Trade unions under attack in Pakistan

19 May 2008 by Farooq Tariq

Trade unions activists in several cities of Pakistan are facing arrests, tortures and kidnapping by the bosses and state agencies. Workers are fighting back against these attacks with utmost sacrifices. The announcement by Pakistan Peoples Party government to lift restrictions on trade unions activities has brought a new wave of unionization in many private industries on the one hand while a counter current of repression by bosses on the hand.

The bosses are not used to it. They have made tremendous profits under general Musharraf 8 years of dictatorship. Although, Musharraf is still there as “President” but 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, tortures and kidnapping. Pakistan People Party government has yet to show any action against these bosses.

These views were expressed by Farooq Tariq, spokesperson Labor Party Pakistan while addressing a press conference along with several trade union leaders here on 18 May at Lahore Press Club.
On this occasion, Malik Tahir, a worker of New Khan Metro Bus Workers and Staff Rights Union, Lahore, showed several wounds on his body to the media. He was kidnapped and tortured on 16 May evening at Lahore by the bosses of the private Bus Company. His only crime was to attend a press conference and demonstration of the union to condemn the sacking of 80 drivers and conductors by the New Khan bus company. Since the formation of union on 6 May 2008, over 80 members of the union have been terminated including the entire main leadership.
Farooq Tariq told the media that the Union was registered on 6 May 2008 by the Labour Department. It the first ever union formed in the bus company, owned by a Muslim League member of parliament, Mr. Umer Hayat Rokri. He was a member of Musharraf supported PML-Q. After 18 February elections, he changed his political affiliation and joined PML Nawaz Sharif group, the ruling party in Punjab. Mr. Rokri is a well known transporter and owns several hundreds of busses. His bus company has the major share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. in Lahore transport sector. It is pertinent to mention that Lahore, (a city of over 80 million population) has no public bus service.

He said the situation of labor laws is so pathetic that there is no permanent worker in the bus company. Every body is on contract. The wages are very low. The 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. That brings less than $ 50 a month in most cases. But at the same time a sufficient part of the drivers and conductors earnings is deducted under the pretext of fines. The bus company has a record maximum number of accidents on city roads in Lahore. The reason is that drivers are forced to complete the entire route three times a day in any case. There is no way that drivers can do that in 8 hours time. If they try to do that, there is increased likelihood of accidents. And when there is an accident, the company does not take care of the employees.

None of the workers is registered at the social security and thus no social security card. The company has hired a group of gangsters who beat the drivers and conductors for petty mistake. There is no mechanism of workers protection at all in the bus company. Under Musharaf dictatorship, the bus company went on without been noticed by labor department for any violation of the labor laws, the mediamen were told.

Under these circumstances some workers deiced to fight back against this brutal behavior of the company even at the cost of their jobs. They held their secret meetings some time after the general elections. Finally, they decided to form the union. They contacted Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) leadership. LPP helped workers to publish the first poster of the union. When workers went to fly-post the poster at different bus depots, several of them were beaten by the gangsters and later were handed over to police. The police registered false cases against the leaders and arrested three of them. Later on two of them were released on bail, while one is still in jail.

Meanwhile the textile union leaders from Qasur and Faisalabad also contacted LPP and told about the rise of attacks on their members as well, Farooq Tariq told the press conference.

He said in Faisalabad the police on the instructions of the textile bosses have registered a false case against workers and five of them have been sent to jail 8 days ago. They all belong to Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM), an organization fighting for textile workers’ rights in Faisalabad. LQM mobilized over 2000 workers in protest but police did not release them.

Similar incidents has happened in Qasur and the boss who kidnapped and tortured the union activists is still not arrested despite a police case is registered against him after a massive demonstration by the union in the city, Farooq added.

The press conference was a great success. Almost all the private television channels were present and most of the print media as well. Two announcements were also made at the press conference, in case of demands are not met;
- On 22 May, Labour Party Pakistan (LLP) will hold Gherao (picket) of the bus company in Lahore in protest if the bosses are not arrested for kidnapping and workers are not reinstated by the bus company.
- On 23 May, Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM) would block Faisalabad city main roads, the third largest city of Pakistan.

There is no way back. We have to fight. The workers have shown their real commitment to form the unions. However, the PPP government is yet to fulfill their promises of a free and fair atmosphere where workers can freely form the union. LPP appealed to the PPP government to take notice of the situation or workers will have no option but to organize demonstrations, rallies and strikes to protect their basic democratic right to form the trade unions.

Farooq Tariq

is the General Secretary of the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, a network of 26 peasant organizations and a coalition member of the international platform La Via Campesina.



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