Karamat Ali, Executive Director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), is one of the most well known faces of the labour movement in Pakistan. In his 40-year journey as a trade unionist, he has figured prominently in most of Pakistan’s significant labour movements, always leading from the front.
Hailing from a working class family, Karamat was born in Multan, two years before Partition. Karamat’s father was a textile factory worker and his mother and four older sisters were home-based workers. Karamat himself worked in a factory and attended college. He moved to Karachi in the 1960s to live with his eldest sister. And it was from Karachi that his life-long journey for workers’ rights began.
On May 1, 1982, he founded PILER, a non-profit company that he established with other like-minded unionists, activists and academia in Karachi. PILER spearheaded a pivotal case, that involved campaigning for compensation for the families of 260 garment factory workers who were killed in the horrific 2012 Baldia factory fire, from the German company that bought 90 per cent of the factory’s production.
As a committed human rights and peace activist, Karamat has also been an unwavering advocate for promoting peace between India and Pakistan, building linkages and bridges between civil society groups in both countries. He co-founded the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy and, in 2013, became the first recipient of the Didi Nirmala Deshpande Peace and Justice Award in Patiala, India, which is awarded to individuals promoting peace in the region. He is also a member of the International Advisory Committee, Hague Appeal for Peace, and the International Council World Social Forum. Recently, Karamat Ali was invited to Brussels to brief the European Parliament on the labour situation in Pakistan, especially with reference to the Baldia factory fire.
In this interview with Newsline, Karamat Ali recalls events of his 40-year-long journey as a trade unionist.
How were you introduced to the world of labour and trade unions?
One day, in the early 1960s, we found a group of student union leaders from the National Students Federation (NSF) sitting outside our college gates in Multan. They had been externed from Karachi and landed up in Multan after being denied admission in several colleges in other cities. They were being punished for organising a student agitation against Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship in Karachi. We had not heard of a students’ movement or strike till then.
The agitating students explained the issues they were protesting about, and we offered to help when they proposed a students’ strike. Students boycotted classes to hear them speak, and then later took a rally to the local commissioner’s office for a sit-in to demand that NSF students be allowed to remain in Multan. The commissioner was finally compelled to give in to our demands and further, promised to speak to the Nawab of Kalabagh, the governor of West Pakistan, who personified terror. The commissioner got an assurance from the governor that the NSF students would not be sent back to Karachi and that they would be allowed to complete their studies in Multan. That was the first time I had organised and participated in a strike – and what’s more, it was successful.
When I came to Karachi in 1963, I was 18. I joined S. M. Science College and got in touch with those NSF student union leaders whom I had met in Multan, like Mairaj Muhammad Khan, and they asked me to join the NSF, which I did. The D.J. Science College, S. M. Law College and the S.M. Arts College were all located within a radius of three to four kilometres and was the centre of the students’ movement. And that’s how all of us became part of the anti-Ayub Khan movement in the late 1960s.
While Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, we invited him to the S.M. College’s annual sports day, after which we got to know him closely. In 1966, after being kicked out of Ayub Khan’s government, Bhutto started meeting with students’ organisations. In 1967, Bhutto was invited to the annual convention of the NSF where he announced his intention of forming a political party. [In a sense] that was his first public meeting.
Did you feel that Bhutto had a socialist bent of mind at that point?
My colleagues and I were regular visitors at Bhutto’s 70 Clifton home. In his own way, he showed his concern for the poor by raising issues of the common man, but I never believed that he was a true socialist because, after all, he came from a big feudal family. When he formed the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in November 1967, he invited all of us to join. I told him that I would support him, but not join him, because, “I don’t believe that you are a socialist.”
In the meantime, I had commenced discussions with my co-workers on the formation of a union in the factory where I worked. The management found out and the factory’s general manager, who incidentally was an old, very well-known Communist, Anis Hashmi, called me to his office to say that while he was around, there was no need for a union. But I was determined that the workers should have a union, and told him that he was not going to be around forever. So one fine day, my employment was terminated.
