Pakistan was created in the aftermath of the bloody partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947. More than 2.7 million innocent souls perished in this dastardly act. The partition was engineered by the British colonialists in connivance with the Hindu and Muslim bourgeois leaders. The movement against British rule took a sharp turn when the workers and soldiers started taking a greater role in the liberation struggle. The trade unions called nationwide strikes and the sailors hoisted red flags on the ships of the British Indian navy.
The British imperialists and national bourgeois leaders were terrified that the national liberation struggle could develop into a movement for social liberation that would overthrow capitalism, and prevent future imperialist exploitation. For the national bourgeoisie and the imperialists the possibility of future movements of the united Indian working class was a terrifying prospect. So they decided to partition the living body of India along religious lines.
After partition Pakistan’s industrial base was very weak, the main areas of trade union organisation were in sectors like the railways, postal services, the oil industry and textiles. Due to the spin-off effects of the boom in the West, there was a relatively rapid industrialization in Pakistan during this period. But industrial and economic growth did not have much impact on social development, and there was a minimal rise in the living standards of the masses.
The trade unions were limited and stringent laws were imposed by the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan during the 1960s. The contradictions created by the patterns of growth and uneven development erupted into a mass revolt of the workers in the movements of 1968-69. The workers occupied factories, ports and the railways, and there were several ‘wheel-jam’ strikes that paralysed the country. The dictatorship Ayub Khan was overthrown, but in the absence of a revolutionary leadership the movement was cut across.
The trade unions grew rapidly after this movement. In 1969 they grew from about 332 to more than 3000 registered unions. This brought trade unionism to large sections of the virgin Pakistani proletariat and in the same period the PPP government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto introduced some of the most radical reforms in Pakistan’s history. Most of the ILO regulations were brought into legislation and the right to unionise was accepted.
However, these progressive reforms started to be eaten away with the aggravation of the economic crisis, and thus the PPP government was overthrown by a military coup orchestrated by the CIA on July 4, 1977. The military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq carried out a ferocious campaign of terror and brutality. The main targets were the workers and the trade unionists. In the eleven years of the brutal dictatorship Islamic fundamentalism was used as the state ideology, in order to divide and rule the workers by separating off the politically backward sections of the working class, while attacking the advanced trade unionists. Thousands of trade unionists were tortured, imprisoned, flogged and hanged by the monstrous Zia dictatorship. Trade unions in many sectors of the economy were banned and stringent anti-union laws were imposed.
After the fall of the dictatorship in 1988, the so-called democratic regimes of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were too weak to play an independent role, and so they adhered to the dictates of imperialism and the military leadership in Pakistan. Hence very few, if any, concessions were granted to the workers and the unions.
The present regime
The current ruler of Pakistan, General Musharraf, came to power through a military coup in 1999. Musharraf’s regime is a controlled, or guided, democracy - under the jackboot of a military dictatorship. The regime has faithfully carried through the dictates of the IMF, and more rapidly so than any other regime in Pakistan’s history. The new labour policy decreed by Musharraf, over the heads of the newly elected parliament, is known as IRO 2002 (industrial relations ordinance). This ordinance represents a vicious attack on trade union rights. It has destroyed even the minimal rights that the trade unions had in the past. It has effectively taken away the right to strike. Trade union organisation has been banned in the most important sectors of the economy, such as the railways and the airlines. The right to organize has also been abolished for the workers in welfare services, the Karachi Electric Supply Company, and in several other institutions.
The Presidential ordinance of ‘hire and fire’ of 2001 has been integrated into the IRO 2002, which allows employers to hire and fire workers at will. The labour law 2A has also been retained which prohibits the right of sacked workers to appeal to the NIRC (National Industrial Relations Commission). The right of the unions to get a staying order or injunction from the NIRC has also been abolished by the IRO 2002. This means that the bosses and the government are free to abolish unions and take action against militant trade union activists. The bosses have also been granted the privilege of replacing regular workers with contract or casual labour. This has increased the number of daily waged and contract workers over those with regular jobs. There are now hundreds of thousands of such contract workers who have no access to health and other facilities available to regular employees.
Working conditions are appalling, safety standards for industrial work are very low, and workers must work long hours for very low wages. According to the IRO 2002 the minimum wage for industrial workers has been fixed at rs2500 (Approx US$41) per month. The plight of women workers and child labourers is even worse.
The state of the unions and the role of the PTUDC
Historically the trade union movement in Pakistan has been the victim of state oppression under each successive regime. This repression stretching over many years has resulted in the weakening of the unions and a falling membership. At present only 3% of the workers in Pakistan are unionised. The intrusion of state-sponsored Islamic fundamentalists into many of these organisations, has led to splits in the movement and the weakening of the unions. There are also a number of yellow, or vertical, unions set up by the bosses. The left wing and militant unions who represent the genuine interests of the workers are faced with extreme difficulties in the processes of registration and recognition.
Many of the trade union leaders in Pakistan have shown a lack of perspective, and unwillingness to struggle, which has led them to compromise with the bosses. The leadership’s sell-outs and acceptance of atrocious anti-union laws has led to the demoralisation of whole sections of workers. This has caused a massive exodus of workers from the unions over the last 30 years. Since the 1970s hundreds of thousands of organised workers have left Pakistan, mainly bound for the Gulf States, in search of better wages.
Honest and militant trade union leaders who cannot be bought or silenced are eliminated. The PTUDC (Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign) was formed in 1995 after the brutal assassination of comrade Arif Shah, President of the Punjab Labour Federation, by the hired thugs of the bosses. The main aim of the PTUDC is to protect trade union organisers and activists from the physical and economic attacks of the state and the bosses. This can only be achieved by greater unity, and by waging a courageous struggle of the unions.
The PTUDC does not believe in forming “new” union structures but in uniting and democratising the existing unions in a common platform of struggle to fight back against the attacks being carried out by the bosses and the state. The PTUDC produces leaflets, brochures, posters and literature for the education, organization and agitation of the workers in their struggles.
The PTUDC has organised many very successful campaigns. Solidarity campaigns have been launched in support of workers in the struggle against privatisations, downsizing and other aggressive measures of the bosses. In the cases of intimidation, arrest and state repression these campaigns, nationally and internationally, have played a key role in securing the release of many trade unionists. The PTUDC has also campaigned hard against the exploitation of women and children. At the moment the PTUDC is waging countrywide campaigns against IRO 2002 and its effects, and a campaign against the imperialist aggression in Iraq, which will have enormous effects in Pakistan.
PTUDC leaders and activists have led several very important struggles in different sectors of industry, and secured very important victories. The most significant victories were in the struggles of the steel workers in Karachi and the government workers in Baluchistan.
The honorary president of the PTUDC, comrade Manzoor Ahmed, has been elected to the National Assembly of Pakistan. This was a ferociously contested election. Comrade Manzoor defeated four of the richest people in Pakistan including the present Foreign Minister. The election was fought and won on the programme of workers’ emancipation, and trade union rights. The election of Manzoor was hailed as a victory for the working class throughout Pakistan. Because of this victory the PTUDC can take the workers’ demands and struggle for trade union rights into the parliament itself. The speeches and motions of comrade Manzoor, with a group of left MP’s around him, will be backed up by the rallies and demonstrations on the same issues.
But this struggle is incomplete without the support and solidarity of the trade unionists, workers and youth internationally. Hence we appeal to them to give their solidarity and support to the PTUDC. Only on the basis of a worldwide struggle can we achieve a socialist victory. We firmly believe in the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all, and the workers united can never be defeated.
Workers of the world unite!