BOLSTERING TRADE UNIONISM
Dr Noman Ahmed Political Economy June 7, 2020
It is vital to review the status and performance of trade unions in fulfilling their desired roles for the workers they represent
In an important appeal filed by a major gas supply utility, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled on May 22, that “purported arrangement/contract between the company and their purported labour contractors could not be allowed to be used as a device to deprive the workers of their legitimate and fundamental right of forming a union or becoming part of it”.
This verdict has been hailed by rights activists and trade unionists across the country as a major relief for labourers hired through various labour contractors. It is vital to review the status and performance of trade unions in fulfilling their desired roles for the workers they represent and the interest of enterprises where they serve.
Many a social science researches regarded trade unions as one of the most effective institutions for the well-being of diversified worker classes. They evolved from such contexts which were the launching grounds of industrial revolution. Under rapid technological advancements that aimed at achieving prosperity and wealth in the first place, a vast segment of the western worker cadres was acutely exploited.
Whether manual craft guilds or high scale labour intensive industries, the employer was the final authority to decide on labour affairs. After remaining disarrayed and aloof for a sizable time, the workers realised that the solution to their sufferings lay in internal organisation and collective bargaining. A very powerful platform of human organisation evolved that attempted to change the social processes far beyond the worker-employer relationship. It filled a political vacuum by providing options, leadership and organised manpower.
The rise of trade unionism in the early twentieth century had a direct relationship with an emerging political ideology – socialism under an all-left leadership and paradigm. The phenomenon spread to every cross-section of society and the flow of fresh ideas, progressive approaches and intellectual input contributed significantly to bolstering the position of the labour force.
With the eclipse of socialism as an alternative political ideology, the world appears to be impoverished in visions to choose from and apply for collective benefit. The stringent control of the market forces on all segments of social and economic life has left trade unions in tatters. The trade unions are now left to grapple with the aftermath of the new world order which thrives on new market procedures.
Public institutions and production houses around the world – which were the real arsenal of strength for trade union movement – are being privatised. The trade unions in these sectors were hardly able to make a difference, let alone handle the policy moves.
The role of trade unions seems therefore to have shrunk. Whether in lobbying for universal rights or dealing with specific cases of mal-treatment and injustice, the unions seem to have lost their battle against juggernaut of globalisation.
The problem is not confined to Pakistan. It is being witnessed in all quadrants of the developed and the developing world. Despite being an institutional platform which once generated outstanding leadership, trade union movement is on the run for its survival.
Trade unionism in Pakistan was affected by the military dictatorships that ruled the country for more than half the time since independence. Despotic military rulers tried to muzzle any potential platform for organised resistance.
Workers’ organisations were among their prime targets along with student unions, political parties, journalists’ bodies and lawyers’ associations. Workers were thus left at the mercy of often-hostile managements.
Trade unions have also been affected by internal strife. Many trade union leaders act on whims in blatant disregard of the larger benefit to the community they represent. A well-known trade union leader from a nationalised commercial bank connived with the management in its downsizing drive in 1996. He and a handful of his cronies retained their jobs.
Elected governments too have been using coercive tactics. In 1992, in the foremost steel manufacturing plant in Karachi, the government banned the trade union and planted a man in uniform to weed out opposition from trade unions. This was made possible by a clandestine deal between the pro-establishment administration and a few black sheep among union leaders.
Similar incidences in recent times have shown that internal weakness and vulnerability to outside pressures rarely allow unions to put up meaningful resistance.
This has allowed private sector businesses to dictate terms to workers in their organisations. Private businessmen, industrialist and corporate organisations have always regarded unions as a deadly threat to their profits. However, there was a time when they found them forced to negotiate with them.
Over time, they appear to have found other alternatives. To circumvent unions, contract labour is now replacing permanent employment. Some of the leading cartels have done away with organised labour unions by forcing employees to change their status.
From textiles to publishing, garments to flour mills and automobile assembly to chemical plants, contract labourers have replaced career workers. In case of slightest disagreement, a worker can be fired without even assigning a reason or serving a notice. The pickets, hunger strikes, closures and street protests of the past are no longer viable options. Managements use such incidents as a pretext for harsh measures against workers.
In order to develop workable options for their members, trade unionis must study the situation carefully and analyse it in an objective manner. They need to continuously educate and inform themselves about the existing laws forthcoming changes in government policies.
There is a need also to establish links with intellectuals. Trade unionists must drop the conventions and adopt innovations. They need to raise their power by improving the tradability of their skills and experience.
Through challenges like the present and post-Covid 19 closures, impending lay-offs and more, trade unionists must be prepared for tough negotiations with their employers.
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LABOUR LEADERS DEMAND HIGH-LEVEL COMMISSION TO PROBE PSM AFFAIRS
Shazia Hasan 08 Jun, 2020
KARACHI: Labour representatives against the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills and dismissal of its employees alleged on Sunday that Amir Mumtaz, chairman of the board of directors of Pakistan Steel Mills, was an American citizen and business partner of a sitting federal minister.