I took up odd jobs after that and became more deeply involved with the students’ movement, which was successful in removing Ayub Khan from office in 1969.
However, after completing my BSc in 1970, I was not allowed to join Karachi University, as my name was among the list of some 20 plus student activists who were denied admission, as we were perceived to be agitators. Some of us decided to work in the rural areas and organise the peasantry, while the rest of us decided to continue with our union work in the city.
My colleagues and I joined a new trade union federation in Karachi – the Muttahida Mazdoor Federation (MMF) led by Usman Baloch. In 1974, I became the general secretary of that Federation. Our goal was to eventually create a single organisation that would bring the workers under one umbrella.
Why was 1972 particularly brutal for the labour movement?
There were two major mobilisations and general strikes during Bhutto’s tenure, which resulted in the brutal killing of workers. The workers were agitating for the fulfillment of two major demands: an increase in wages and a share in the profit to be paid as, per the law of the time, the workers’ share. This law was introduced in 1968, but it became operational under Bhutto, who had raised it from 2.5 per cent of the profit to five per cent. That law still exists.
On June 7, 1972, the employers of a textile factory in the SITE area said they were unable to pay wages, which enraged their workers, and they took over two of the factories. The workers were highly charged and the government decided to go for a crackdown. The first firing took place when the police broke into one of the factories and started firing indiscriminately on the workers, killing three of them.
We, the labour union leaders, had all been arrested from the SITE area prior to the crackdown, but we had a system in place to alert workers in other factories. When factory workers in other areas learnt that three of their colleagues had died as a consequence of police action, they converged on this particular factory, and they were fired upon yet again, leading to the death of even more workers.
We were able to get hold of the dead body of one of the three who were killed first. The next morning, we took out a procession, carrying with us our comrade’s dead body, with the intention of placing it in front of the Governor’s House and demanding the arrest of those who had ordered the firing. But as we were coming out of the Frontier Colony, in SITE township, a large number of policemen had already taken up positions, and they started firing without any warning, killing another eight workers that day. This culminated in an industrial strike that completely shut down the whole of Sindh for nearly 12 days. The agitation spread to Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, as many of the workers came from those places.
Nobody knows how many workers were killed – but it was said to be in the dozens. The strike finally ended on June 18, after a settlement had been arrived at according to which a tribunal was to be set up by a High Court judge, to investigate and take action against those police officers responsible for the indiscriminate firing. Several of the promises that were made in the settlement were not kept, but at least some of the demands were met, such as the provision of running water, electricity and dispensaries to the workers.
A brutal repression of workers followed: the Karachi Jail was packed to capacity – out of its 1,300 inmates, 1,200 were workers. We got them released and had their cases withdrawn. Three-and-a half months later, in October 1972, the same thing happened in the Landhi Industrial Area – this time on a much larger scale. We don’t even know how many workers were killed in that episode but the figures were reportedly higher than those in the SITE industrial area.
Both these incidents took place under Bhutto’s government. He was sworn in as prime minister on December 19, 1971 and on February 10, 1972, he announced a labour policy which the trade unions rejected, because they expected much more, given his election campaign promises. People were getting impatient, which is why they mobilised in large numbers prompting Bhutto to use force. “…people should stop this agitation, otherwise the strength of the street will be met with the strength of the state,” he warned.
Didn’t Bhutto try to make amends, after so many workers had been killed?
While we were in jail, Bhutto asked a mutual friend to bring us to Islamabad so that he could speak to us directly. We asked to be released from jail first. We made it clear that we were willing to meet him – but not as his prisoners. To which Bhutto said, “Let them rot in jail.”
In 1973, Bhutto declared emergency soon after the promulgation of the 1973 Constitution, suspending fundamental rights. The status quo continued till July 1977, when General Zia-ul-Haq dislodged Bhutto with a boastful announcement – “I have lifted the emergency” – and proceeded to impose martial law.
This great labour upheaval had subsided by 1975, and all those who were part of it were implicated in several cases. We were blacklisted. It became impossible for us to continue our work as there were cases against us, as well as the union leaders.
