Trade Union and Democratic Rights in Pakistan

Pakistan Trade Union Protest

Although trade union activists must combat legal (and extra-legal) constraints on their activities throughout the world, their situation in Pakistan has become particularly precarious since the last military coup.

This report, largely compiled from information provided by Trade Union Defense Organizations and other human rights organizations documents some of the hardships faced by those struggling for democratic rights in Pakistan (rights that are often taken for granted in India and elsewhere in the developing world).

Although Pakistan’s Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969 (IRO) provides for the right of industrial workers to form trade unions, union organizers are subject to a variety restrictions that hinder their activities and effectiveness. One of the laws that hinders trade union activity is the Essential Services Maintenance Act of 1952 (ESA) (which covers government services and state enterprises, such as energy production, power generation and transmission, the state-owned airline, and ports) and is usually invoked to limit or ban strikes, and is also used to severely curtail collective bargaining rights. Legally required conciliation proceedings and cooling-off periods constrain the right to strike, as does the Government’s authority to ban any strike that may cause “serious hardship to the community” or prejudice the national interest. The Government also may ban a strike that has continued for 30 days.

Although India too has provisions that can be invoked to prevent strikes in the public sector, there are legal constraints on the arbitrary use of such provisions, and elected governments have not been able to use them as freely and easily as in Pakistan, (especially when a strike in the public sector has attracted the support of key opposition parties). And unlike in India, dismissed workers have no recourse to the labor courts in Pakistan.

In the past, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has stated repeatedly that Pakistan’s current law and practice violate the Government’s commitments under ILO Convention 87. The ILO has urged Pakistan’s Government to lift prohibitions against union activity with respect to teachers, and radio, television, railway, forestry, hospital, and other government employees, as well as to rescind the existing ban on strikes.

Pakistani law is particularly hard on agricultural workers who are denied the right to form unions and are thus prevented from striking, bargaining collectively, or making any demands on their employers. Particularly egregious is how a worker’s right to quit may also be curtailed under the ESA, which critics have argued constitutes a form of compulsory labor. This is of particular importance in a country where bonded labor – especially forced child labor is a very serious issue. Although most poor countries face this scourge, the problem is particularly acute in Pakistan.

Even as both the Constitution and the law prohibit forced labor, (including forced labor by children), enforcement has been very poor, and since the military takeover the situation has deteriorated further. According to some human rights reports, children are sometimes kidnapped to be used as forced labor. According to 1996 ILO estimates, 3.3 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 years (about 8 percent of this population group) were “economically active.” Of these, about two-thirds worked in agriculture. Seventy percent of the working children had the status of “unpaid family helpers.”

However, many observers believe that both the ILO and the Government understate the true dimensions of the problem. Some argue that Pakistani children not attending school are invariably active in the work-force – either with their families or as slaves or bonded-laborers. Shahida Jabeen, Secretary, PTUDC, states: ” According to the United Nations “Education for All summit” in New Delhi, only 29% of Pakistani children were enrolled in schools (the figure for girls was below 20%), compared to the next worst level which was Nigeria with 59%.” She also reports: Brutal exploitation is rife. Over one million children work in the carpet industry, another million are employed as domestics, over 300,000 as bonded labourers in brick kilns together with many more in soap factories, small garages, shops etc.”

The practice of bonded-labor in agriculture compounds the problem. A UN meet on slavery (24 May 2002) issued a depressing report on the status of bonded agricultural workers:

“According to research carried out for the Government of Sindh and the Asian Development Bank 1 there are some 1.7 million landless agricultural workers (haris) and sharecroppers in five districts of Sindh Province (Thatta, Dadu, Badin, Mirpurkhas and Umerkot). The report notes that most of these people are in debt bondage.

While bonded labour exists throughout Sindh Province, the majority of those bonded in the north belong to the Muslim majority, while most of the bonded agricultural labourers in southern Sindh Province belong to dalit 2 (untouchable) and to tribal communities who have migrated from the drought-prone area of Tharparkar desert. Poverty and starvation have forced these communities to accept the landlords’ cash advances, and to be available for work from dawn to dusk. Bonded labourers may be detained or guarded to stop them escaping and in these situations of total ownership rape of women is not uncommon.

Most are forced to provide begar, a form of forced, unpaid labour, on top of the tasks assigned against the debt. Trafficking in bonded labourers who are unable to pay their debts is a common practice among landlords. Bonded labourers are sold by one landlord to another, usually for a price higher than the debt they had with their previous landlord thereby increasing the bonded labourer’s debt.

