KARACHI: The gloved hands held up placards carrying messages to have a heart. The voices through masks covering mouths and noses were still loud and clear. These workers, responsibly standing at proper distances from one another outside the Karachi Press Club on Saturday, just wanted the owners of factories and businesses, their employers, and also the government to pay them their pending wages and dues.
Jointly organised by the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and Home-based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), the demonstration was said to be necessary in these days of lockdown. “Because it is either this or starving for these poor workers with families,” Nasir Mansoor of the NTUF told Dawn.
“Instead of paying them their salaries, workers who demand their dues are being told that they are fired. They have worked for over half of March, till the 17th of the month at least, but the factories or businesses where they worked have chosen to ignore those days and not pay them a rupee for their hard work,” he added.
“The State Bank of Pakistan had offered these employers long-term loans on easy terms and low interest too, but they have turned that offer down, too, and decided to turn their backs on their poor workers,” he said.
“The government, too, has miserably failed in giving a proper strategy for the out-of-work people in this lockdown. The masses are not being provided the basic necessities of life as the government suffers from a kind of ostrich syndrome. Meanwhile, the poor have been left to either die from the coronavirus or from hunger as a large number of workers have not received any benefit from government relief,” he said.
‘The government is providing relief only to industrialists and tycoons’
“Despite the government orders to pay people their wages, the factory owners have done nothing of the sort and the government and its labour department has also not taken them to task for it. Some employers have even closed down their mills,” he said, adding that it was also shameful that an atomic power such as Pakistan could not provide wages as well as the necessary protective gear to workers.
“The healthcare workers are risking their lives by working in unsafe conditions and the government is ignoring the healthcare system,” he added.
Zehra Khan of the HBWWF said that they had to convince the workers to hold a demonstration outside the KPC so that their suffering could be highlighted in the media. Otherwise, they wanted to besiege the offices and homes of their employers. “There is a large number of workers here who are daily-wage earners and have become out of work too like the other millions of workers facing great agony due to non-payment of their wages,” she said.
“When the working class needs urgent relief, the government is providing relief only to industrialists and tycoons. On one hand, the capitalists are getting facilities from the government and on the other they are rendering their labour jobless while refusing to pay them their wages,” she said.
Ms Khan also pointed out that instead of waiving off the loans of poor nations, the international lending institutions are only talking about deferring these loans for short periods. “Instead of saving poor people from the virus, these institutions are giving more loans to governments to facilitate capitalists and industrialists, which would result in dire consequences for the working class in future,” she said.
“The multinational companies and international textile brands and the garment sector of Pakistan have failed to discharge their due responsibilities. Due to the worsening global economic crisis, orders given to many countries, including Pakistan, are being cancelled, creating a threat of unemployment of at least two million textile and garment workers. There is a need for forging unity amongst the workers to face these grave challenges,” she said.
Saeeda Khatoon, of Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association, also said that the wages of workers should be paid promptly and their sacking should be stopped during the lockdown. “Those not following these SOPs should be arrested and heavy fines recovered from them,” she said.
It was also suggested by the protesters that Pakistan should announce default of the foreign loans and this money should be spent on the welfare of the poor. All non-developmental expenses, including defence expenses, should be curtailed by 50 per cent, and the saved funds should be spent on healthcare while all citizens should be given universal social security cover.
The international brands that have earned billions from this country should stop cancelling their orders and establish funds for emergency relief of workers in different countries. All education and healthcare institutions should be nationalised and five per cent of the GDP should be tagged for healthcare.
Other suggestions included the government’s need to come up with a strategy to give rations of three months or equivalent money during this lockdown to all workers and that the trade unions and their representatives should be given proper representation in federal and provincial relief committees so that relief goods can be distributed among the really needy families with transparency.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2020