Pakistan: New trade union federation to organise the fightback against bosses’ attacks

The Progressive Workers’ Federation of Pakistan unites almost 500,000 workers against privatisations and sackings, and to defend workers’ rights.

In Pakistan a new left-led trade union federation, Progressive Workers Federation of Pakistan (PWFP), is being built, in which members of Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP) – part of the Committee for a Workers International – are playing a key role. The Socialist spoke to PWFP finance secretary and SMP leader Khalid Bhatti about this important new development.

How did the initiative for this new trade union federation arise, and what is the role of Socialist Movement Pakistan in it?

We started building the new federation last year but it was not officially registered until 25 February 2010. It arose out of the Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan (TURCP) that was formed in 2005 to organise a fightback against privatisation and attacks on workers rights, and to share and learn from experiences and information in the workers movement. Many workers were not aware of the labour laws and their rights, such as what to do if sacked or victimised. So we started a campaign of awareness, but the main aim was to organise a fightback.

Any worker could join TURCP, and it was set up in all the main cities. Workers from over 100 national and regional trade unions attended its first national convention in Lahore. Afterwards, some union officials and activists in TURCP thought we should go further than a campaign, and set up a registered trade union federation, because as a campaign it is difficult to represent workers in an official capacity.

After long discussions, in 2008 we started consultation with trade union activists and officials about the new federation and in 2009 we moved on to sort out the technical side of it.

Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP) has been fully involved throughout. Four of the nine officials of the new federation are members of SMP, including the Secretary General. Two of the others were part of TURCP alongside us and others, and the other three are new to both TURCP and PWFP.

Why was it necessary to build a new formation? What were its founding principles and policies?

All the other trade union federations are like NGOs, involved in projects of the International Labour Organisation, various Social Democrat linked parties and bodies in Europe etc, and they make no serious effort to build a working class movement. Also, when we visit workers in the industrial areas, they ask which industrialists have hired you to spy on us? because the private sector federations have such a bad reputation. Some of the officials are collaborating with the bosses and secretly receiving payments for it.

But there are genuine class fighters on the ground who want to organise a fightback against the bosses attacks. TURCP had a proud record of fighting for workers interests, for instance it was involved in leading the strike of telecom workers in 2005. It led a national campaign against privatisation, something that no other union federation has done, at least not seriously they just have photo shoots and demonstrations for the media. So we decided that an alternative leadership is necessary.

The new federation has been set up to assist workers struggles and resistance, and to help workers to organise. We want to rebuild the organised workers movement, as it has virtually collapsed. We also want to play a role in educating workers on the economic and political policies of the government and on the struggles of workers internationally. We stand for solidarity with workers internationally and that is part of our policies and principals; we will give solidarity to workers struggles in any country.

What size is the federation and how is it structured?

So far it encompasses 23 trade unions. The total number of workers in these unions, together with workers who have joined the federation as individual members, is just under half a million. Every union has equal representation on the federations Executive Board regardless of the unions size. The Board consists of the presidents and secretary generals of each union plus the nine elected officers, so it has 55 members. It is meeting roughly every three months.

Which sectors of industry and services are these unions in?

The private sector unions involved include unions from the following industries: pharmaceuticals, chemicals, textiles, power generation, ceramics, telecoms, transport, the informal sector, agriculture and the commercial sector.

The public sector unions include unions from: television, radio, rail, post, banking, gas and health.

Does the federation cover all the provinces and major cities in Pakistan?

Yes it covers all areas because it includes national unions that exist in all parts of the country. Some private sector unions in the North West Frontier Province are part of the federation, but none of the public sector unions in that province are involved. In both NWF province and Baluchistan the present armed conflict means it is difficult to develop our trade union work in those regions. Nevertheless we are pushing ahead with trying to do so, despite the enormous difficulties.

What issues is the federation taking up at the moment and what workers struggles is it currently involved in?

We are campaigning on three issues. Firstly, for implementation of the legal minimum wage in the private sector. Public sector workers receive at least the minimum wage but most private sector workers receive less.

Secondly, against privatisation. And we link campaigning against retrenchments and the price hikes of basic goods with our anti-privatisation work, because a free hand to make these attacks has been given to the private owners. Basic foods and utilities have increased in price by between 80% and 350% in just two years. Workers on Pakistani wages are paying international prices! Most workers in the private sector receive pay of only 80-100 a month and for public sector workers it is 130-160 a month. Yet mutton now costs 4.50 per kilogram and chicken is over 2 per kilogram.

Thirdly, for the repeal of all anti-trade union, anti-worker laws. Three anti-union laws have been repealed by the government but others remain. We want new pro-trade union policies on labour rights and industrial relations similar to those introduced in 1926 (the right to form unions, the right to strike etc), which the British trade union movement helped Pakistani workers achieve at that time. The government is presently preparing new labour laws, but without consulting any of the trade union federations as yet.

We are currently involved in three workers struggles:

·        10,000 stone crushing workers in Sargodha, Punjab, were on strike for a week for a pay increase and for the arrest of five plant owners who were responsible for shooting dead five of the strikers. These workers have now achieved a victory, with a pay increase agreed and the five owners arrested.

·        A campaign against rail privatisation. Rail workers staged countrywide demonstrations last week involving around 30,000 workers.

·        A campaign in Punjab for a pay rise by lower-grade civil service clerks. They are going on a partial strike of two hours each day and are organising demonstrations.

What is the federation planning to do on May Day?

In Pakistan there is a strong tradition of having united workers demonstrations and rallies on May Day. This means that in some areas we will participate in demonstrations organised by other bodies such as May Day committees, while in other areas (particularly in parts of Sind and Punjab provinces) we ourselves will be the main organisers and other organisations will come to participate.

For the May Day events, PWFP will be producing a leaflet in two languages (Urdu and Sindhi) and also a poster. SMP will produce a special issue of its paper. There are plans for PWFP to start producing a paper from this summer.

Is there any tradition of socialist ideas being present in the workers’ movement?

Yes. There is a strong left tradition in the labour movement in Pakistan. In fact, the left built the Labour movement in the 1950s and 60s. In Pakistan, it was not the unions that built the parties, but instead, the left wing organisations that built the unions and the labour movement. Out of the 5 largest trade union federations, three were once on the left.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, the left was the dominating force in the Labour movement in Pakistan and socialist ideas were accepted by wide layers of the working class as the way out of abject poverty and super-exploitation and repression.

But the situation changed after the collaps of the Soviet Union, because the Stalinist-influenced left collapsed as well. The left-wing trade union leaders abandoned socialist ideas and became more pro-capitalist. As a result of this, the labour movemont almost collapsed.

SMP (CWI in Pakistan) is involved in the struggle to rebuild and strengthen the labour movement in Pakistan. We have formed some new unions in sectors in which no unions existed. We also try to strengthen already existing unions.  Alongside this, we are also raising the banner of socialism in the workers’ movement and the trade unions.

In my view, and in the view of SMP, the only way forward for the working class is socialism. And to achieve socialism, it is necessary to overthrow the existing capitalist and feudal system.

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April 2010