government of PPP in Sindh led by Zardari and his son Bilawal; and the paramilitary Rangers force, controlled by the Pakistan Army, were equally responsible. All the other political parties in Parliament support the policy of privatization as well, and none have raised any outcry against this brutality.
This brutal murder of two workers led to a complete strike of PIA workers across the country in which not a single domestic or International flight could fly for eight days. This was unprecedented in the history of this country, and expressed the sheer strength of working class. This strike got huge support from workers of other departments, and solidarity was expressed by unions of railways, electricity workers (WAPDA), steel mills, and others. At that time 68 public sector departments were being privatized by the government and workers were protesting against this privatization in almost all departments. Most notably, the WAPDA movement was at its peak. WAPDA is the largest union of workers in the country, as many as 100,000 unionized workers, and leads the trade union movement. But the leadership of this union failed to connect WAPDA with this strike of PIA workers. Even though during the PIA workers’ strike many meetings were held by various unions in other departments to express solidarity with this strike, unfortunately, due to the lack of courageous leadership and the betrayal of many union leaders, this could not be transformed into a general strike throughout the whole country. But at least, after a long absence, the question of general strike was posed in front of unions and workers.
Another important aspect was the lack of any political platform which could unite or even support the working class for this general strike.
In the end, the strike was unable to achieve its desired goal and, believing the hollow promises of the government representatives of ending privatization, workers returned to work. Soon after, a huge wave of victimization was launched against the workers, and “show cause” notices were sent to more than three hundred workers for participating in the strike. The government also reiterated that it will continue with its privatization policy, whatever the cost may be.
This clearly shows the intentions of this government, which killed the workers to pursue its anti-people policy. One year has passed since this blackest incident in the history of Pakistan’s anti-privatization struggle, but not a single person has been arrested or put on trial, and there is no hope of such action by this government. Rather, workers are being targeted in the vilest possible way under the age-old “disciplinary action” witch hunt. But instead of cooling off, the fires of revolt are still smoldering and getting ready to burst forth in a raging inferno. In reality, the struggle of PIA workers is, in fact, a part of the struggles of workers all over the world against the tyranny of the capitalist system.
The regime of Nawaz Sharif, since coming to power in 2013, has carried out a program of massive cuts, privatizations, and taxation which has broken the backs of common people. While the economic program is being dictated by the international imperialist financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, etc.), all the factions of the ruling class, along with military and civilian bureaucracies, the judiciary, security agencies, and local capitalists are busy looting and plundering the wealth and resources produced by the toiling masses through commissions, kickbacks, tax evasions, and purchase of public sector enterprises at give-away prices.
A clear example is that of Federal Minister for Petroleum and Energy Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who owns a private airline, Air Blue, which is flourishing and making huge profits while PIA always shows a loss. After coming to power, this minister has used his influence to change the routes of international flights and transfers of staff of PIA in ways that benefit his own private airline.
These rulers want to sell more and more in less time so they can pocket as much as they can through these auctions. But the biggest hurdle in path of this gravy train is the working class, which is determined to fight—the reflection of which we have seen in various movements of different sections of society in the last couple of years such as young doctors, nurses, hospital workers, electricity workers (WAPDA), teachers, students of colleges and universities, railway workers, the national telephone services workers (PTCL), farmers, NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority) workers, PIA workers, Port Qasim workers, Pakistan Steel Mills workers—in short, almost all sections of the working class and youth have participated in some form of struggle against privatizations. Though these movements have not yet succeeded in ending the privatization completely, they have been able to delay privatization, deregulation, downsizing, and cuts for some time. One example is the case of PIA, where privatization has been delayed at least for one year now. But after each delay the state attacks more viciously. This new normality for the labour movement in Pakistan is posing new questions, not only for a capable leadership for the labour movement, but also on the political front. There is as yet no political party at the moment which oppose this policy of privatization and connects with the aspirations of the working class.
After failing to privatize PIA and other departments through traditional methods, the government has come up with new plans. First they started to divide the airline into two separate entities, PIA -1 and PIA-2, in order to divide the strength of workers and make this public asset more convenient to sell and more lucrative for buyers. The splitting of PIA into PIA Premier has not worked either, and it has become another financial burden on this airline, which some decades ago was one of the top ten airlines in the world. This experiment in the airline at the expense of the taxpayers has failed spectacularly, costing millions of rupees every month, and is bleeding PIA dry.
Now the government has come up with the policy of floating the shares of various public sector departments in the Pakistan Stock Exchange, where interested investors can buy these shares. These departments include some WAPDA and PIA units. Recent announcements by the government also suggests plans of firing 3500 PIA workers by the end of 2017, while four units of the airline—catering, flight training, engineering, and cargo services—will be converted into separate business units and sold off before the end of the year. The government also plans to sell off a 49% stake in the airline by the end of the year, for which all the planning has already been finalized. The government contends that the airline has been operating at a loss for many decades, that the state cannot keep on feeding this white elephant, and that, due to its inability to run an airline, incidents like the crash of flight PK-661 will increase in the coming years.
