Pakistan: telecom strike ends

Employees’ Union leaders sign deal but workers still oppose privatisation

After almost three weeks of struggle against privatisation, most Pakistan Telecommunication (PTCL) workers have returned to work. This follows national leaders of the Employees’ Union, one of the unions in the nine-union strong Action Committee, signing a deal with the government.

General Musharraf’s semi-military regime, under ferocious international pressure from its imperialist backers, was desperate to break the workers’ opposition to privatisation, fearing that it could undermine regime’s whole economic policy. They employed a combination of concessions and repression.

The concessions were quite extensive, including a 30% wage increase, no redundancies for two years for PTCL workers employed before 1992, quotas for the children of retired PTCL workers, and leave encashment of £5-600 per worker. However, in return, the government demanded that the trade unions not only end this particular struggle against privatisation but also sign a deal not to oppose privatisation, any longer.

The government’s attempt to end union opposition to privatisation was tied to the fact that it was selling the day to day management but only 26% of the shares. It feared that potential owners would be scared off buying into PTCL and that other privatisations would be challenged.

When the strikers’ Action Committee refused to give up its opposition to privatisation, General Musharraf’s government, on 11 June, deployed military units to guard PTCL installations and ordered widespread arrests of trade unionists. Over 1,100, mainly local, trade unionists were rapidly jailed. Three days later, the Employees’ Union leaders signed a deal with the government and, as one of the largest unions in the PTCL, effectively split the workforce.

Against this background, the government announced that it had decided to sell the management rights and a 26% stake in the PTCL to Etisalat, the United Arab Emirates’ state owned telecoms company. But Etisalat has said that it will not finalise the purchase until the unions drop their opposition to privatisation.

The Action Committee is still negotiating with the government but is refusing to sign a deal that includes acceptance of PTCL privatisation. Furthermore, repression must be stopped. While the local trade unionists who were arrested have been released, up to 15 trade union leaders are still detained and others, fearful that they could be arrested, are in hiding.

Opposition to Employees Union leaders

The PTCL workers’ struggle attracted widespread support, and even though work has resumed in the industry, there still remains large scale opposition to privatisation. Within the Employees Union there is widespread opposition to the union’s national leadership deal with the government. The regional union leaderships in Balochistan, interior Sindh, and Karachi announced that they are breaking away. Employees’ Union leaders have not been able to hold workplace meetings to justify their position.

Many PTCL workers are still very angry that privatisation has begun. But they do not see that their struggle has been completely defeated, rather it is regarded as both a victory and defeat – a victory in terms of the concessions won, and a defeat because the government were able to start the privatisation process.

Activists are drawing conclusions from this struggle and making plans to resist any attacks that the new Etisalat management attempt to make and to oppose any further privatisation, while continuing to demand the renationalisation of all privatised industries, this time under workers’ control and management.

International protests are still needed, demanding that all PTCL trade unionists are released from detention and that no further repressive measures are used against the telecom workers.

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June 2005