In theory, all bonded labourers should have been freed under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 and those responsible for keeping them in bondage should have been prosecuted. However, in practice the political and financial strength of the landlords in Sindh Province allows them to continue using bonded labourers with impunity. Some landlords have even successfully filed charges against bonded labourers with the police, leading to the imprisonment of some 40 haris. (Excerpts from the UN report filed in Geneva, 27-31 May 2002)

Although instances of bonded-labour (including child labour) have also been reported in India – (mainly from the states of Bihar, Orissa, and Eastern Madhya Pradesh) what is most shocking about Pakistan is how the High Court of Sindh (on 9 January 2002) dismissed 94 petitions for the release of bonded labourers declaring that they were disputes between landlords and haris (bonded labourers) over debts and should be settled under the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950. Since this judgement was announced, new petitions for the release of bonded labourers filed in the Sindh High Court have also been rejected.

Whereas the Indian Supreme Court has accepted several PILs (Public Interest Litigations) filed on behalf of child-workers, and called upon the Indian government to take more concrete measures to put into effect earlier legislation calling for an end to the exploitation of children, and bonded labor, these recent court rulings in Pakistan effectively negate Pakistan’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 and make the struggle to rescue and liberate bonded laborers much more difficult.

These court decisions are part and parcel of a political environment that is increasingly repressive. Since the military take-over, serious (including life-threatening) impediments have been placed in the way of those fighting for workers rights, or trying to mobilize democratic forces in Pakistan. As it is, workers in Pakistan are often intimidated when they try and organize any form of economic or political resistance, now their situation is substantially worse.

In 1999, Farooq Sulehria reported that a truck load of military men entered the premises of the Pakistan Trade Unions Resource Center in Lahore, and raided the offices of the Weekly Mazdoor Jeddojuhd Offices (21 Oct, 1999) soon after publication of it’s first issue (19 Oct, 1999) titled: “No to Martial Law”. The issue also carried an appeal to the working masses to fight against the military dictatorship.

Trade Union organizations remain amongst the most active of groups trying to combat military rule, although government pressure has succeeded in intimidating some sections of the Trade Union Movement. Earlier, when Arif Shah, the President of the Punjab Labour Federation, was assassinated by hired agents of the employers, 20,000 workers had attended his funeral the following day and pledged themselves to carry on the struggle.

More recently, there has been a popular upsurge in Baluchistan. Khalid Bhatti, National Organizer PTUDC, Lahore reports how more than one hundred trade union activists and members of the Civil Secretariat Employees Association (CSEA) in Baluchistan have been arrested, and . the president and secretary general of the union were arrested and have been severely tortured. This followed an-all out strike in Quetta, Baluchistan on November 19, 2001 demanding implementation of the charter of demands accepted by the military-led government in July 2001. (After reaching an agreement the union had called off a two week-long strike in July, but to date, General Musharraf’s government has failed to meet it’s end of the bargain). This union is also an affiliate of the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign, and PTUDC members played an important role in this strike. Unsurprisingly, none of the major newspapers (which are generally beholden to the government) reported on the June 5, 2002 strike which shut down Quetta.

It is thus evident, that contrary to those who saw in General Musharraf the makings of a “liberal reformer”, the situation for democratic activists in Pakistan has in fact, deteriorated. In it’s twenty-page report, “Reform or Repression? Post-Coup Abuses in Pakistan,” Human Rights Watch stated that the Musharraf government had detained opponents and former officials without charge, removed independent judges from the higher courts, banned public rallies and demonstrations, and rendered political parties all but powerless. It’s Asian director, Sidney Jones noted that “Musharraf follows a long line of generals in Pakistan who have claimed that a period of military rule is the path to true democracy. In fact, he is systematically destroying civil liberties in Pakistan.”

However, one of the problems facing the democratic movement in Pakistan is that some influential currents in Pakistan’s progressive movement continue to be misled about the struggle in Kashmir. Pakistan’s anti-democratic forces have won so often precisely because they have managed to shift the spotlight to Kashmir. Their anti-India rhetoric has not only galvanized a section of the deeply Islamicized Pakistani populace, it has also found echoes in what is considered to be the secular or progressive movement in Pakistan.

Some of Pakistan’s most radical political activists think that the anti-Indian movement in Jammu and Kashmir has mass support, rather than being a pliant pawn in the hands of Pakistan’s military and clerical elite (and the world-wide Islamist movement). By legitimizing the false propaganda of the Pakistani rulers on Kashmir, some of Pakistan’s human rights activists unwittingly provide a certain degree of ideological cover for the military dictatorship. This in turn, allows the Pakistani masses to be diverted from the democratic struggle, and weakens the ability of Pakistan’s progressive leadership to effectively counter the forces of Jehadi militarism.

