Clouds of teargas were rising from D-Chowk in Islamabad as the capital turned into a very sad battlefield. The sad part, of course, was because both warring parties work for the same employer — the Government of Pakistan. Police and government employees from different departments fought it out as the latter held fast in their demands for better wages and regularisation. By the night of Wednesday, several protesters had been arrested, and the government was giving assurances that most of the protesters demands would be met.
The core demand for most of the protesters was better pay — as much as 40% more. Although the initial demand and offer were far off — the government was only offering about 25% for lower-cadre federal employees as interim relief till the next federal budget — the protesters accepted a tweaked offer that applied to government employees across the board, including at the provincial level. While the pay raise that was agreed for all employees may seem high, we must remember that inflation alone this year has been rising at breakneck speed, and the raise really only amounts to a cost of living increase. The demand for regularisation of employees in several fields, including teachers, has also reportedly been met.
Most analysts had expected of the government to agree to most of the protesters’ demands, so the fact that the government let the protests drag and reach the point of violence is concerning. Also worrying was that instead of flatly denying most of the conditions that the government later accepted anyway, Sheikh Rashid was trying to paint the protesters as being backed by the opposition. Even if they were, it is not like he or the PTI have any right to criticise anyone for protesting in Islamabad, fighting with the police, and causing hardships to the citizens of the capital.
While it is heartening to know that government employees will be getting some economic relief, we must also ask what will become of millions of private employees who are stuck in the same boat, and whose employers are in no position to offer them better wages when their own bottom lines have been murdered by inflation, economic stagnation, and devaluation.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2021.
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