By Behzad Taimur
I sit on the thick, but worn, carpet of a small mosque inside Bakhtiar Hall on Lahore’s Nisbet Road, with Mr. Khurshid Ahmed, general secretary of Pakistan Worker’s Confederation and Pakistan Worker’s Federation. There is no electricity, but the heat is not oppressive. Mr. Ahmed is surrounded by trade union workers who accord him a sort of respect that is rare to be seen – he is their “Great Leader”. Yet, he sits very humbly on the floor of the mosque with me, his head bowed and hands cupped in his lap, and even as he does he seems to exude a rare aura of authority, dignity and grace.
“We are dismayed that the government has ignored all of our demands,” says Mr. Ahmed.
Pakistan Worker’s Confederation (PWC), the largest federation of trade unions in the country, presented a 32-point agenda in April this year which included proposals to be included in the federal budget. These included the demand for raising wages, salaries and pensions of workers employed in both the public and the private sector by 30%, raising the minimum wage at Rs.18,000 per month, raising special allowances for workers such as medical allowance, house rent, et al, provision of an easy loans policy to workers, initiation of tripartite consultation between wage earners, wage payers and the government, under Convention 144 of International Labor Organization, and bettering vocational education and training facilities, amongst others.
“Although, the present government inherited the economic and social mores prevalent today,” says Mr. Ahmed, “it was rightly expected by the masses that the government would bring some change in the outdated socio-economic system of Pakistan. It did not and we are disappointed.”
This thought is echoed by Mr. Naveed Ashiq Dogar, Vice Chairman of WAPDA Hydro-Electric Workers Union, when he says, “It is a budget of the capitalist class, which brings the workers no benefits.”
Mr. Dogar goes on to criticize the purported increase in worker pay scales, which the government announced soon after presenting its budget in the National Assembly, “For the first time in the history of Pakistan, three provinces have given their employees a 15% raise in their wages, and one province – namely Punjab – and the Federal government have raised the wages by 10% only.”
He calls for a uniform increase in wages across Pakistan, and adds, “We demand that the interests of oppressed working class should be taken into account.”
Low-level employees and workers in the banking sector feel far more neglected. “The pay increase that the government has announced is for the public sector,” says Mr. Akbar Ali Khan, Secretary General of National Bank of Pakistan Employees Union, Punjab, Islamabad and CBA. “It does not extend to semi-government and autonomous organizations, such as ours. The banking sector employees are facing great difficulties in face of inflation.”
The general public is beset by spiraling inflation which is being attributed to one-percent increase in the general sales tax (GST) by the government. “The pay increase announced is for government employees only, and does little to mitigate the effect of an increased GST and inflation,” Mr. Ahmed emphasizes.
“We demand that wages be increased by 30%,” adds Mr. Dogar, “and for now, the government should implement a more uniform increase of pay all across the country of 15%.”
Mr. Ahmed offers further suggestions such as broadening of the tax base instead of increasing the GST, clearing the circular debt and provision of gas to thermal power stations to help ameliorate the worsening loadshedding and thereby according the masses some immediate relief, and by following “in the footsteps of the Quaid-e-Azam”, and having the federal cabinet not draw extensive salaries and perks, thus not straining the exchequer.
The trade unions have criticized the lack of increase in pensions for retired workers. “The government has increased minimum pension from Rs. 3000 to Rs. 5000 for the public sector, but the private sector minimum pension remains at Rs. 3600,” Mr. Ahmed emphasizes. “And the 10% increase in pension increase is applicable merely to the public sector. The private sector workers have been left out in the cold.”
The trade unions held a protest in front oft the Lahore Press Club on 24th June to protest the budget. “If our demands are not met,” says Mr. Dogar emphatically, “we would protest to the fullest, and follow whatever policy Mr. Khurshid Ahmed formulates for us.”
Despite the strong words, trade union leaders remain skeptical, and believe their protests will, in the end, bear no fruit. “I do not think our protests will really succeed,” says Mr. Khan, “because the people in power do not really care for us, nor do they listen to our demands. It is, however, a matter of struggle, and the struggle between the rich and poor has been going since time immemorial. We will not give in and our struggle will continue.”
Trade Union leaders say voice of the workers is not represented in the newly elected National Assembly, which, according to them, on the other hands, remains dominated by rich industrialists and powerful feudal elites. They do not believe there is a party of any standing on the political scene in the country which represents their interests. The Left-oriented political parties which do purport to represent them, are small and do not appear to the Trade Union leaders as a viable alternative.
“The worker needs some relief from the grinding poverty, unemployment, loadshedding and a number of other issues,” explains Mr. Khan, “and he is willing to lend his support to any party that he knows will bring him any manner of relief. The Leftist parties will not win elections, and therefore cannot deliver on any of the issues facing the workers. Thus, the worker will not vote for them.”
“We are living in an outdated socio-economic system which benefits merely our feudal and industrialist classes. Whereas we have democracy now, which we, of course, support, the democracy is not wholesome,” says Mr. Ahmed.
“The solution might be through a revolution,” suggests Mr. Khan.
To that, Mr. Ahmed responds by stating that the objective conditions needed for a revolution are not present in Pakistan. So for now, the unions would continue to fight for their rights, say the Trade Union leaders. “The struggle to bridge the irrational gap between the rich and poor is an on-going process which takes time – and the struggle shall continue,” says Mr. Ahmed.
A slightly altered version of this feature also appeared in Daily Dawn on Sunday, 30th June, 2013.