Labour movements

Marvi Memon May 04, 2010

Under Pharaoh Ramses III who was king of ancient Egypt from 1186-1157 BCE, the artisans of the Royal Necropolis at Deir el-Medina organised the first known strike in human history. Since then the ruled have been protesting against the rulers. Flashforward to 2008 and we have a PPP government in this country – known for its socialist origins – doing nothing really to help the cause of labour.

This year I truly appreciated Labour Day perhaps because I have walked more than I have talked. I had spent seven days on a footpath asking for regularisation of employees who work in the National Programme for Improvement of Watercourses. And I had just returned from a five-day long countrywide long march of the All Pakistan Clerks Association culminating with a dharna at Parliament House. The results of this protest will be evaluated after May 15, which is the deadline given by the government to fulfil their charter of demands.

And lastly, I negotiated with the government on behalf of the nurses who staged an overnight dharna outside the parliament asking for their demands to be fulfilled. During these struggles I learned that the bond that exists amongst labourers goes beyond the divisions created on ethnic, linguistic and sectarian basis. It’s about the needs of a human which are the same irrespective of such differences. Our rulers have reduced their credibility by invariably defaulting on most of their promises. Thus after the labour policy for 2010 was announced, scepticism remains high, especially with regard to the implementation of the raise in the minimum wage from Rs6,000 to Rs7,000.

This is because even the earlier minimum wage was not enforced — primarily because of a lack of willingness as well as an absence of a strategy to ensure implementation. In any case, even Rs7,000 seems insufficient, given the state of inflation in the country – how can a labourer expect to support his or her family on such a small sum? The reason why governments succeed in delaying justice and worker movements don’t achieve all their demands is because the government is good at divide and rule.

If each worker would come out on the streets and not leave until each demand was met the government would easily give in. If a charter of demands is based on ‘haq’ then frankly negotiations are not needed. All governments would be bound to honour it. Labour workers are brave. They have taken to the streets against all forms of state terrorism and faced the wrath of the state. Once workers organise themselves and once their demands reach the masses all good citizens will rise in their favour.

We have not been able to bridge the gap between labour workers and ordinary citizens because if that were done the latter would at least understand the demands that labourers make of their employers. As the only opposition in Pakistan, we would like to remind the government of its failed promises and slogans: “Roti kapra aur makan” has been translated into “bhook, rozgar and merit ka katal”. Instead of regularising the jobs of those who are on contract, jobs are being sold to the highest bidder.

At such a juncture in Pakistan’s history, the government needs to realise that labour protests could turn ugly if the frustration between the haves and the have-nots were to further widen. As Mohammad Ali Jinnah said: “Come forward as servants of Islam, organise the people economically, socially, educationally and politically and I am sure that you will be a power that will be accepted by everybody.”