How did the trade union and labour unions become so fragmented?
Bhutto had repressed the trade unions and the students’ movement very effectively. Subsequently, the trade unions as well as the students unions, were gradually taken over by the right-wingers, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)-affiliated student wings like the Jamiat-e-Talaba and other similar organisations. Bhutto tried to form his own trade union by the name of the ‘People’s Labour Federation.’
Basically, whatever was left of the trade unions split up into political party-affiliated organisations. Now almost every political party has its own labour wing. Recently there was a referendum at the Pakistan Steel Mills, where Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s trade union won against the People’s Party one. In reality, this effectively divides the labour movement.
What, would you say, was the golden era of the labour unions?
The golden period lasted till the first martial law under Ayub Khan. Ayub Khan’s 10 years and Zia-ul-Haq’s 10 years were the worst period in our labour history.
Then came the Structural Adjustment Programme of the IMF in November 1988, courtesy an agreement entered into by a caretaker government three days prior to the elections. The government itself was illegal as there was no caretaker prime minister and General Aslam Beg ran the government from behind the scenes, which was unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, the IMF agreement was imposed upon the government that followed. Benazir was either not able, or not willing to undertake full-scale privatisation. The allegations of corruption levelled against her government was probably not the only reason why she was removed. Nawaz Sharif was brought back, and large-scale privatisation took place under his government.
So we lost more unions and union membership in all firms, companies and banks where privatisation took place. Employees were given the option of the so-called golden handshake and their jobs were terminated or they were given the option of rejoining as contract workers.
The unions had a membership of 1.2 million when Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1977. By the time he was killed in 1988, we had lost about 30 per cent of the union membership due to closures [of mills and factories], and the induction of contract workers on a large scale that made unionisation impossible.
What is the current status of the labour unions in Pakistan?
During the first martial law imposed by Ayub Khan in 1958, he did away with the labour legislation that existed prior to independence. By 1968, Ayub Khan had completely repealed the law that had been passed in 1926 through Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s efforts and brought in his own law, which could not be implemented because of the movement against him.
During Yayha Khan’s regime in 1969, there was another highly mobilised mass movement comprising students and workers. A labour conference was convened after which a labour policy was announced that merged the two previous laws of union formation and administration, and the one for industrial disputes. It was an amalgam, with several new provisions that allowed only for enterprise-based unions, and not industrial unions. It also allowed the multiplicity of unions in each enterprise.
Now, there are some 8,500 plus registered trade unions with a combined membership of not more than 500,000 workers. And these unions exist in not more than 1,500 enterprises. On an average, there are more than four or five unions in each plant. It is a total fragmentation, which was the objective of merging the two laws, making the unions totally ineffective. That is why we don’t see labour mobilisation anymore.
The agricultural sector was totally excluded to keep the agricultural workers completely devoid of rights.
The International Labour Organ-isation (ILO) review mission of 1986 found that as far as the Right of Association was concerned, Pakistani law excluded 75 per cent of the workforce from the Right of Association. And the remaining 25 per cent could not access this right without difficulties.
Similarly, the Essential Services Act, which is for wartime only, could be implemented, which means that no union activity or right to strike, or both, were allowed. Similarly, by declaring a place as a public utility, the union ceases to exist.
The highest level of unionisation achieved in this country has never been more than 10 per cent. In 1950, the combined population of both East and West Pakistan was about 70 million, with a labour force not exceeding 10 million – with women’s participation being very poor. Yet there were 500,000 union members. Now we have the same number of union members or even less, while the labour force is approximately 61 million. So the labour force is six times larger, but less than one per cent of it can unionise.
On a positive note, after the 18th Amendment, the agricultural sector in Sindh has been given the right to unionise.
What is the situation in the factories after the fragmentation of unions?
Under the law, a factory must be inspected at least once a year. But that stopped under Zia-ul-Haq, when he formally announced that no inspection could take place without the concurrence of the employer.
