Pakistan: Six workers' leaders sentenced to a total 490 years' jail! Solidarity needed!

On November 2 a protest demonstration was held in Lahore by the Labour Party Pakistan to denounce the jail sentences imposed on six leaders of the power loom workers' movement in Faisalabad.

By Khalid Mehmood and Farooq Tariq

November 2, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Power loom workers in Faisalabad in mid-2010 went on a series of major strikes and demonstrations. Six of their leaders were arrested by the police. Once in detention, they were additionally charged under anti-terrorist legislation. The six have now been sentenced to a total of almost 490 years' jail (served concurrently). This is a clear message of how "anti terror" laws are used against workers. The Labour Party Pakistan is calling for demonstrations outside Pakistan embassies and consulates around the world.

Anti-terrorist court judge Mian Muhammad Anwar Nazir on November 1, 2011, sentenced six leaders of the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM, the organisation of the power loom workers in Faisalabad) under terrorism charges in Faisalabad. On average, each of the six were sentenced -- on seven charges -- to 81 years in jail, a total of almost 490 years! As all the jail sentences will begin at the same time, each labour leader will spend at least 10 years in jail.

Four LQM leaders Akbar Ali Kamboh, Babar Shafiq Randhawa, Fazal Elahi, Rana Riaz Ahmed were arrested on July 22, 2010, by Faisalabad police after a strike called by power loom workers for a 17% increase in wages as per an announcement of the government. Two other leaders, Muhammad Aslam Malik and Asghar Ali Ansari, were also arrested under the same charges four months ago.

They were accused of burning down a factory during the strike. This is a fabricated charge. The facts are that on the day of strike, July 20, 2010, gangsters in the pay of the factory owner in Thekri Wala started shootng at the workers who were leaving the factory to demand better wages. Some workers dared to go inside the factory and forced the gangsters to stop firing.

After workers left for the city to attend the main rally, the owner set fire to one room, claiming that the workers had burnt the factory. During the trial, the workers' advocate asked if the factory had been burned down then how was it able to be operating again two days later?

The arrests of the workers under terrorism charges and sentences by the court are the result of a notorious campaign by the factory owners, district administration and local politicians against the rising power loom workers' movement in Faisalabad. Punjab government’s actions against workers are increasing with every day. Appointments of Aftab Cheema and Nasim Sadiq to senior police positions in Faisalabad last year by Shehbaz Sharif was mainly to control the rising workers' movement. These two officers made many promises with the LQM leadership to re-investigate the case against the arrested workers but did not fulfill these promises. Instead they have supported the owners of the power looms in their actions against workers.

More than 100,000 power loom workers in Faisalabad district went on strike on July 20, 2010, for an increase of wages that had been announced by the government during the presentation of budget 2010-11. The government announced 17% rise in the minimum wage for the private sector workers. The LQM in Faisalabad, Jhang and other districts had been in negotiations with power loom owners for three weeks. The power loom employers would not accep these just demands and started spreading poisonous propaganda against workers by labelling them as terrorists.

The four leaders of the striking workers were then illegally arrested without and kept in police lock-up without any charges. It was reported that during the strike, the workers remained peaceful but the owners of factories and their henchmen and police remained violent against the striking workers. The owners and their henchmen resorted to violence by throwing stones and bricks at the peaceful march of workers from one side of the protest, while police used tear gas shells on the workers from the other end. Twenty-five workers were injured including Tahir Rana, president of LQM Faisalabad district, who was critically injured. Around 100 workers were also arrested.

The media reported that thousands of workers from different areas of Faisalabad district marched despite a police ban on public gatherings. As the workers began their march, gangsters of power loom owners started firing at the striking workers in Sudhar area of Faisalabad. Sudhar is the suburb of Faisalabad where a big number of power loom factories are located. This area had been a battle ground between workers and owners for three years as the workers organised themselves effectively in huge numbers there.

The Labour Education Foundation condemns decision of sentencing workers under terrorism charges for raising voice wage increase. We believe that only way out for workers in the present setup of capitalists and feudals is to organise more and more workers and to develop movements across Pakistan.

On November 2 a protest demonstration was held in Lahore by the Labour Party Pakistan to denounce the jail sentences imposed on six leaders of the power loom workers' movement in Faisalabad.

The Labour Qaumi Movement leaders are members of Labour Party Pakistan (LPP). In January 2010, they organised a massive workers and peasant conference at the famous Dhobe Ghat in Faisalabad on the eve of the LPP's fifth congress in the city. More than 10,000 participated in this massive gathering.

In April that year, the chairperson of the LQM contested a by-election for a Punjab assembly seat and won a reasonable vote of around 9 per cent.

All this was not acceptable to the ruling PMLN party in Punjab and its law minister Rana Sana Ullah Khan. They decided to target the movement. It is now clear that the PMLN leadership in Faisalabad alongside the police and judiciary is out to crush the labour movement. Never in the history of Pakistan have such harsh sentences been imposed on labour leaders for an incident they were not involved in.

Anti-terrorist laws are frequently used against protesting industrial workers in Punjab. Thirteen trade union leaders are facing such charges of terrorism. Their real crime is fighting for a better life for their members and demanding higher wages. The Punjab government is all out to crush any trade union movement in factories which is challenging their authority.

The Faisalabad workers are being singled out by the Punjab government because they are political and they are members of Labour Party Pakistan. We are not giving in.

Please protest where ever you are. Please take up the case in your organisations and pass a resolution to condemn the jail sentences and issue public statements to the newspapers. The Labour Party Pakistan is calling for demonstrations outside Pakistan embassies and consulates around the world.