On June 10, 1972, a labourers’ procession is taken out from Frontier Colony in Karachi. It passes through Narimabad and Golimar, and ends at Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum: after the events of June 7-8, 1972, factories across Karachi remained shut for 14 days as labourers continued their protests | Dawn Archives


Karachi’s labour uprising serves as a testament to the power of organised labour, in stark contrast to Pakistan’s trade union landscape today. What fed this movement and what led to its downfall?
Published June 9, 2024

The Bab-e-Mazdoor Shaheed Qabristan monument stands at the entrance of Frontier Colony, a predominantly Pashtun, lower-income neighbourhood within Karachi’s largest industrial area, SITE. Erected by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) and the Shaheed Mazdoor Yadgari Committee, the monument pays solemn tribute to the workers killed during the June 1972 labour movement.

On June 7, 1972, police opened fire on unarmed workers protesting overdue wages against the management of a textile mill. The next day, during the funeral procession of one of the slain workers, the crowd’s attempt to reach the Governor’s House escalated into a protest, resulting in further violence and fatalities at Banaras Chowk. Several more workers lost their lives. This brutal two-day confrontation sent shockwaves throughout Karachi, the industrial heart of Pakistan, leading to a citywide strike that halted economic production for 13 days. 

The uprising occurred amid the political turbulence following East Pakistan’s secession to become Bangladesh just a year earlier. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s newly formed government, with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) advocating socialist ideals, was suddenly at odds with the working class it claimed to champion.

In a national address on February 10, 1972, Bhutto, then both president and martial law administrator, promised new benefits for workers but also issued a stern warning against the tactics of “gherao [encirclement]” and “jalao [arson]” used to pressure industrial management. “The strength of the street will be met by the strength of the state,” Bhutto declared. By June, his government had acted on this warning.

Karachi’s industrial sector was famously brought to a standstill in June 1972 following clashes between the police and disgruntled labourers. This triggered the emergence of Karachi’s labour uprising, which serves as a testament to the power of organised labour, in stark contrast to Pakistan’s trade union landscape today. What fed this movement and what led to its downfall?

The 1972 labour movement that disrupted Karachi’s industrial sector is a significant chapter in Pakistan’s political and labour history. This piece draws on interviews with Bawar Khan, a prominent militant figure in the movement, and others, along with a review of existing literature, to reconstruct the events of those critical days. It explores the rise of the movement, its successes and struggles, and its lasting impact on the fight for workers’ rights in Pakistan.


Like thousands of others from various parts of the then-North West Frontier Province (NWFP, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), teenaged Bawar arrived in Karachi from Swat in the mid-1960s, seeking opportunities in the city’s booming textile industry.

“School wasn’t for me,” he admits with a smile. “So, I ran away from Swat to Karachi, twice actually. Finally, my father convinced me to stay and find work here.”

His first job was at Hafiz Textile in the SITE area. Back then, mill owners personally interviewed potential employees. When the mill owner saw Bawar, he remarked, “You seem quite young.” Bawar’s quick reply — “Young, but I eat too!” — earned him a smile and a chance. Those nine months at Hafiz Textile were Bawar’s introduction to the world of textile mill work and labour activism. He honed his skills and eventually moved on to other mills, finally landing at Zebtan Textile Mills around 1966.

 Dawn’s front page headline on June 8, 1972 | Dawn Archives
Dawn’s front page headline on June 8, 1972 | Dawn Archives

At that time, the country was simmering with anti-Ayub Khan sentiment, and the labour movement was gaining momentum. Bawar recalls that the workers, including him, participated in strikes against Ayub’s dictatorship.

“Usman Baloch was our leader and mentor,” Bawar recalls with respect. “He taught us how to fight for our rights.” Baloch was a towering figure in labour activism during the 1960s and 1970s, organising workers across various industries and the informal sector — from construction workers at Lea Market to textile mill workers in SITE and government institutions.

Bawar also mentions Kaneez Fatima, Shah Raza Khan and leftist student leaders, such as Karamat Ali (now PILER’s executive director), who helped mobilise workers by spending much of their time with the workers at their deras [male-only shared houses] in labour chalis [settlements] in SITE.

Bawar’s dedication resonated with his fellow workers, leading to his election as president of the Zebtan Textile workers union.