In a joint statement issued here, they demanded that a high-level commission be set up to investigate the causes of the PSM’s collapse, which should also hear allegations of abuse of the mills’ employees.
“Pakistan Steel Mills was pushed towards deficit in a planned manner. The company had a profit of over Rs10 billion in 2007-08 while it had an inventory of about Rs11 billion and Rs12 billion in its account. But due to wrong planning, the company incurred a deficit of Rs26 billion with in spin of one year, 2009.
“This was largely due to the cancellation of international raw material procurement agreements in 2006, which caused irreparable damage to the mills by pretending to purchase locally. However, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed with the Russian government to get the company back on its feet. The Russian government has reportedly offered $2 billion to run the steel mills, but the reason for not taking it seriously is still unclear.”
The joint statement mentioned that in 2013-4 the then government gave a bailout package of Rs14.5 billion to continue the production process, which resulted in gradual increase in production and at one point it reached 65 per cent of the total production capacity. But for unknown reasons, the blast furnace exploded in late 2014 which severely damaged the production process.
Meanwhile, in June 2015, the Sui Southern Gas Corporation cut off the gas supply for non-payment of Rs17 billion of gas bills and put the production process to a complete standstill. The chairman of the SSGC at that time was Miftah Ismail, who did not even issue a notice against a private company ‘K-Electric’ which had to pay Rs58 billion to the corporation in respect of gas bills. “It’s a matter of fact that the mills management inked an agreement with the gas corporation that mill would pay monthly current bills while arrears would be paid in instalments but supply of gas was abruptly stopped,” the statement read.
“It is also a frightening fact that under a 1985 agreement, the power plant of Steel Mills was supplying electricity to K-Electric at Rs2 per unit which went up to only Rs2.5 per unit till the closure of the mills in 2015.
“It’s very unfortunate that anti-people elements along with the steel mafia & the land mafia also had eyed valuable machinery, conveyer belts from the seaport to the mills, modern jetty, a 100-bed hospital, a 155-megawatt power plant and an oxygen producing plant. The mafia also wants to seize the 850-acre Steel Town and the adjoining 350 acres of vacant precarious land. That is why it is constantly being propagandised that steel mills is not a viable entity , is a white elephant for the national economy, its employees are a burden on the exchequer and employees have been recruited on political grounds.
“However, the fact is that the employees of Pakistan Steel have been demanding for the last five years to start the production process of the steel mills which required only Rs25 billion to Rs30 billion, instead of providing the funds on time to run the mills. The same amount was paid in terms of salaries to the mills’ employee since 2015. It is also a fact that no new recruits have been made in the last 10 years, only those employees who have been serving in the steel mills for 15 to 20years have been made permanent.
“It’s alarming that the group that tried to buy the steel mills in 2006 for only Rs21.61 billion, its operatives are now dominating the steel mills affairs and are planning to destroy the institution which the workers will thwart in any case.
“The workers of the steel mills also submitted their case against illegal dismissals in the Supreme Court of Pakistan and hearing is fixed on May 9 in Islamabad.
“In continuation of the campaign, a protest rally will be held at the Karachi Press Club on May 8 and another peaceful rally will be held on the National Highways near Pakistan Steel Mills at 10am on May 9.
The joint statement also demanded that:
- The illegal and inhumane decision to dismiss the employees of Steel Mills should be withdrawn.
- Stop privatisation of Steel Mills and other public enterprises on the dictates of IMF.
- A high-level commission should be set up to identify the elements that could lead to the demise of a major institution like Steel Mills.
- Provide one-time funding for rehabilitation of Steel Mills with a well-planned road map.
- Meaningful consultation should be initiated with reputed professionals and steel mills employees’ representatives to start the production process of the mills.
- Ensure timely payment of dues and pensions.
- The Sindh government should raise its voice against the privatisation of steel mills with the Council of Common Interest as the Steel Mills land belongs to the Sindh government.
The joint statement was signed, among others, by Nasir Mansoor, Secretary General of the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan, Akbar Narejo, Convener of the Pakistan Steel Mills Trade Union Alliance and Karamat Ali, Convener of the National Labour Council.
Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2020
NIFT UNION URGES MANAGEMENT TO CONSIDER ITS CHARTER OF DEMANDS
Shazia Hasan 10 Jun, 2020
KARACHI: The All Pakistan NIFT Employees Union (CBA) held a press conference at the Karachi Press Club on Tuesday to clear certain ‘misconceptions’ being associated with their institution.
Mohammad Fahim Khan, the general secretary of the All Pakistan NIFT Employees Union, said that the National Institutional Facilitation Technologies (Pvt) Ltd, or NIFT, was basically a monetary institution working under licence of the State Bank of Pakistan.
Cheques from some 42 commercial banks in Pakistan get clearance through NIFT amounting to transactions worth billions every day. “Understanding the sensitivity of their work, the employees of NIFT at their branches in some 25 cities of Pakistan work 24/7 to the best of their abilities to keep the countrywide monetary transactions going on,” he said.
