As the debate around privatisation of state-owned enterprises gains momentum, it invites engagement of various groups in the process, including policymakers, think tanks and academics among others. But what crucially lacks here is the engagement of trade unions and the influence they ought to have exerted in the privatisation process. The Privatisation Commission of Pakistan in its recent approvals for privatisation (i.e., of PIA) and in implementing the government’s privatisation programme barely takes note of trade unions as a stakeholder in the process.
Essentially, trade unions gained force during the Industrial Revolution as a response to capitalism so that the majority who offered their labour in exchange for a wage could collectively organise and counter the dominance of individuals who owned the means of land and capital looking to maximise their profits. In the modern age, the role of trade unions in mediating privatisation movements is well regarded the world over and they serve a fundamental need in the economy of safeguarding employee welfare in industries. By lobbying with governments, being involved in shaping labour policies and attracting membership, trade unions influence important issues such as wages, working hours, job security and legal representation among other things as part of their efforts to ensure that a balance is achieved between employer and employee. Trade unions and the collective bargaining they engage in have played a vital role in the development of modern democratic states where strong labour laws and competitive national minimum wages are just two of the many positives outcomes that have prevailed. The flourishing of industries, such as the aviation and automobile industries in the European Union are a testament to the efforts of trade unions and governments working together, showing their capacity for promoting democracy both in the workplace and society as whole. In Pakistan, the trade union movement today certainly lacks mainstream public appeal and support. We seldom come across trade unions within the privatisation versus nationalisation debate and neither do we see them assert any noticeable influence on the negotiation process such as with the Privatisation Commission. Young adults entering the labour market get exposed to very little information about trade unions. Neither are students at universities learning anything about trade unions since the curriculum at reputed business schools hardly engages with Industrial Relations as a topic. Yet still, young adults have views about trade unions as being predominantly violent, corrupt and non-progressive outfits. It is not to say that the trade union movement is non-existent. We can see bodies such as the National Trade Unions Federation of Pakistan and the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign voicing their concerns and trying to make themselves heard but with very little effect or notice taken.
It would be useful to understand the historical forces which have led to the demise and abandonment of trade unions in Pakistan. Having been founded in 1947, Pakistan inherited and carried forward a healthy labour movement with resilient trade unions such as those of the Karachi Port Trust, the Karachi Municipal Corporation, the unions of the railway workers and unions representing industrial units such as SITE, Landhi and Shershah, while industries were expanding in Karachi. The Pakistan Trade Unions Federation was the first labour federation of Pakistan, which strived for the common interests of workers and challenged Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s rule. Despite the nationalisation of industries during the PPP government of the 1970s, the labour movement and its leaders were suppressed as they began to exert influence. They were weakened in their unity by political and religious parties that began to form their own labour wings. The extreme politicisation of trade unions by political parties meant the marginalisation of workers on the basis of ethnicity and religion which not only crippled them, but also bred nepotism among our professions and industries. