Marked as the universal labour day globally, May 1 has a significance that dates back centuries — beginning in 1884, workers in the US fought for an eight-hour day, and then, as the movement gained momentum, for other rights. But is the significance of that movement still understood in our country, or will the occasion — as has, in fact, happened for many years — be regarded by most as a welcome day off from work, with a few rallies by workers waving red flags being staged here and there. The sad truth is that despite valiant effort on the part of labour leaders and unions, who bravely fight on for their rights across the country, the number of people attending these gatherings has declined; fewer people march along the streets and even fewer cheer them on. The decline of the labour movement in Pakistan is a huge loss. As a result of government policies, often put in place with the connivance of industrialists who are part of that entity called the ‘ruling elite’, the once vibrant labour movement has been decimated, and the strength it enjoyed through the 1950s and 1960s gradually withered away.
The Railways Union, once a powerful force, has virtually fallen apart — much like the Railways itself. Parties, NGOs and other groups established to protect the rights of workers continue to wave their flags, but they simply refuse to flutter quite so freely. This of course means that workers have lost the power to demand fair treatment; attempts to do so have been made in recent years — agricultural workers working on military farms in Punjab being one example — but these efforts have proved difficult to sustain.
As a result, we have millions of workers, including women and children, toiling in the most miserable conditions on farms, in mines, factories and elsewhere. Despite the introduction of legislation by the present government to protect rights of workers, its implementation remains poor. The ability of the labour movement to produce more leaders, or to have a greater political impact, affects our lives in many ways and may be counted as one reason why we struggle to find new leadership and new ideas in so many spheres of life.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2012.
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