“But these employees face several difficulties in their work which the All Pakistan NIFT Employees Union wants to resolve through dialogue, but the management has continuously been hurling allegations at them and the union. They say that the collective bargaining agents are troublemakers hindering work,” he said, adding that this was also the reason why they have had to come out and present their case before the media.
Enforcement of Essential Services Act criticised
He further explained that the All Pakistan NIFT Employees Union (CBA) had in February 2019 put before the management certain demands which were ignored.
The federal government decided to impose the Essential Services Act on NIFT due to which there was a restriction on union activities, he said. “We have challenged the step in the Sindh High Court so we are not going to discuss the details of that case here,” he said.
“But the employees of NIFT are suffering badly due to inflation and the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. Despite the lockdown, they didn’t miss work.
“We want to tell our fellow countrymen that we understand the difficulties faced by the people of our country in these testing times. We will not take any wrong or unlawful step that may make NIFT look bad. But we also want to say that we are not with elements who are against workers. We are also against retrenchments and firing of employees,” he said.
“We want the management of NIFT to start talking to us and consider our charter of demands. We also want standard operating procedures at work so that employees can work keeping proper social distancing according to the standards of the World Health Organisation. We also want health insurance for them and the management to pay for their Covid-19 tests in case they need to be tested,” he demanded.
Other unions support demands
The All Pakistan NIFT Employees Union (CBA) was supported in their quest for their rights by various other trade unions.
Habibuddin Junaidi of the Employers Federation of Pakistan said that it was very sad that the government was ‘against’ trade unions. “This government should be looking at how it can increase employment in the country. Instead it is bent on making more and more people jobless like it is doing with the Pakistan Steel Mills workers and the polio workers,” he said.
Zulfiqar Shah of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research said that technically the Essential Services Act did not even apply to the NIFT.
He said that where the union was doing good work for employees they were seen by the management as villains who needed to be gotten rid of in some way or the other. “But they don’t understand that when you take away rights of workers, you also won’t be able to deal with crisis situations,” he said.
Nasir Mansoor of the National Trade Union Federation said that this was the first time in the history of this country that the Essential Services Act was being imposed on a private institution.
Zehra Khan of Home-Based Women Workers Federation criticised the Essential Services Act, which she said was created to cut off trade unions and the rights of workers. “So it is important that all of us trade unionists put up a united front. The government is doing whatever it can because of the hefty IMF loans. We are dealing with people who will do anything for money,” she said.
Liaquat Sahi of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Democratic Workers Union said that ‘selected’ governments like to go against the country’s Constitution to make bureaucracy and profiteers happy. “Does the government realise that throttling trade unions will also affect exports and imports?” he said.
Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2020
ABUSE OF DOMESTIC CHILD LABOUR
14 Jun, 2020
EDITORIAL: Her family had sent her all the way from Kot Addu in southern Punjab to Rawalpindi to look after a baby in return for education and a decent living. Instead eight-year-old Zohra was brutally beaten to death for letting her employers’ pet parrots fly away. The girl was brought to hospital while unconscious but still alive. According to police report, she had injuries on her face, hands, below her rib cage and legs. She also had wounds on her thighs, which suggested she may have been subjected to sexual assault as well. The accused couple has since been in police custody undergoing investigations. It is hard to imagine how anyone could treat a child so heartlessly.
Sadly, however, incidents involving physical abuse of underage domestic workers are quite common in this country particularly in its Punjab province. They come to light only when the child either dies or catches media attention. A couple of years ago, 10-year-old Tayyaba, who worked as domestic help for a district and sessions judge, nearly died after the then judge and his wife subjected her to severe beating and illegal confinement merely because a broom had gone missing. That being a highly publicized case, the couple was sentenced to three years in prison – later reduced to one year – and Rs 500,000 fine each. Still, stories of violence against underage domestic workers keep surfacing every now and then. There is the horrific example of Uzma who died in Lahore in February last year after she was brutally beaten for taking a bite out of the plate of her employers’ daughter.
Child labour is a major problem in this country. According to a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report, an estimated 12 million children work in different fields, including hazardous occupations barred by law. Worst off are domestic servants, especially minor girls, as they are more vulnerable to physical abuse. There is no way poor people can be dissuaded from sending their small children to work and supplement family incomes. It is imperative therefore that the government provide them with necessary protections. Commendably for her, Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari is taking serious interest in the present case as well as the wider issue. She has been monitoring police investigations. Also, she said in a Twitter post that her ministry has proposed declaring domestic child labour hazardous under the Employment of Children Act, 1991. That would be an important step forward but its implementation not so easy as long as other things – poverty and illiteracy levels – remain the same. Considering that people can hire help for as little as Rs 3,000 – in Zohra’s case – to Rs 10,000 and poverty-stricken parents are willing to accept that, underage domestic labour is not stoppable for the foreseeable future. In any event, the government should consider making it mandatory for all employers to register any new hire with the local police stations. That way, neighbours or others can call the police to protect defenceless abused child servants.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2020