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Pakistan: Trade unions under attack -- `We have no option but to fight back!'

By Farooq Tariq

May 18, 2008 -- The announcement by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government lifting restrictions on trade union activities has brought a new wave of unionisation in many private industries. The bosses are not used to it. They have made tremendous profits under General Pervez Musharraf's eight years of dictatorship. Although he is still there as ``president'', there is some breathing space. Wherever workers have tried to form new unions, the bosses have tried their best to intimidate union activists with false legal cases, arrest, torture and kidnapping. The PPP government has yet to take any action against these bosses.

Along with several trade union leaders, I addressed a press conference today, May 18, at the Lahore Press Club to present eyewitness accounts to this torture.

Malik Tahir from the New Khan Metro Bus Workers and Staff Haqooq Union Lahore showed several wounds on his body to the media. He was kidnapped and tortured on the evening of May 16 in Lahore by the bosses of the private bus company. His only crime was to attend a press conference and demonstration of the union to condemn the sacking of 80 drivers and conductors by the New Khan bus company. After the union was formed, more than 80 members of the union were terminated, including all the main leaders.

The union was registered on May 6, 2008, by the labour department. It is the first union formed in the bus company. A Muslim League member of parliament Mr Umer Hayat Rokri owns the company. He was a member of the Musharraf-supported PMLQ. After February 18, he changed his political affiliation and joined the PML Nawaz Sharif group. He owns several hundred buses. His bus company has the major share of transportation in Lahore. Lahore has no publicly owned bus service.

There are no permanent workers at the New Khan bus company. Every one is on contract. The wages are very low. The drivers are paid a maximum of 5500 rupees ($90) and conductors Rp2500 ($48) a month, plus a commission system of 2.5 per cent of daily income. That brings less than $50 extra a month in most cases. But there a lot of fines imposed on the drivers and conductors. The bus company has the record for the most number of accidents. The reason is that drivers are asked to complete the whole route three times a day no matter what. There is no way that drivers can do that in eight hours. If they try to do it, there are accidents. When there is an accident, the company takes care of the bus but not the employees. They have to take care themselves.

None of the workers are registered for social security or have social security cards. The company has a group of gangsters at the depots and they beat the drivers and conductors for any small mistake. There is no protection for the workers at all in the bus company. No labour law is respected by the company. Under the Musharraf dictatorship, the bus company went on without being noticed by labour department for its violations of labour laws.

Some workers decided to fight back against this brutal behaviour even at the cost of their jobs. Secret meetings of the workers went on for some time after the general election. Finally, they decided to form the union. They contacted the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) and the first poster for the union was printed by the Pakistan Trade Unions Resource Centre run by the Labour Education Foundation in Lahore. When the workers went to fly-post [paste up] the posters at bus depots, several of them were beaten by the gangsters and later handed over to the police. The police registered false charges against the leaders and arrested three of them. Two were released on bail, while one is still in jail.

This all was going on while I was visiting Britain from May 8 to May 15. On my first day at the LPP office on May 17, I was shown the marks on Malik Tahir's body. He was brutally beaten up on the night of May 16. This was going too far. The textile union leaders also called us from Qasur and Faisalabad, and told us about attacks on their members as well.

In Faisalabad, five workers have been in jail for the last eight days. The police, on instructions from the textile bosses, have registered false charges against them. They all belong to Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM), an organisation fighting for textile workers' rights in Faisalabad. The LQM mobilised more than 2000 workers in protest but police did not release them. At Qasur similar incidents have happened and the boss who kidnapped and tortureed union activists still has not been arrested, despite a case being registered against him after a massive demonstration by the union in the city.

We decided not to sit quietlye but to fight back. As a first step, we called all the labour leaders to a press conference to tell their stories to the media.

There were more journalists than we expected. Almost all the private television channels were there and most of the print media as well. It was a very crowded press conference. We do not know how many will actually print or broadcast our news but we had very friendly encounter with the journalists.

We announced at the press conference that on May 22, the Labour Party Pakistan will *gherao* (picket) the bus company in Lahore in protest if the bosses are not arrested for kidnapping, and workers are not given their jobs back. We also announced that the LQM would blockade Faisalabad, Pakistan's third-largest city on Friday, May 23.

There is no turning back. We have to fight. The workers have shown their real commitment to form unions. However, the PPP government is yet to fulfill its promise of a free and fair atmosphere in which workers can freely form unions. We appeal to the PPP government to take notice of the situation or we will have no option but to organise demonstrations, rallies and strikes for the defence of our basic democratic right to form the trade unions.

[Farooq Tariq is spokesperson of the Labour Party Pakistan. The LPP can be contaced at 40 Abbot Road Lahore, Pakistan. Tel: 92 42 6315162; Fax: 92 42 6271149; Mobile: 92 300 841 1945. Email labour_party@yahoo.com or visit http://www.laborpakistan.org or http://www.jeddojuhd.com/.]

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