Some of the most dedicated of Pakistan’s progressive activists unfortunately fail to understand the dialectical consequences of the two-nation theory which by it’s very logic has constantly come in the way of democratic rights in Pakistan. The moment one legitimizes the pro-Pakistan Kashmiri separatist movement, one ends up internalizing the very sentiments that led to partition. But the partition of India was essentially anti-democratic in nature. For one thing, the creation of Pakistan had never been preceded by any free and fair democratic process, or through any popular referendum, nor had the demand for partition been raised by a political grouping that represented any genuine allegiance to democratic values. (See References below).

The only legitimate reason for Pakistan to break away from post-colonial India (which had constitutionally committed itself to the notions of secularism, pluralism and democracy) was to argue that even as India’s linguistically and culturally diverse Hindus could live together in the same nation, Hindus and Muslims could not. That even as India’s Hindus could put aside regional differences, even differences based on religious practice (since Hindu religious practices and philosophical beliefs vary greatly, not only from state to state, but also from jati to jati), and unite in one nation, Hindus would somehow not be able to live with the Muslims of what is now Pakistan (or Bangladesh). That even as India’s Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis and Jews could live with India’s Hindus, Muslims could not.

But if it were indeed true that Hindus and Muslims could not coexist in one nation, even where there were some constitutional provisions for secularism, pluralism and democracy – then such an argument should have been applied to all of India’s Muslims, not just to the Muslims of Pakistan (or now Kashmir).

If it were so important to “liberate” Kashmir’s Muslims, it should have been equally important to liberate the rest of India’s Muslims. Pakistan has been much more sparsely populated than India – surely it could have invited India’s Muslims to emigrate to a nation that presumably provides more “protections” to Muslims than does India? The fact that in spite of India’s many problems, there have been no recent (or earlier) attempts on the part of any Indian Muslim (other than Jehadi activists and criminals) to migrate to Pakistan must suggest that all things considered, India’s Muslims prefer to be part of India – even as “minorities”.

No amount of intellectualizing can change this objective reality. India’s secular democracy may be flawed, even under great stress at times, but it remains a superior alternative to any state that is based on sectarian appeals to religious exclusivity. And this is what makes the pro-Pakistan Kashmiri separatist movement so suspect. Not only does the Kashmiri separatist movement fail to acknowledge the multi-ethnic and multi-religious of Jammu and Kashmir, it has never given any concrete indication of how it might be more democratic than India.

For some of Pakistan’s pro-democracy activists to make common cause with such a movement introduces a troubling inconsistency in their outlook, and this naturally weakens their own struggle for greater democracy in Pakistan. Some activists in India and Pakistan have attempted to finesse or obscure such contradictions by sharply denouncing Indian democracy as an utter sham, and have put an equal sign between the democratic governments of India and the military administrations of Pakistan.

While it is true that India’s political parties often fail to represent the interests of the common people, and more often than not, either bend to pressures from local business interests or neo-liberal elites more beholden to the agenda of Western imperial powers than Indian concerns, the answer is clearly not to replace India’s democratic constitution with a constitution derived from medieval theocracy, or to replace India’s elected government by a military administration. Neither can anyone seriously argue that Pakistan’s military leadership is any less immune from Western imperialist pressures, or acts in the interests of Pakistan’s poor and disenfranchised masses. If anything, it is quite the reverse, and that is why the US Pentagon and CIA have always preferred Pakistan’s military regimes to Pakistan’s democratically elected governments.

While economic inequities hamper social progress throughout the subcontinent, the strength of India’s democratic institutions makes it somewhat easier to research and document the problems and to articulate opposition to current policies. By and large, it is easier in India to express dissent, and to mount more vigorous political challenges. Imperfect as Indian democracy may be, it provides opportunities for struggle and amelioration that are simply not available in Pakistan. And that is why, social indicators, even in India’s poorest and least developed state, i.e. Bihar, lead social indicators in Pakistan.

Pro-democracy activists in Pakistan indeed face very difficult challenges. But their task is hardly facilitated by cynically discounting the differences between India and Pakistan, or by making common cause with the Kashmiri separatists. For instance, even 55 years after independence, there is still much that needs to be done to reverse the debilitating legacy of colonial rule in both nations. But the Kashmiri separatists can hardly provide any leadership in this regard because Kashmir was never directly administered by the British. That is why they are also least appreciative of the need to strengthen (rather than weaken) the unity of the people of the Indian subcontinent.

Pakistan’s pro-democracy activists are likely to make much more progress when they are able to see through the misguided agenda of the Kashmiri separatists, and overcome the India-baiting rhetoric that emanates from various quarters. Wise voices in Pakistan have already realized that, and are bravely resisting becoming pawns in the hands of the military hawks. One can only hope that in spite of all odds, genuinely democratic forces are able to prevail over the forces of cynicism and deceit. The people of Pakistan have certainly suffered enough, and surely deserve better.

(Source – July 2002 – South Asia views)

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