When Yahya Khan took power in 1969, Bawar was arrested at the mill gate and sent to Landhi Children’s Jail — due to his young age — for a period of time. Around this time, a powerful labour alliance, the Muttahida Mazdoor Federation (MMF), was formed by figures such as Nabi Ahmed, SP Lodhi and Usman Baloch. Eventually, Bawar rose through the ranks, becoming the MMF’s vice president and a key leader of the workers’ action committee, which united thousands of workers from over 75 industrial units across Karachi.

Bawar explains, “Back then, if there was an issue at one mill, all workers from all mills would gather there to pressure the owner.” This period also saw the worker occupation of Valika Textile Mills in SITE in March 1971.

Laurent Gayer, a senior research fellow at the Centre de Recherches Internationales (CERI)-Sciences Po in Paris, observes that the meteoric rise of Bawar and Baloch signalled a profound change in the profile of trade union leaders in Karachi. “They rose from the shop floor and contrasted with the more educated, more polished professional trade unionists, who were often Urdu-speaking and rarely had any experience of industrial work themselves,” says Gayer, author of the forthcoming book Gunpoint Capitalism: Enforcing Industrial Order in Karachi.

Thus, the movement against forced removals, exploitative mill owners, and unfavourable government policies continued through June 1972.


“It all begins with Feroz Sultan Mills,” Bawar says as he recalls what unfolded on June 7, 1972, and the firestorm that ensued. It was a typical day, with Bawar addressing workers at the gate of Zebtan Textile Mills during a shift change, a regular practice for labour leaders to mobilise support.

“News came in,” Bawar remembers, “that police had brutally baton-charged workers at Feroz Sultan Mills who were protesting for their overdue wages.” Bawar, along with hundreds of Zebtan workers who had just finished their shift, marched towards Feroz Sultan Mills to show solidarity.

As they approached the mill, chanting slogans against the management, the situation escalated. Police stationed at the gate opened fire indiscriminately, according to Bawar. The scene turned chaotic. 

“Two of our colleagues,” Bawar says, “Painda Muhammad and Muhammad Shoaib, both from Zebtan Textiles, were killed in the firing, while many others were injured.” Police took Painda’s body inside the mill and continued firing from above, while enraged workers retaliated with stones, carrying Shoaib’s body away from the violence.

Workers brought Shoaib’s body to the Eidgah Ground in Pathan Colony. Labour leaders and workers from across the city gathered, delivering speeches until late at night. The workers unanimously decided to hold a massive funeral procession for Shoaib, culminating in prayers at the Governor’s House.

On the morning of June 8, thousands of workers converged at Pathan Colony. As the procession reached Banaras Chowk, a heavy police contingent, led by the then Deputy Commissioner (DC) Kunwar Idrees, awaited them. Tear gas failed to deter the crowd. Suddenly, police opened fire, killing several workers, all from Swat and Mardan districts, and injuring dozens more.

News of the killing spread like wildfire. Bawar, along with other labour leaders on the action committee, sprang into action. In defiance of the killings, workers across Karachi shut down factories in a citywide strike. Bawar recounts, “All major textile mills and other industries were brought to a standstill by protesting workers.”

Karamat Ali, PILER’s executive director, in his book Raahguzar Tau Dekho [Assess The Way], notes that while the labour leadership scrambled to strategise the next steps, the rank-and-file workers took matters into their own hands. He notes, “The entire industrial areas of SITE and Landhi, as well as Korangi and Kotri Hyderabad, were brought to a halt by the spontaneous worker-led shutdown.”

Production across the city plummeted. Karachi, the industrial heart of Pakistan, was effectively paralysed.

 Nabi Ahmed (pictured above addressing the crowd) and Usman Baloch (standing next to Ahmed with his arms folded) at a gathering at Frontier Colony on June 8, 1972: in defiance of the killings, workers across Karachi shut down factories in a citywide strike | Raahguzar Tau Dekho
Nabi Ahmed (pictured above addressing the crowd) and Usman Baloch (standing next to Ahmed with his arms folded) at a gathering at Frontier Colony on June 8, 1972: in defiance of the killings, workers across Karachi shut down factories in a citywide strike | Raahguzar Tau Dekho


With mills shut down for days, financial hardship gripped the workers, most of them daily wage earners. “The leadership felt the pressure and decided to negotiate with the government,” Bawar says.

