Supporting unions

Published April 20, 2024
The writer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi
The writer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi

THE country’s first tripartite labour conference, inaugurated by its first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, was held in February 1949. Subsequently, the government ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98 relating to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Pakistan has been an active member of the ILO since 1947 and has so far ratified 36 conventions, including eight out of 10 fundamental conventions and two governance conventions, which include Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention 1948 (No 87) and Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No 98). However, the record of our compliance with international labour standards is poor, specifically in the context of these conventions.

At the time of partition, unions existed only in the railways and the port; both in the public sector. Besides, labour associations advocating a socialist society in Pakistan dominated the labour movement, and those belonging to All Pakistan Confederation of Labour and the Pakistan Workers Union, led by Mirza Ibrahim, received financial assistance from the Soviet Union to promote communism. For over 30 years, Ibrahim remained at the helm. But, in a 1981 referendum, a rightist union affiliated with the National Labour Federation (NLF) defeated his union.

The unions in Pakistan thrived from the late 1960s to July 1977 when the PPP government was overthrown. Their leaders were strong and employers across the country had to face volatile situations, such as interventions in business management and manufacturing units by their unions.

Unions in Pakistan thrived from the late 1960s to July 1977.

Among several prominent leaders of workers’ federations, the more notable and wise were Jamaat-i-Islami’s (JI) Professor Shafi Malik and leftist Karamat Ali. Both encouraged union leaders and officials to acquire education and training. Malik acted on the advice of Maulana Maududi who upheld ‘the rights of others and own obligation’, contrary to what labour leaders of the time believed in. In 1956, Malik established the Pakistan Workers Training Institute in Hyderabad but it did not last long. However, his Pakistan Workers Training and Education Trust — WE Trust — recently completed 40 years of existence in Karachi.

As Malik joined the labour movement in the country’s early years, his role as a successful and upright leader of NLF was long and enviable. The key to his success was his education, intellect, temperament and problem-solving abilities; stupendous challenges came his way and he tackled them with astuteness to achieve his goals. Malik garnered applause and laurels for the JI, the kind it has not known in national politics. He was the federation’s president from 1969 to 1971, secretary general from 1971 to 1982 and was also re-elected as president until August 2000 when he chose to opt out.

Moreover, other than Pakistan Railways and PIA, unions associated with NLF were also part of the Collective Bargaining Agent in KDA, National Bank of Pakistan, Paracha Textile Mills, Pakistan Steel Mills, Pakistan National Shipping Corporation, Karachi Shipyard and the Pakistan Engineering Company among others.

Karamat Ali, on the other end, devoted his life to the dispossessed; he used political means and effectively orchestrated and led labour movements to serve the cause of the marginalised and those deprived of their lawful rights. Besides being a prominent trade unionist and rights activist, he has remained involved in Pakistan’s politics for a long time and has played a significant role for political parties and labour movements representing the leftist ideology.

Ali is the foun­der and director of the over four-decade-old Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Re­­search in Karachi. The institute’s ach­ievements in the domain of labour research and education are commendable. He joined the Mujtahid Mazdoor Federation (MMF) constituted in 1969. It managed to mobilise and unite the workers of textile mills who were being exploited and deprived of proper wages and benefits by their employers.

Later, he merged the MMF with powerful federation leader Nabi Ahmad’s United Workers’ Federation. Their combination proved lethal and the two were able to attain much relief for distressed employees.

Despite their advancing years, both Malik and Ali remain fairly active in educating and training present labour leaders and people keen to learn the intricacies of industrial relations.

Although activities of labour federations and unions are dormant, unions exist and interact with respective managements. Hence, representatives responsible for communication with unions should keep abreast of changes in labour legislations and the industry to hone their skills in managing worker-employer relations.

The writer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2024

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