By Zia Ur Rehman

August 15, 2014

This Labour Day, Karachi witnessed a protest from a new and extraordinary labour organization – the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) Labour Committee. The committee, which is the labour wing of the sectarian group ASWJ (formerly known as Sipah-e-Sahaba), carried out its first protest rally in the Landhi Industrial Area.

Tufail, 45, working at a factory making clay pots in the outskirts of Karachi –

Trade union activists and labour rights experts believe that political and religious parties had already divided labourers and weakened the trade union movement in the country. “Workers should not go with political or religious parties. They should support their own trade unions so that they have powers like they had in 1970s,” said Karamat Ali, director of the Pakistan Labour Education and Research (PILER), a Karachi-based labour rights group. Commenting on the ASWJ’s move to form a labour wing, Ali said it would further divide the politically and ethnically divided labour on the basis of faith.

Trade unions are legal entities formed to protect the interests of workers against discrimination and unfair labour practices. The constitution of Pakistan, International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and United Nation declarations allow workers the right to form associations or unions.

Pakistan’s population was estimated at 180 million in 2012, and the total labour force in the country is estimated to be 60 million, according to a report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Only about two percent of them are organized, in several hundreds individual unions at the industrial unit level, and some federations and confederations.

Before the partition of united India, there was a strong trade union movement in the region. Even after the partition, the labour movement was strong in the new territory of Pakistan. Ayub Qureshi, a leader of Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF), said that most powerful trade unions belonged to the Pakistan Railways workers, Karachi Port Trust and Pakistan International Airlines. In Karachi, besides the Karachi Municipal Corporation and Karachi Shipyard, new trade unions were formed in the industrial units established in Shershah and Landhi industrial areas, further strengthening the labour movement in the country, he said. However, after the 1970s, the trade union movement began weakening. “The military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq used religious and ethnic fascist groups as well as intelligence agencies to crush the trade union movement in the country,” said Ali.

Factory owners have been using religious groups to stop workers from carrying out strikes

Hundreds of small unions carry out elections or referendums in the country’s major industrial cities, especially in Karachi and Lahore. However, trade union activists say that interference by political parties – along with other factors, especially the restrictive nature of labour laws such as the Industrial Relation Ordinance and the Essential Service Act – hurts the effectiveness of trade unions and divides workers on political, ethnic and religious basis. Ali said it was the fundamental right of each and every party to organize its labour wing, but that has destroyed the overall trade union movement by splitting it.

Experts working on trade unions in Pakistan say that large parts of the private industrial or commercial enterprises, such as farms, are union-free zones. They say there are no genuine trade union activities in the industrial units of Karachi either.

Workers in various factories in Karachi said in background interviews that a number of leaders of political and religious parties, who claim to be trade unionist, have been working in factories as labour officers or serving as office-bearers of ‘pocket unions’. “Political and religious parties are not only forcibly stopping workers to participate in trade unions, but also dividing workers on the basis of faith and political affiliation,” said Asghar Shah, a trade union leader at a textile mill in Korangi industrial area. He said that in some industrial units, the managements form what are known as pocket unions, whose leaders are from locally influential political parties.

In some cases, trade union leaders in the SITE area say, factory managements have been using religious and Jihadi groups to refrain workers from carrying out strikes.

Industrialists are also worried about the increasing interference of political and religious parties in factory affairs. A garments factory owner, who requested anonymity, said political parties forced factory owners to recruit their workers and sympathizers, and expel the workers and sympathizers of rival groups.

A police officer who served in the Korangi industrial area said violent clashes between factory workers were common. “It is a turf war between ethno-political parties,” he said. “With the entry of the ASWJ in labour politics, there is a threat of sectarian violence in industrial zones.”

The writer is a journalist and researcher

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