Labour leaders presented a 14-point demand charter, which included an inquiry into the firing, action against responsible officers, the release of all workers arrested after the incident and the withdrawal of the cases against them. Other demands addressed civic issues, such as access to water, gas and electricity, faced by workers in the SITE area settlements, such as Frontier Colony and Pathan Colony. Regularisation of these settlements was also stipulated.

“They built makeshift dwellings because they had no other option,” Bawar explains. “But the Karachi Municipal Corporation would demolish them or demand bribes, claiming the land was unauthorised.” The workers toiled for eight hours in the mills, only to face another eight-hour struggle, just to find water in these neglected areas.

Kamran Asdar Ali, an academic who teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, in his paper The Strength of the Street Meets the Strength of the State: The 1972 Labour Struggle in Karachi, writes that the government seemed reluctant to address the action committee’s core demand — the suspension of implicated officials: “Some leaders complained about the state representatives dragging their feet: they would meet the provincial labour minister, Abdus Sattar Gabol, on one day; the governor of Sindh, Mir Rasool Baksh Talpur, on the second; and the chief minister, Mumtaz Bhutto, on the third. In turn, all three government officials relayed their discussions to Bhutto, who was on a foreign trip.”

However, the labour movement faced an unexpected complication. The National Awami Party’s (NAP) Wali faction’s local leaders not only opposed the movement in the localities but also actively undermined it, according to Bawar. They did this by taunting the workers with slogans such as, “Khoon baicha pani liya [sold blood, took water]”, creating division and mistrust.

To counter this and secure a public commitment, the labour leaders decided that the agreement with the government would be announced at Nishtar Park, inviting labour leaders and workers from across the city. 

“At the rally,” Bawar reveals, “the government announced its agreement to meet our demands if the strike ended.” But the announcement sparked outrage among charged workers. They chanted “Khoon ka badla khoon [blood for blood],” demanding the arrest of police officer DSP Noor Khan, who had ordered the firing. Nabi Ahmed tried to calm them, but to no avail.

Seeing the growing tension, Baloch called Bawar to the stage. “I addressed the workers,” Bawar says. “I told them that we had accepted the agreement because further financial hardship would only weaken us. We can’t fight shopkeepers, who are not lending rations to us or our families. We’re securing what we can and are preparing for future battles. Our destiny lies in a ’mazdoor kisan raj [workers-peasants rule].”

Bawar’s words resonated with the workers. They hoisted him on their shoulders in agreement. “I told them to take one more day off,” he says, “and the factories would pay them for it.” Finally, after a gruelling 14 days, the factories reopened.

 Bawar Khan (pictured above), now in his 70s, is living a quiet retirement in his village in Swat | Courtesy of the author
Bawar Khan (pictured above), now in his 70s, is living a quiet retirement in his village in Swat | Courtesy of the author


Following initial negotiations with labour leaders, the Bhutto government took a sharp turn towards repression. While Bhutto’s labour reforms offered unprecedented benefits, such as inflation allowances, social security and increased worker participation in management, these progressive measures were coupled with a severe crackdown on dissent, particularly against labour leaders. 

The government invoked the Defence of Pakistan Rules (DPR), a tool previously used to silence political opposition, to target dissenters, including vocal labour leaders. This crackdown heavily relied on the Federal Security Force (FSF), a paramilitary force created by Bhutto to quell dissent after a police strike in March 1972. Media reports from that time documented the detention of 58 labour leaders, including Bawar and Baloch, from Karachi, Gharo, Hyderabad, Kotri and Kashmore, within a year of the June 1972 unrest. 

“From June 1972 onwards,” Bawar recounts, “the government kept arresting and releasing me, a cycle that went on for several years. They fabricated charges, including cattle theft, to justify these arrests.” He estimated spending a total of three years in various provincial jails under Bhutto’s rule.

When Gen Ziaul Haq took power in July 1977, he ended the DPR cases against political, labour and student leaders, including Bawar. 


The 1972 Karachi labour movement drew its strength from a confluence of social, political and economic factors. Scholars and labour leaders offer various perspectives on its success, highlighting the city’s unique context and evolving worker organisation strategies.

Asdar Ali emphasises Karachi’s explosive growth — fuelled by industrialisation between 1947 and 1972, with a population increase of 217 per cent — as a factor in the labour movement. More than half of Karachi’s growth since the early 1950s is attributed to migration from India and from rural and other urban areas of the country, he writes. He further explains how the practice of “jobbers” — recruitment of workers from specific districts in the NWFP and Southern Punjab through economic and social coercion, often based on ethnicity — created a divided workforce with limited bargaining power.

