Friday, May 23, 2008

Trade Unions under attack in Pakistan

Hat tip to Faryal for this interesting and important article.

We have no option but to fight back

By: Farooq Tariq

Trade unions activists in several cities are facing arrests, tortures and kidnapping by the bosses and state agencies. Workers are fighting back against these attacks with utmost sacrifice. The announcement by the Pakistan Peoples Party government lifting restrictions on trade union activity has brought a new wave of unionization in many private industries.

The bosses are not used to it. They have made tremendous profits under General Perez Musharraf’s eight years of dictatorship. Although he is still “president” there is some breathing space. Wherever workers have tried to form new unions, bosses have tried their best to intimidate the union activists with false cases, arrests, torture and kidnapping. The Pakistan People Party government has yet to respond against these abuses by the bosses.

Along with several trade union leaders, I addressed a press conference on 18 May at the Lahore Press Club to put the spotlight on these abuses. Malik Tahir of New Khan Metro Bus Workers and Staff Haqooq Union Lahore was kidnapped and tortured on 16 May in Lahore by the bosses of the private bus company. He showed several wounds on his body to the media.

His crime? Apparently it was attending a press conference and demonstration of the union condemning the sacking of 80 New Khan Bus Company drivers and conductors. After the union was registered on 6 May 2008 by the Labour Department, over 80 members of the union were terminated, including its leadership.

The union is the first formed in the bus company. A Muslim League Member of Parliament Mr. Umer Hayat Rokri owns the company. He was a member of the Musharraf-supported PMLQ. After 18 February, he changed his political affiliation and joined the PML (Nawaz Sharf’s group). Lahore has no public bus service and his bus company, operating several hundred buses, dominates the Lahore transportation.

All workers at New Khan Bus Company are on contract. Drivers are paid a maximum of Rupees 5500 ($90) and conductors Rupees 2500 ($48) a month plus a commission system of 2.5 percent of the daily income. The majority of the drivers and conductions earn less than $50 a month. But they also are subject to fines and the company has a record number of accidents. Drivers must complete an entire route three times a day and this is an impossibility to accomplish in eight hours. Because of this pressure, there are a high number of accidents. The company takes care of the bus but not the employees. They have to take care themselves.

Because no one has permanent employment, no worker has a social security card. The company does not abide by labour laws and employed a group of gangsters at the depots. They beat the drivers and conductors for any small mistake. Under the Musharraf dictatorship, this behavior has been overlooked by the Labour Department.

Some workers deiced to fight back against this brutal behavior even at the cost of their jobs. Workers organized secret meetings following the general elections. Finally they decided to form the union. They contacted LPP office and the first union poster was printed by Pakistan Trade Unions Resource Center run by the Labour Education Foundation in Lahore . When workers went to fly-post the poster at different bus depots, several were beaten by the gangsters and later were handed over to police. The police registered false cases against the leaders, arresting three. Two were released on bail; one is still in jail.

This all was going on while I was visiting UK from 8 May to 15 May. On my first day at the LPP office on 17 May, I interviewed Malik Tahir who had been brutally beaten up the previous night. Textile union leaders from Qasur and Faisalabad also reported attacks on their members as well.

At Faisalabad , five workers have been in jail for the last eight days. The police, carrying out instructions from the textile bosses have registered a false case against them. They all belong to Labour Qaumi Movement, an organization fighting for textile workers’ rights in Faisalabad . The LQM mobilized over 2000 workers in protest.

At Qasur similar incidents have happened and the boss who is responsible kidnapping and torturing on union activists is still not arrested despite a massive demonstration by the union in the city, and filing a case against him.

As a first step, the LLP called all labour leaders to tell their stories to the media. There were more journalists than expected. Almost all the private television channels were there and most of the print media as well. It was a well-crowded press conference. We do not know how many will actually print or broad cast our news, but we had a friendly encounter with the journalists.

At the press conferences we announced that on 22 May, the Labour Party Pakistan will picket (Gherao) the New Khan Metro Bus Company in Lahore if the bosses are not arrested for kidnapping and workers rehired. The following day the LQM would block Faisalabad, Pakistan ’s third largest city.

Workers have shown their real commitment to form unions. However the PPP government has yet to fulfill their promises of a free and fair atmosphere where workers can freely organize. We appeal to the PPP government to take notice of the situation or we will have no option but to organize demonstrations, rallies and strike for the defense of our basic democratic right to form the trade unions.

Farooq Tariq
Labour Party Pakistan