The Workers' Plight in Pakistan

The Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign national organiser, Khalid Bhatti, reports on what the situation is like for workers in Pakistan and the role of the PTUDC in fighting for workers' and trade union rights.

Pakistan is a country of 140 million, where about 3.7 million people are in the workforce in the public sector alone. More than 8,300 trade unions are registered in the public and private sectors. These unions, however, represent only 2.5% of the total workforce. In the 1990s the percentage was 6%.

The reason for this decline in union membership is massive privatisation and downsizing, an anti-trade union drive by successive regimes and anti-union laws, the collapse of the old Stalinist trade unions and leadership, the policies of the IMF and World Bank, especially in so-called structural adjustments, liberalisation and lastly a series of capitulations by the leadership of the trade unions.

The Pakistani labour movement is one of the most divided in the world. In every public sector corporation and department, many unions and associations are registered. For example, in Pakistan Railways alone, there are 13 registered trade unions and 152 associations. An association means the illegal trade unions organised in those public sector departments where union activity is banned, and the workers only can form an association which has no right to strike and other basic trade union rights. In the telecoms sector 13 registered trade unions and six associations are currently working. This is the main reason why 8,300 trade unions, 28 federations and 3 confederations represent just 2.5% of the total workforce.

In the vicious process of privatisation, downsizing and detachment that has taken place over the last 9 years more than 500,000 workers lost their jobs and are living below the poverty line. Nearly 300 people have ended their lives by committing suicide. Thousands are suffering chronic diseases like TB, cancer, heart problems, kidney failure etc...In Sindh more than 1000 workers of the Sindh Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) have been protesting for more than two years for their retirement pay. Two of them have committed self-immolation by pouring petrol on themselves and setting themselves on fire. Many others have threatened to do so in the very near future. Secondly many workers of Pakistan Steel (Karachi) tried to do the same in front of the Karachi Press Club last year.

Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign (PTUDC) members are playing a key role in the Pakistan workers' movement. In the private sector the situation is worse than ever. Working hours now average 12 hours a day. There are no holidays, and even no rest day at weekends. The formation of trade unions in the factories generally ends in bloodshed. Factory owners use not only police but also their own hired gangsters and thugs to beat, harass or even murder, to stop the process of formation of the unions. They used the same methods to crush the militant trade unions. The murder of comrade Arif Shah, the founding chairman of the Punjab Labour Federation, and the main architect of the PTUDC, is a first-hand example of these methods. He was gunned down by the hired assassins of the bosses outside his own home in Lahore.

In many factories the bosses have formed their own pocket unions. Today the average wage is still below one US dollar a day. The conditions of female workers are miserable: 14 to16 hours work a day, for a wage of 60 US cents (40 to 50 rupees daily), constant sexual harassment in the workplaces, especially the multinational pharmaceutical companies, where exploitation is carried out even more viciously. For these women workers there are no basic facilities like heath, first aid, education, transport or social security. These female workers are forced to work late at night. Last year 13 young Christian textile workers were gang-raped by thugs when they were returning home after finishing their work at midnight. There are many similar incidents in this society we live in.

PTUDC's role

The PTUDC is playing a leading role in the fight for workers' rights. For the last two years it has been in the front line of the labour movement. The PTUDC organised more than 70 public meetings against privatisation, downsizing, price hikes, unemployment and other anti-worker policies of the present regime, and more recently against the present imperialist war in Afghanistan.

We have printed more than 20,000 posters against privatisation and down-sizing. We have also printed thousands of posters against the present imperialist aggression in Afghanistan. We have participated and intervened in every struggle and the movement of the workers in Pakistan. We forced the present regime to back down from the privatisation of many state-owned corporations and factories. Especially in the telecoms and fertiliser sectors.

We are also playing a key role in the teachers' movement in Sindh and Punjab. We have led movements in the sugar industry in Sindh and Punjab. We successfully led a movement of the postal workers where trade union rights have been restored after our intervention. 5000 jobs were saved by the courageous efforts of our comrades in Baluchistan. We also successfully won the fight in the health sector.

Our leading comrades have been reinstated in Sindh. They are back on the job now. Our campaign also saved the jobs of our Karachi organizer who works in Pakistan Steel Mills. We could never have won these fights without the support and help of the international workers' movement. These international campaigns have developed a sense of workers' unity and internationalism in Pakistan. This has also raised the morale of every comrade and especially of every trade union activist. In the words of comrade Hameed Khan, their morale is as high as Himalayan heights.

With your help, we will win!