Essential Services Act invoked to outlaw PIA strike: Workers unbowed, vow to bring operations to standstill
ISLAMABAD/KARACHI: The week-long crisis surrounding the Pakistan International Airlines took a new turn on Monday after the federal government imposed the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA), 1952, abolishing various rights of PIA employees, including that of strike, and the protesting workers rejected it and vowed to go ahead with their scheduled plan to bring flight operations to a standstill on Tuesday morning.
Taking the extreme measure, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved the imposition of the ESMA 1952, empowering the PIA management to take action against those employees who continued to abstain from their duty.
The act envisages serious penalties for the protesting employees, including dismissal from service, imprisonment for a maximum period of one year and fine.
The government’s aggressive mood could also be gauged from the statements made by ministers after the prime minister gave his consent to the imposition of the act.
Protesters will be sacked and won’t get job again, warns minister
“Essential Services Maintenance Act 1952 has been extended to PIA for six months. The prime minister has approved the summary of the Aviation Division,” said a statement issued by the Prime Minister Office.
In a stern warning, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid asked the PIA employees to end their protest, “otherwise they will be shown the door and won’t get a job again if fired”.
He was talking to journalists after attending the inaugural ceremony of a fine arts and cultural exhibition organised by the Embassy of Iran and Lok Virsa to mark the 37th anniversary of the victory of Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Mr Rashid said the prolonged protest had already caused huge losses to the national flag carrier and its management had made alternative arrangements for smooth operation of flights even if some workers went on strike.
But it was a former federal minister for environment and PML-N Senator Mushahidullah Khan who spoke candidly about the root causes of the ongoing protest and how the government intended to handle the crisis.
Senator Mushahidullah, a former PIA employee who held important positions in the airline’s union during the 1990s, told Dawn: “Pure and simple, it’s a politically motivated (protest), and the government, after exhausting all its options, has to resort to this extreme measure (imposition of ESMA 1952).”
Already in serious economic mess, the government couldn’t let the national airline bleed to death at the hands of vested interests, he said, adding that “a very limited number” of PIA employees’ union were exploiting the situation on the “directions of PPP leaders”.
In reply to a question, Mr Khan said the ESMA had been invoked a number of times in the past for PIA. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto imposed the act in 1976 and General Ziaul Haq in 1981 and the last PPP government used it against protesting pilots in 2008. “However, it’s a sad time; the PML-N government has to opt for this act first time,” he said.
Senator Khan said the PIA union could register its complaints and grievances only through the National Industrial Resolution Commission (NIRC), but disruption of flight operations couldn’t be allowed.
Even after the government’s assurance given in writing that no employee will be removed from service under its plan to revamp PIA’s organisational structure, some people in the union were not willing to listen to the government. “The government cannot accept their dictate,” he said.
WORKERS’ THREAT: Addressing a press conference at the Karachi airport, head of the Joint Action Committee of PIA employees Capt Sohail Baloch rejected the move to invoke the essential services act and warned that if the government did not drop its proposed plan to privatise the national flag carrier, no aircraft would fly after 7am on Tuesday.
He said a sensible and fair way of settling a dispute was through negotiations, adding that employees were giving the government time to reconsider its decision, listen to their demand and avoid selling the national asset.
“The employees are united in their protest and demand, but if the government uses any strong-arm tactics or force against them, they are ready to give sacrifices to save the national asset,” Mr Baloch said.
He said the employees were protesting peacefully and would continue to do so peacefully, but they would not be cowed down by the ESMA threat.
OPPOSITION REACTION: The main opposition parties – PPP and PTI – rejected the government’s move.
The PPP termed it a dictatorial decision and said it showed the mindset of the ruling PML-N.
In a statement, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah said that through such “draconian measures” the government couldn’t cow down poor workers and the PPP would stand by them against this oppression.
PTI MNA Asad Umar said: “It is a sad day that a supposedly democratic government is resorting to methods previously only used by dictators. The rights of workers cannot be suppressed through dictatorial actions.”
Meanwhile, a meeting of PTI leaders at Bani Gala, presided over by Imran Khan, decided to give a call for nationwide protests on Feb 6 against what it called growing economic oppression of the masses by the government.
“The new gas tax, diesel and petrol prices, commission-sucking Orange Line train, growing burden on workers and farmers, a non-transparent privatisation process without consulting the CCI and the tax amnesty scheme for tax evaders will be protested,” said a statement issued after the meeting.
Mr Khan made it clear that “enough is enough” and the PTI would not allow the poor and taxpayers to be victimised and exploited by a “pro-rich, pro-tax evaders’ government”.
The PTI chairman will address a press conference on Tuesday to disclose his party’s future line of action in this regard.
Mohammad Asghar adds from Rawalpindi: The PIA employees’ threat to stop flight operations from Tuesday morning forced the government to deploy law-enforcement personnel at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport to avoid any untoward situation.
The government also directed the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure smooth operation of flights and safety of passengers at airports.
The announcement created panic among passengers, prompting them to call the flight inquiry to check details of flights, especially those of PIA.
A PIA spokesman said most people had cancelled their bookings because of reports about the strike. “The airline suffered a loss of Rs750 million because of the week-long strike by its workers and there will be more losses if the strike continues,” he said, adding that in this situation the management would find it difficult to earn money and pay salary to PIA employees.
Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2016