Pakistan telecoms workers fight privatisation
"THIS IS the biggest challenge to President Musharraf of Pakistan from the trade unions on the question of privatisation since he came to power in 1998." These words from Azad Qadri, (a member of the Socialist Movement Pakistan -CWI in Pakistan – and National Deputy Secretary General of the Lions Unity Union), drew a roar of approval from the 6,000 Telecom workers occupying the headquarters of the Pakistan Telecommunications Company Ltd (PTCL). The occupation is part of their national strike against privatisation.
61,000 PTCL workers have been on all-out strike since 26 April 2005 as part of a campaign for wage increases, better conditions and an end to the attempt to privatise the company by the government. Since the beginning of the strike not a single PTCL depot has been open around the country – the strike is solid.
These workers have not received a wage increase since 1998 – but just in the last year petrol and diesel prices have increased by 250%. And yet the company made, according to some estimates, between £300 million-£400 million in profit in the same period.
A nine-union Action Committee has been set up to coordinate the struggle. The workforce is extremely radicalised and angry. They distrust some of the union leaders intensely. Some union leaders were forced by the workers to publicly swear an oath on the Koran not to betray the strike!
Socialist Movement Pakistan (CWI in Pakistan) members are part of the leadership in one of the Telecoms unions, the Lions Unity Union and have played a leading role in the strike. The Trade Union Rights Campaign – Pakistan (TURC-P), which Socialist Movement members are involved in, is a national platform fighting in defence of union rights and against privatisation. It has organised an international solidarity campaign and produced thousands of leaflets to be distributed throughout the country on the strike.
This struggle, still in its opening stages, has extremely high stakes. For the Pakistani elite and military, continued super-profits and its massive privatisation programme are under threat. For some companies directly involved in the bidding for PTCL shares, this is about a rip-off of gigantic proportions. The privatised sections of the company are expected to be sold for $2.5 billion but even independent capitalist economists calculate they are worth double that.
For the Pakistani working class this is about defending jobs and conditions of millions of public sector workers and their families. But unlike in Europe, this is a struggle between a fingertip hold on bare survival and being driven over the edge into starvation and destitution. This is why the slogans of the strikers often resonate with the chant: "Struggle or death".
Telecom workers have already been told that 50% of the workforce is surplus to requirement because of new technology. Privatisation will mean these workers are sacked. And given the experience in Pakistan of privatisation up to now, new private companies will conduct a ‘slash and burn’ operation on the conditions of the rest of the workforce.
Management have conducted a carrot and stick approach in the negotiations – attempting to exhaust the strike in an attempt to cause divisions amongst the unions. In the negotiations they offered a 20% wage increase and concessions on back holidays for the workforce. But management also insisted that the trade unions sign an agreement not to campaign against privatisation.
The state has also intervened in this strike, deploying paramilitary police at the main depots, raiding the homes of trade union activists over the weekend and now beginning to use military helicopters to conduct surveillance of the picket lines.
In a reaction to this, over the weekend the Action Committee dropped all their demands apart from calling for an end to privatisation. Management left the negotiations and the Action Committee publicly announced that they would no longer be prepared to have further talks with them. The unions also warned that any further arrests would lead to the shutting off of the entire telecommunications system, crippling industry and the economy.
The government is under huge pressure. The bidding process for the privatisation is due to be completed by 10 June. Obviously no company is going to bid for a company whose workers are out on strike. But if the government makes a concession on privatisation of PTCL, this will put their whole privatisation programme in doubt. This is why there is a danger that the government could attempt to use overwhelming military force to crush the strike.
But in a desperate attempt to keep talks going, the government’s Privatisation Commission called the unions into negotiations on Tuesday 31 May. The next week could be decisive for the struggle.
This strike is one which socialists and trade unionists internationally can assist. Hundreds of messages of protest were sent over the weekend to the Minister of Telecommunications and IT, while the TURC-P received similar numbers of solidarity letters. Trade union leaders say these messages were instrumental in forcing the state to temporarily withdraw its harassment tactics.
At a mass meeting of 6,000 telecomm workers on Monday, solidarity letters from Socialist MP, Joe Higgins and PCS President Janice Godrich and many others to huge cheers from the audience.
Letters of solidarity to the Trade Union Rights campaign at firstname.lastname@example.org