The 1986 ILO review mission on health and safety said that going by the current capacity of the inspectorate, a factory inspected in 1986 would only get its next turn for inspection after 30 years. The Baldia garment factory fire of 2012 – one of the worst in Pakistan’s history – was the result of no inspection.
When you say that all the parties have their labour wings, are you implying that labour has become politicised?
There is nothing wrong with the politicisation of labour. In fact every citizen should take part in politics and join a party of his or her own choice. However, dividing workers along party lines has a negative impact on the unions.
How disruptive have labour unions been in certain industries such as PIA and KESC?
Trade unions play a positive role. It is better to deal through an organisation rather than 10,000 individuals, and settle matters for both sides through a collective bargaining agreement. The issue of workers’ rights is a bigger problem in our society in which feudal attitudes prevail even in the non-feudal sectors of society.
In Pakistan, industrialisation literally started with the public sector (courtesy PIDC), which was then handed over to the private sector. And on close examination, it appears that the private sector made a mess of it. A union does not have the right to recruit people. And yet when the issue of overstaffing arises, the question should be, who did the actual recruiting in the first place?
Secondly, unions are not involved in management functions. Had nationalisation been done properly, you would have had a system of workers’ participation. That was never done. Instead, the private sector managing director was removed only to be replaced by a bureaucrat and nothing else changed.
I will not deny that there were excesses, which are bound to happen when things are done in a haphazard manner. The management of nationalised companies enjoyed almost absolute powers and they indulged in malpractices. Then, of course, some trade union leaders who were given promotions would end up supporting the management, while the rest would become reactionary.
There was a small private airline called Orient Airways, which later became Pakistan International Airlines, set up in the public sector where the workers were unionised from the very beginning. It remained one of the best airlines in the world for a very long time. So how come PIA was the best while there was a union? Did you know many of the best airlines of the world today, such as Emirates and Malaysian airlines were set up by PIA personnel who were sent around the world as trainers.
What, in your view, should the real wage of a worker be now?
In my calculation, the real wage in Pakistan should be at least Rs. 30,000. In the olden days it used to be equivalent to the price of one tola of gold, but now a tola of gold is valued at over Rs. 50,000.
The current minimum wage is Rs. 14,000, with purchasing power going down. The fact is that a minimum wage is determined for unskilled workers and it should not apply to skilled workers. The gap between our minimum wage and the average wage our workers earn is getting wider. In practice, the average wage earned by male workers in the garment sector is not more than Rs. 10,500 a month, and for female workers it is presently around Rs. 6,000-7,000. And this, after working for 14 to 15 hours to make ends meet. This is particularly true of those doing piece work in order to earn just enough to survive on.
Where does Pakistan stand regionally as far as the labour laws are concerned?
Pakistan has ratified all eight conventions of the ILO pertaining to the Right of Association, collective bargaining, forced labour, abolition of forced labour, minimum wage, worst forms of child labour, equal remuneration and discrimination.
Unfortunately, our legislation is not in full conformity with ILO conventions. On the contrary, they actually contravene them by changing the definition of a worker, for instance. In the banking sector if you are working as an associate clerk or a cashier your designation is changed to a cash officer, thus taking away your right to unionisation or forming an association. But an association does not have the legal right to bargain collectively. So such devices are violative of ILO’s Convention 87 in letter and spirit.
Similarly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also guarantees these economic and social rights to every human being – and Pakistan is a signatory to it. In Pakistan’s 1973 constitution, article 17 guarantees the Right of Association to all citizens, including the employer and the employees – with the exception of those instances where the sovereignty of Pakistan can be affected negatively. But one would have to really prove how the sovereignty of Pakistan is compromised.
In the Industrial Relations Ordinance there is a provision that the law does not apply to anything that is directly or incidentally related to the defence of Pakistan. A factory where we had formed a union in 1972 used to produce and sell water coolers to the armed forces as well. The owners went to court saying that since they were providing goods to the armed forces, their workers could not form a union. Then we found out they were also exporting their coolers to India. So we went to court. Obviously they were a commercial concern, and had nothing to do with the defence of Pakistan, otherwise they wouldn’t be selling their goods to India.