ISLAMABAD: While the prime minister proceeds to Saudi Arabia to attend an investment conference, the new government faces its first major protest in the form of a sit-in at the entrance of Red Zone since the Radio Pakistan strikes.
Jinnah Avenue remained closed for several hours on Monday as employees of Utility Stores Corporation (USC) marched towards the Red Zone and eventually blocked D-Chowk.
The Islamabad police had to bring in reinforcement after placing barbed wire and road blocks to contain the protesters from forcing their way towards parliament and other important installations inside the Red Zone.
Leaders of various USC unions were part of the protest which was led by Syed Arif Hussain Shah, the chairman of the All Pakistan Utility Stores Corporation Union.
“We were expecting the PTI government to provide us relief against the autocratic policies of the previous government, but the new government has decided to close USC,” Mr Shah said, adding that the protest was for saving thousands of jobs across the country if the stores close.
As announced several days ago, USC outlets were closed throughout the country on Monday and employees of the utility stores gathered at the USC headquarters in Blue Area and commenced their march towards Red Zone. Jinnah Avenue was closed to traffic.
The protesters were stopped by the police from proceeding past D-Chowk.
The employees protested against the likely closure of the stores and demanded permanent employment for contractual and daily wage employees.
Arif Hussain Shah told Dawn the government was deliberately shutting down USC under the guise of reforms.
“We had a meeting with political assistant to the prime minister, Naeemul Haq, who tried to convince us to delay the protest,” Mr Shah said. USC is a state-owned enterprise which operates chain stores all over the country and which provides basic commodities to the general public at prices lower than the open market.
In their speeches during the protest, USC employees’ union leaders said the government has to settle Rs27.6 billion worth of its subsidy claims pending for seven years, which is creating a financial crunch for the corporation.
Soon after assuming charge, the prime minister’s adviser on industries and production, Abdul Razzaq Daud, stopped all purchases in USC to conduct inventory audit which led to shortage of stock.
Though the ban on new purchases has since been lifted, the issue of regularising the services of employees is yet to be settled.
While the sit-in continues, security officials have been deployed at and around D-Chowk.
The protest has also caught the attention of political rivals of the government. Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman called the union leaders and assured them of his support.
Senator Sitara Ayaz, member Senate Standing Committee on Industries, slammed the government for failing to manage the situation and not understanding the genuine concerns of the USC employees. She said the matter will be taken up in parliament if not resolved by the government.
Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2018
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