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Where the workforce stands

Updated June 26, 2018

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WHEN you talk to anyone about labour politics in Faisalabad, one name always comes up: Mukhtar Rana. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made Rana, a local rights’ activist, the PPP city chief and he won a seat to the National Assembly in 1970. Afterwards, he had a fallout with Bhutto and, after being sentenced to five years in prison, was forced into exile.

But Rana is an ideal of the past.

In Faisalabad, the heart of the country’s textile sector, the working-class vote could theoretically make or break a party’s bid for power. However, because labour remains largely unorganised, the working-class vote is split amongst various political parties.

Aslam Mairaj, general secretary of the Labour Quami Move­ment (LQM), a grassroots entity that has been fairly successful in organising the city’s power-loom workers during the last two decades, says that the outgoing government did not fulfil its promises to the working class.

Rana Mohammad Afzal Khan, who is contesting the coming election on a PML-N ticket, has a more optimistic view. He claims that most workers here work on contract and make around Rs26,000 per month. He adds that most new factories being built are paying attention to the safety of workers. Afzal argues that the erstwhile government’s biggest achievement is the creation of jobs.

The LQM has decided to support the PTI in the upcoming elections. While Mairaj concedes that workers aren’t faring much better in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he argues that Imran Khan is a relatively honest leader.

Farrukh Habib, contesting on a PTI ticket, believes that the party understands the concerns of Faisal­abad’s workers and is engaging with both trade unions and unaffiliated workers.

Haji Bashir Shakir, general secretary of the Pakistan Textile Workers Federation (PTWF), supported the PML-N in the last elections. Although he believes the outgoing government has performed fairly well in its legislative role, he adds that there has been little or no progress in terms of implementation. This year, he says, the government did not even announce an increase in the minimum wage. Yet he is equally disappointed in the PPP.

Shakir tells this reporter that his organisation has communicated workers’ demands to all the political parties, urging them to include these as promises in their manifestos — including implementing existing labour laws and amending laws that contradict ILO conventions.

Haji Aslam Waffa, president of the Pakistan Textile Garment Leather Workers’ Federation and general secretary of the Faisalabad Labour Federation, wants the next government to institute living wages instead of minimum wages, reform laws regarding unionisation, reduce case-processing times in labour courts, and strengthen key labour institutions such as EOBI and social security.

State of the unions

Only three per cent of the country’s labour force remains unionised. According to Aslam Mairaj, industrialists fire employees when they try to form unions, and governments do nothing to stop them.

But, Mairaj contends, only a strong trade union can give workers a political voice. If unions were allowed to flourish, a significant labour movement could emerge in Faisalabad. “Mukhtar Rana won the election because trade unions were strong,” he muses. “Now, it is harder because trade unions have been crushed.”

Where is the Left?

Farooq Tariq, spokesperson of the Awami Workers Party, says that the AWP is not contesting elections from Faisalabad because of the lack of political momentum in the city.

The AWP was created in 2012 as a result of the merger of three leftist parties. Tariq was the president of one of them, the Labour Party Pakistan. According to him, the LPP had a lot of support in Faisalabad from workers as well as from members of the LQM, but this support didn’t carry over to the AWP. The momentum, he argues, was lost because of state repression.

“Workers were arrested, taken to antiterrorism courts and given sentences of up to 90 years,” he says. “State repression has fragmented and weakened us.” Recently, the AWP’s website was also shut down.

Elections: only for the rich?

While labour leaders sympathise with the AWP, they are sceptical about the party coming into power under the prevailing system.

Mairaj says that they simply don’t have the financial resources needed to campaign and ultimately win the elections, which are increasingly dominated by money.

While all political parties have created labour wings for show, they never give a ticket to any worker from these labour wings, he explains, adding that the LQM has asked Imran Khan to give at least one worker an election ticket in Faisalabad.

According to Farooq Tariq, changes in the rules have put elections even more out of reach of the working class. To submit nomination papers, a candidate has to pay Rs20,000 if contesting for the provincial assembly and Rs30,000 if contesting for the National Assembly.

Tariq adds that spending limits on election campaigns have also been increa­sed.

“The pro-capitalist election reforms have told workers that you don’t have what it takes to stand in an election,” Tariq says.

Long fight back

Despite financial and political hurdles, leaders of the labour movement appear optimistic. The LQM plans to collect data about all industrialists who are contesting the election from Faisalabad and then highlight their record on workers’ rights.

“We will tell people not to vote for them,” Mairaj insists. “If they aren’t giving their own workers anything, what will they do when they come to power?”

At a national scale, the AWP is also strategizing on how to pursue a class-based struggle during what Farooq Tariq calls a ‘counter-revolutionary and anti-labour’ period.

“We are limited because we are a small party with a small base and not a lot of power,” he explains. “But we are trying to rebuild the movement.”

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2018