Looking at PIA today, no sane person will believe that this is the same airline which was pride of the skies in the 60s and 70s and considered one of the premier airlines of the world, an airline which has all the facilities and amenities needed to run an airline from the ground up, from flight training, engineering, cabin crew training, cargo, and catering, to the maintenance of airports and airplanes. This is an airline which has fathered various other airlines in the Middle East, the Far East, and Africa. From humble beginnings after colonial independence, the airline remained profitable till the early 90s while providing cheap transportation facilities to the people. Millions of Pakistani workers are living abroad, especially in the Gulf States, who travel via this airline. Remittances from these workers are a major source of income for Pakistan. While these workers face brutal exploitation in these countries, they save money for several years to take flights back home to meet their families. If PIA is privatized, these workers would not be able to come back home even after a decade, because many routes will stop operating and fares will skyrocket.
The first steps towards the privatization of PIA were taken in early 90s, when the “Open Skies” policy was implemented and landing rights were granted to foreign airlines, giving them unfettered access to airports, facilities, and passengers. Extremely profitable local and international routes were given away for pennies. Many departments of the airports have been privatized over the years, and many airports have also been shut down. The fleet has not been upgraded, and even if new airplanes have been brought in, they are either used, leased from other airlines, or new ones leased on extremely expensive and detrimental agreements. The corrupt ruling class and the sycophantic management of PIA—which is appointed, incidentally, by whichever government is in power—is involved in millions of dollars of corruption, kickbacks, false invoicing, and other measures. Various managements over the years have plundered the airline so much that one former managing director now has his own private airline competing with the national carrier while others are running various facilities of different airports on contract. The rulers, including all elite sections of the state, use the airline as their personal taxis, as evident by the regular visits of the Prime Minister to the UK for health checkups, and the most recent visit to Turkmenistan, where a plane remained on the tarmac for the duration of his visit. Whole airplanes are appropriated, to be filled with freeloaders and family, and the cost is borne by the taxpayers. Further destruction of the airline is assured by zero hiring and new training of the staff. The corrupt pillar of a corrupt capitalist state, the media, screams from its pulpit of lies that PIA has the highest ratio of workers-to-plane in the world, but what is not told is that this calculation includes all the staff, from ground crew to cabin crew, control tower staff to cargo handlers, and the pilots. Another propaganda point which is a constant feature of lies is that there is a huge burden of wages on the airline—but what is never said is whose wages they are talking about. The largest portion of wages goes to the management and the many directors, whose only job is to draw hundreds of thousands of rupees worth of wages while plundering and abusing the facilities of PIA. Current CEO Bernd Hildenbrand’s take-home salary is reportedly $30,000 a month, while 214 directors and managers are getting pay of more than Rs. 0.5 million or $4,600 per month each, excluding house rents and other perks and privileges. Out of a total workforce of around 15,000, in a country where the minimum wage is Rs. 14,000 per month, or $130 per month, this is huge plunder. The collective pay of all the workers of PIA constitutes a very small proportion of total expenditures. Another claim made is that all the profitable airlines of the world are private airlines, which is another attempt at lies, falsehood, and deceit. Since the world capitalist crisis of 2008, the airline industry as a whole is in decline and loss. The few airlines which are profitable, e.g. Middle East airlines like Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Airlines, are in fact run by the oil-rich states and are heavily subsidized, from fuel costs to facilities usage, along with fewer working staff than required, working on hellish schedules.
The policy of privatization, accompanied by corruption, sycophancy, nepotism, and conscious efforts at destruction of viability and brand of PIA, in order to force through its privatization, have now taken on horrific proportions. Staff shortages, and massive exploitation of the current staff; preferential treatment of private and foreign airlines; old airplanes; and ever increasing cuts in state investment have resulted in the incident of 7 December 2016, when flight PK-661, an ATR plane on a domestic flight from Chitral to Islamabad crashed, killing all 47 people on board, including 5 cabin crew. The death of a prominent mullah in the crash was hyped by the media to avoid accountability for the crash, and no assurances were given as to whether such incidents will be avoided in the future, and that the safety of PIA workers and passengers will be assured. Instead, this incident is being used as a pretext to further speed up the privatization process, and the government has tried its best to bury the whole incident as quickly as possible. This has further increased the likelihood of such incidents happening more frequently in the future. The government has already converted the national flag carrier from a publicly owned entity into a private limited company through a bill in the parliament to make the selloff easier. Political parties of every color and ilk are party to this black crime.