However, by the late 1960s, a radicalised left-wing movement had emerged, challenging these “pocket unions” controlled by management, Asdar Ali writes. This movement aimed to organise workers into independent trade unions and address the complex ethnic and social hierarchies within workplaces and worker colonies. Gayer says that Bhutto’s coming to power had galvanised workers and many believed that this would mark the beginning of the “mazdoor kisan raj.” 

In his August 1972 article ‘From Pathan Colony to a Workers’ State’ in the Pakistan Forum journal, academic Iqbal Khan noted that the June 1972 state violence against workers was not surprising. He highlighted that the period leading up to the incident, particularly following the announcement of the Bhutto government’s labour policy, saw a significant surge in working-class activism, which he described as “an explosion in working-class militancy.”

He writes, “Strikes and gheraos have become common, everyday occurrences in hundreds of mills throughout Pakistan; in many industrial units, there has been an almost perpetual state of war between management and workers, often involving bloody clashes.” To underscore the scale of this unrest, he cited official statistics. In Punjab alone, from January to May 1972, there were 63 strikes and 55 gheraos. The situation in Sindh was even more volatile, with 176 factories gheraoed — 150 in Karachi and 26 in Hyderabad.

Despite its strength, the 1972 Karachi labour movement faced significant challenges. Bawar highlighted widespread opposition, not just from established parties such as Bhutto’s PPP and NAP (Wali group), but also from some communist leaders because of their pro-China and pro-Soviet divisions. Even the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) opposed the movement on religious grounds. Bawar reveals, “The Jamaat deemed the demand for profit-linked bonuses, separate from regular wages, as ‘haram’ in Islam.”

However, the movement achieved a remarkable feat — overcoming ethnic divisions within the workforce. According to Asdar Ali, the Mohajir-dominated trade union leadership, which played a crucial role in advocating for labour rights in Karachi, also managed to “contain, much to its advantage, the cultural and linguistic tensions between the more highly skilled local workers (Mohajirs) and the less skilled up-country migrants (Pashtun/Southern Punjabis) through a rhetoric of class solidarity and proletarian politics.”

As Bawar observes, “At that time, all ethnicities, Pashtuns, Urdu-speakers, Punjabis, Baloch, etc, were working together in the mills and participated in labour politics.” However, this unity proved fragile. Bawar laments that the rise of ethnic politics during Zia’s dictatorship, particularly the emergence of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), fractured this working-class solidarity. “It caused a huge loss to the working class, particularly the poor labourers,” he says. 

 The family of a labourer, Nekzada, mourns his death after he was fired upon by the police during protests on June 8, 1972: police opened fire on protestors who had converged at Pathan Colony, killing several workers and injuring dozens more | Dawn Archives
The family of a labourer, Nekzada, mourns his death after he was fired upon by the police during protests on June 8, 1972: police opened fire on protestors who had converged at Pathan Colony, killing several workers and injuring dozens more | Dawn Archives


Academics and labour leaders offer various explanations for Bhutto’s use of force.

One key factor highlighted by some academics is the precarious economic situation Bhutto inherited. Academic Iqbal Khan, writing for the Pakistan Forum, emphasises the near-collapsed state of the economy and dwindling foreign currency reserves and views allowing worker actions to intimidate capitalists as economic suicide.

Some view it as a delicate balancing act. Bhutto’s nationalisation programme itself could have been seen as a concession to labour demands, diverting attention from further worker activism. Perhaps Bhutto saw stabilising the economy and consolidating power after a turbulent period as more important.

The academic Tausif Ahmed Khan explains, “Industrialists, already displeased with Bhutto’s nationalisation policies, had been further alienated by a labour movement. By cracking down, Bhutto aimed to appease them and maintain economic stability.” He also suggests Bhutto might have aimed to project a moderate image to the United States, distancing himself from socialist ideals associated with strong labour movements.

Karamat Ali says Bhutto’s dictatorial and feudal mindset ultimately hindered constructive dialogue with the labour movement. According to him, “Bhutto touted his pro-worker actions, such as nationalising industries, appointing labour representatives to directorships and increasing worker profit-sharing, and therefore became resentful of labour criticism and viewed their activism as a threat to his authority.”

