By Zia Ur Rehman

October 5, 2019

To mark its golden jubilee celebrations, the National Labour Federation (NLF), the labour wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), has announced a series of events, including an international conference on trade unions and a photo exhibition in Karachi between October 7 and 9.

The NLF central secretary-general, Shahid Ayub, associate secretary Khalid Khan, and Karachi president Abdul Salam, at a press conference on Tuesday at the Karachi Press Club said various events, including rallies and protest demonstration across the country, have been planned to celebrate the 50 years of the NLF. The celebrations, which started on Tuesday, October 1, will continue till October 10.

Formed 50 years ago by JI founder Syed Abul A’la Maududi to mainly counter the spread of socialist ideology among the labour class and trade unions in the country, the NLF is currently the third major trade unions’ federation in the country, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Ayub said the JI-affiliated trade union body has continuously been struggling for the rights of workers across the country and it was acknowledged by the ILO in its recent profiling of trade unions in Pakistan. In a recent study, titled ‘A Profile of Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations in Pakistan’, the ILO recognised the NLF as the third largest trade union body of Pakistan after the Pakistan Workers Federation (PWF) and the Muttahida Labour Federation (MLF).

The PWF and MLF have affiliated 396 and 204 trade unions respectively across the country, said the ILO study. However, the study also cited the National Industrial Relations Commission’s (NIRC) record, according to which 341 unions are affiliated with the PWF with a total membership of 510,280 while the MLF has 134 unions with a membership of 44,537.

The PWF and the MLF have not allied themselves with any political party and operate as independent federations. However, most of its leaders are adherents of the left-wing ideology.

A total of 200 unions are currently affiliated with the NLF, according to the ILO study. The NIRC record, however, shows that there are 130 unions in the country linked with the NLF with a total membership of 42,210. The NLF had registered itself with the NIRC in 2003.

The labour body of the JI is the only trade unions’ federation of the country affiliated with a religious party. The proscribed Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat formed its labour wing at the Karachi level a few years ago but it could not produce the desired results and was eventually abandoned.

Sectors where the NLF-led trade unions have been operating include telecommunication, shipyard, civic agencies and local bodies, transport, rice mills, metal, glass bangles, fertilizer, sugar, beverages, wood, and engineering sectors, etc., the ILO study said. It added that the NLF, however, has no affiliation with any workers’ bodies at the international level.

Besides the JI, only two other political parties in Pakistan – the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – have their active labour wings. The MQM-P’s United Workers Front and the PPP’s Peoples Labour Bureau ranked sixth and ninth in the ILO ranking with a membership of 4,700 and 3,700 respectively, said the ILO study.

Ayub said he was hopeful that the NLF would emerge as the largest trade unions’ federation in the country in the upcoming years. “Our main focus is now to expand our work in the irrigation and local government departments in Sindh and Punjab provinces,” he said.

In addition to the NLF, the JI has also another labour organisation called ‘Tehreek-e-Mahnat Pakistan’, which is not involved in active trade union politics but rather focuses on preparing literature and ideology for the workers.

Historical perspective

The NLF central secretary general said Maududi had founded the JI’s trade unions’ federation to counter the rising influence of socialist groups among the trade unions and workers class.

“These left leaders, such as Mirza Ibrahim of the Pakistan Railway used to divert the workers from religion by distributing socialist literature among them and it was the reason that the JI decided to set up an active labour group in the country to counter negative propaganda among the workers,” Ayub told The News. “The NLF’s formation was similar to that of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba to counter the socialist ideas among students.”

Critics of the JI allege that the Islamist party intentionally formed the NLF in the 1960s to split the strong labour movement at that time. “It was the cold-war era and the labour movements were dominated by those federations and labour associations that wanted to establish a socialist system in Pakistan. The JI had formed its labour body at the behest of the US to weaken the support base of the leftist parties,” said Tausif Ahmed Khan, a political analyst, as he spoke to The News.

He added that before Partition, trade unions were very strong in the Indian subcontinent. “But later, consecutive governments in both the countries weakened the trade union campaigns by dividing workers on religious, political and ethnic lines.”

Maududi had chosen Prof Shafi Malik, a labour leader from Hyderabad, to head the NLF. Malik, who relocated to Karachi to organise the NLF, remained on several positions in the NLF, mainly the president and secretary-general, until 2000 and authored several books on trade unions and labour issues.

However, the NLF is not the first labour body of the JI as earlier in 1949, the party had formed the Labour Welfare Committee Pakistan to help address individual grievances of government officials in the country.

Then in 1957, according to Parvez Rahim, a consultant and researcher, the JI formed the Labour Federation of Pakistan as it wanted its labour organization at the time when the number of trade unions was increasing due to the establishment of new industries.

“This federation continued to function until August 1960, but the martial law regime which took over in October 1958 made its survival difficult by arresting its leaders. As a result, there was no activity in the labour field till the formation of the NLF in 1969,” wrote Rahim in January 2017 in Dawn as he reviewed Malik’s book ‘Islami Mazdoor Tehreek ki Safar Kahani’.

After its formation and efforts of Malik, the JI-affiliated trade union body won a referendum in the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). It was also the first-ever referendum in the country’s history of labour movements.

In the beginning, the NLF operated independently and kept distance with the JI’s political activities. “But later, the leadership realised that many trade union leaders are earning fame by using the NLF platform and then they are joining another parties,” said Ayub, citing the example of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz central leader Mushahidullah Khan, who was an NLF leader at the PIA.