Pakistan: Railway workers on the move

20,000 jobs under threat – protesting workers forced the authorities to retreat

Thousands of railway workers took to the streets of Lahore against the planned retrenchment of 20,000 jobs announced by the railway authorities in the middle of January. More than 5000 railway workers gathered outside the railway headquarters and closed the main gate. They also organised a sit-in and protest demonstration that lasted for hours. The sit-in and protest demonstration was jointly organised by the Railway Workers Union open line and workshops. The union leaders made it very clear in their speeches that they will not accept the slaughter of jobs and further closing of train lines. They argued that if the railway authorities decided to go ahead with their plans then the unions will go out on strike. The union leaders said that they would defend the jobs and will not accept sweeping cuts in railways. The union leaders also announced plans to occupy the headquarters next week. More than 8000 workers marched out of the rally from railway headquarters and down the main roads of the city and assembled at the main square on Mall Road. The workers chanted slogans against the railway authorities and the government.

Railway authorities forced to retreated

After this powerful demonstration and rally, the railway authorities were forced to retreat and they announced that not a single worker would be sacked. But the planned loss of 39 trains is still going ahead. That means once the trains are withdrawn the authorities will use this as an excuse to retrench the 20,000 workers. The threat of immediate job losses might have gone for time being but the threat remains. Workers and union leaders will have to watch closely and be ready for another showdown in near future. This victory will give more confidence and courage to the railway workers for future battles. This is not the first time that railway workers have forced the authorities to retreat through their determined and courageous struggle. They force the PML-N government led by Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s to stop the privatisation of railways and remove it from the privatisation plans of the government. During this struggle thousands of workers continued their protest movement throughout the country for more than one month. The workers also forced the military government led by General Pervaiz Musharaf in 1999 to stop the retrenchment of thousands of jobs and other cuts. The present PPP led government is again trying to include the railways on the list of planned privatizations and wants to axe thousands of jobs.

Railway crisis deepens

The Railway Department is going through a very severe financial crisis because of rampant corruption, mismanagement and under investment. The government and railway authorities are using this crisis as an excuse to reduce the workforce and remove more than 102 passenger trains throughout the country. The railways have already removed more than 40 trains that were providing cheap travel to the rural population and to small cities and towns. The railway authorities blame

“excessive staff” and loss making trains for this financial crisis. But the main cause of the losses is rampant corruption in the top and medium level bureaucracy and mismanagement. At the moment, there is a shortage of technical staff and skilled workers on the railways. The railway management hardly made fresh appointments over the last two decades. The workforce fell from 1,017,000 to its’ present level of 86,000. Half of the 500 locomotives are out of order and the rest are not in good shape. Engine failures have become the norm during journeys and cause long delays in the journey. The railways need 6 billion rupees (60 million US dollars) to make all the locomotives workable. Nearly 90 million people used the railway for travelling every year. The removal of more trains will badly affect the millions of working people, who use the railway to go to work. Successive governments have ignored the railways and allow it to decline to the present state over the years.

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January 2011