The labour movement also exposed tensions within the PPP. Radical elements, such as Mairaj Mohammad Khan, accused the government of betraying its pro-worker stance by appeasing industrialists. This internal conflict highlighted a growing divide between the party’s leftist wing and more conservative elements that feared prolonged strikes could destabilise the government.

Tausif Ahmed Khan argues that the weakened labour movement created a vacuum that Islamist parties like JI readily exploited. “This, combined with the rise of the Pakistan National Alliance [PNA] movement, swayed many Mohajir and Pashtun voters in Karachi towards the right-wing,” he says.

He also asserts that a vibrant labour movement could have bolstered Karachi’s historically liberal character, shaped by student and worker activism: “Its decline might have paved the way for right-wing parties to gain traction. This, coupled with the PPP’s struggles to establish a strong presence in Karachi, could explain the party’s ongoing challenges in the city.”

Many leaders and workers, primarily Pashtuns, later joined mainstream parties, particularly the National Democratic Party (NDP), according to the Veteran labour lawyer Manan Baacha. This party, formed after Bhutto banned the NAP for alleged subversive activities, became a new political home for these figures. Baloch, for instance, joined the Mir Ghous Bux Bizenjo-led Pakistan National Party.

“The PPP’s handling of the labour movement through an ethnic lens,” Baacha notes, “deterred them from joining that party.” He cites the 1977 national assembly elections, where Sherbaz Mazari, the NDP leader, defeated the PPP candidate in Baldia Town and SITE industrial areas, under the banner of the PNA — a testament to the shift in worker allegiance.


Karamat Ali, in his book, details how mill owners and the labour department collaborated to suppress worker activism by circulating photographs of identified labour leaders, creating a climate of fear. This repression coincided with a period of economic hardship. “The textile crisis,” he explains, “which heavily impacted the sectors with high worker mobilisation, was followed by the oil crisis, leading to widespread industrial closures.

“With local industries crippled,” Karamat Ali adds, “many active trade unionists, primarily from the Swat Valley, were forced to return to their hometowns or seek work abroad in the Gulf countries until early 1975. This mass exodus significantly weakened the Karachi labour force, depriving the movement of its vital core.”

Baacha characterises the movement as “haadsaati” or ‘accidental’ and argues that this unplanned nature, while successful initially, ultimately hindered its long-term impact. The movement lacked the crucial element of political backing, causing it to lose momentum.

Mill owners, emboldened by Zia’s dictatorship, implemented a contract system and mass layoffs, which further weakened the labour movement, according to Baacha.  He says, “Trade union leaders at the industry level became part of ‘pocket unions’ and began playing the role of ‘contractors’.”

Bawar’s story exemplifies the impact on individual workers. “After the imprisonments, I was blacklisted,” Bawar recounts. “No one was hiring me as a worker.” After months of unemployment, workers collected donations to send Bawar’s family back to Swat and helped him join the shipping industry as a seaman, where he worked for 12 years. Later, he worked as a labourer in the United States, until recently, when he returned to Pakistan permanently.


The 1972 Karachi strike remains a significant event, a testament to the power of organised labour even when it falls short of its initial goals. Today, however, Pakistan’s trade union landscape presents a stark contrast. Weakened by fragmentation, economic shifts and government policies, their ability to effectively advocate for workers’ rights remains a significant challenge.

Bawar, now in his 70s, is living a quiet retirement in Dherai village in Swat. In early 2022, he visited Karachi to reconnect with old friends, where labour groups hosted programmes in his honour. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the situation for workers today, particularly in Karachi, is worse than in 1972. But there is no labour movement or trade union because of the divisions among workers on various grounds.”

“Our movement was not just about pay,” he reflects, “it was about respect, about being seen. Karachi belonged to the workers in 1972. It was a different kind of power, a solidarity that forced the government to listen.”

“Karachi needs that again,” Bawar says.

The writer is a journalist and researcher whose work appears in The New York Times, Dawn, and other publications, as well as for various policy institutes. He can reached at zeea.rehman@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 9th, 2024

Header image: On June 10, 1972, a labourers’ procession is taken out from Frontier Colony in Karachi. It passes through Narimabad and Golimar, and ends at Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum: after the events of June 7-8, 1972, factories across Karachi remained shut for 14 days as labourers continued their protests | Dawn Archives