Pakistan: 50,000 Telecom workers join countrywide strike

16 workers injured in clashes with paramilitary forces

Thousands of telecom workers employed by PTCL workers are on the strike. PTCL is the largest telecom company in Pakistan. Most telecom offices and telephone exchanges are closed and locked up by the striking workers. The telecom head quarters remained closed for 3 days because striking workers organized pickets at the main gates of head quarters. All the gates at the building were padlocked and closed.

16 workers were then injured when paramilitary forces tried to forcibly open the gates and break the picket line. They used tear gas and baton charge to disperse the workers. They also fired live bullets into the air to try and frighten the striking workers. Yet as an indication of the militancy of the workers involved the use of such brutal force has failed to break the strike or the resolve of the workers involved. This is the biggest protest movement and strike action since the privatization of PTCL in 2005.

The protest and strike movement of telecom workers has now entered its fourth day. But a complete stoppage has taken place in the main cities – Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. In the rest of the country a partial strike has taken place. This strike and protest movement has been launched against the new pay scale called Unified Pay Scale (UPS), introduced by the PTCL management. They are attempting to reverse many concessions won in previous struggles.

The management has also refused to regularize the employment of contract employees who have in many cases been employed by them for many years. There was a wide spread anger amongst the workers against the anti worker policies of the management. The present management took over from the former state owned telecom company following privatization in August 2005. The new management, from Dubai, has no interest in the problems of telecom workers.

The management from the Dubai based telecom company, Etisila, is now trying to punish the workers for organizing a month long strike and protest movement against privatization in 2005. Anger amongst the workers was building up for some time against the management because of its failure to fulfill agreements. The issue of new pay scales (UPS) and contract workers (NPCG) finally provoked an explosion of anger and the workers decided to take action.

Spontaneous action from the below

The present strike and protests came as a big surprise for both the management authorities and the trade union leadership. The anger of the workers was reflected in the eruption of this movement from the rank and file which compelled the leadership to join in the struggle. The main leadership of telecom unions was not showing any interest in the struggle for three years. They had become silent spectators.

The workers and union activists were disappointed in the leaders because of their betrayal of the anti privatization strike in 2005. Both the union leadership and management used this disappointment and indifference to justify their anti workers policies. The union leadership was arguing that workers are not interested in struggle so they would not organize resistance and opposition against the attacks on working conditions and rights. The workers themselves organized several spontaneous strikes and protests at local level in different cities against the attacks. However, to start with these were not on a mass or national level.

The present dispute began when contract workers (NPCG) started their movement for the regularization of their contracts. They organized an action committee and started protests. No union was really involved at the beginning and only the Trade Union Rights Campaign of Pakistan (TURCP) members supported them.

However, the management refused to negotiate and sacked 260 contract workers from their jobs. The contract workers then started a hunger strike in front of telecom head quarters for an indefinite period. Trade union activists then started to join these workers and some political parties also started to intervene. The sackings and the new pay scales provoked the workers and laid the basis for the current strike and protests. The strong spontaneous action from the workers then forced the unions to join in the struggle.

PPP intervention

The “labour wing” of governing Pakistan Peoples Party (Peoples Labour Bureau) intervened through some union leaders and contract workers. The person in charge of PPP labour wing and national secretariat is the former PPP MP Manzoor Ahmad – member of Class Struggle the Pakistani section of the International Marxist Tendency led by Alan Woods. Since loosing his parliamentary seat Manzoor Ahmad has become a senior PPP official and he intervened in the protests of contract workers. He assured them that they would be re-instated. But the management refused to reinstate the sacked workers. He then organized several meetings between workers and federal ministers, which raised the hopes of some workers and they started to rely on him.

However, as soon as the main unions joined the struggle and movement started to develop onto a larger scale, the PPP labour wing started to loose the control over the movement. On 15th July, with the support of PPP labour wing , some union leaders without consulting other union leaders decided to lockout the main gates of telecom head quarters. But on next day under pressure from top PPP leaders, the leader of the Labour wing, Manzoor Ahmad, announced to end of the strike and lockout. But workers and union leadership refused to call off the strike and announced an indefinite strike and more protests.

Now the PPP led government is using all the dirty tricks used by the Musharaf regime during the anti privatization strike. The PPP, the so called “champions of workers rights” are now being exposed as the defenders of pro-capitalist and anti working class policies. On the one hand the PPP government is trying to give the impression that it is a pro-workers government but on the other hand it continues with the neo-liberal economic policies of privatization and the free market economy.

The PPP government is also continuing the tradition of Musharaf regime of dealing with the strikes and workers protests through the Ministry of interior and the police. In the past, the Ministry of Labour was used to deal with the industrial disputes. Now it is the Ministry of the Interior which means the threat of repression and increased fear. The PPP government has involved the Ministry of the Interior in this industrial struggle. They are trying to pressure on the leadership and activists to accept the government offer or face the music.

The PPP leaders intervened in the movement not just to support the workers but also to put pressure on the management to accept certain demands of the government. The government is using this strike and protests for its own interests.

The workers have refused to listen to the PPP leaders and are still continuing the strike and protests.

Role of the TURCP

TURCP members who are also national leaders of the telecom unions are actively participating in the protests and strike. TURCP members are not only actively participating in the movement but also working for unity amongst the workers. The TURCP is also trying to bring the different unions together in one platform to strengthen the strike. The TURCP is fully supporting this movement and actively organizing solidarity for the striking workers. The successful strike in telecom sector will inspire the other workers to take action. This movement can lay the basis for a new waves of working class struggles.

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July 2008