The question arises as to why the government is hell-bent on selling a gargantuan publicly owned enterprise for peanuts, which no single company or even a consortium of companies can buy outright? The clear reasons are contracts, kickbacks, collusion with the Qatari and Turkish ruling elites and the local private airline operators; dreams of housing societies and shopping malls on the exclusive and lucrative lands of PIA; and the plunder of investor sub-companies of the airline and various lucrative local and international hotels owned by the airline. PIA owns elite hotels near JFK airport in New York and at Champs Elysee in Paris, along with many others. For this reason, the airline and the airports will be cut up like sacrificial lambs, and various pieces will be sold off to partners and cronies.
Before the February 2016 strike, the government had been lying through its teeth, saying that the process of privatization would not affect a single worker and that the airline would be turned into a profit-making entity. To destroy this edifice of deceit, one does not need to go too far. When Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) was being privatized in 2005, similar assurances and promises were given. At that time a military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, was ruling the country, and now a so-called democratic transition has been made. But the policies and tactics are all the same. The balance sheet after the privatization of PTCL speaks for itself. In the last 11 years, 38,000 workers have been laid off while the profit of the enterprise has decreased from Rs. 30 billion ($280 million) to Rs. 8 billion ($74 million), which now goes straight into the pockets of Etisalat (the Dubai-based company which bought PTCL). The workers who were laid off largely remain destitute and unemployed. In the last couple of years, little new hiring has been done, all on contract or daily wages with maximum exploitation and none of the basic facilities of permanent employment. Whatever money was earned by the state after selling off 26% of its shares and giving up management control of PTCL has been spent in laying off the workers and paying off debts and technical fees. The total value of PTCL has dropped from Rs. 358 billion ($3.3 billion) to Rs. 53 billion ($495 million), which means that the remaining shares of the state have lost a total value of around Rs. 225 Billion ($2.1 billion). The stocks are in shambles, while the private cellular companies have not only increased their market share, but now a majority of the profits from the market flows into these private companies’ accounts. The condition and the crisis of PTCL perpetuated in the last eleven years is enough to open up the eyes of every worker in Pakistan and make very clear the anti-labor policies of the state. Now the remaining 16,000 PTCL workers are being laid off, after which there will not a single permanent employee in the company.
The year 2017 is a critical year for the public enterprises in the line of fire for privatization. The government has to fulfill its commitment to the IMF by fast-tracking the privatization of PIA, all the companies of WAPDA, and Pakistan Steel Mills. The government has been trying to privatize different public entities since 2013, and has had some success in healthcare, education, banks, water, sewerage, and municipality, where large portions have been put on contractual running. The government has divested almost all of its shares, but has not been successful in many other departments, due to fierce resistance by workers. It is becoming increasingly clear to the workers that instead of fighting isolated struggles in their own departments and enterprises, the struggle has to be taken to every section of the working class, and the workers need to unite as a class to fight against the state policies of privatization.
For this, while it is necessary to build a loyal, audacious, and responsible labour leadership, there is also an urgent need to form a common platform, with a common strategy and program, through which not only the privatization policy, privatization commission, and privatization ministry is lobbed off to the dustbin, but also all the industries and entities which have already been privatized could be renationalized, along with all the other commanding heights of economy. Every worker must be given a minimum wage equal to 10 grams of gold; the right to unionize must be must be fully enforced; and the state must not only centrally plan and invest in all departments, but also ensure quality employment for youth.
2 February 2017 will not only be the first anniversary of the heroic struggle of workers of PIA against privatization, but also the anniversary of the first martyrs, Anayat Raza and Saleem Akbar, of the anti-privatization struggle in Pakistan. This day is not only a pledge to the martyrs and workers of PIA to continue the workers’ struggle, but also a day which will prove to be a milestone in the class struggle for years to come.
Red Workers Front is organizing protests and public meetings in different cities across the country to observe this day as a Black Day in the history of Pakistan. RWF has also produced a pamphlet in large numbers with following program and demands:
A murder case of PIA employees should be registered against the Prime Minister, Chief Minister Sindh, and the DG Rangers, and immediate action taken against them.
An irreconcilable struggle against all anti-worker political parties and those trade union leaders who support privatization.
End to Privatization. End of Privatization Commission and Ministry of Privatization.
End to all anti-worker policies in already privatized institutions, and for their renationalization.
All ad hoc and contractual employees should be made permanent in all government departments. End of contractual labour in private industry.
Minimum wage should equal 10 grams of gold.
Complete Independence of trade union activities.
Cancellation of all agreements with and debts to the IMF and World Bank.
All private banks and the commanding heights of economy should be nationalized, without any compensation, under the democratic control of workers.
All the income from above two points should be spent on health, education, energy, and other welfare projects for people.
Workers of the world unite!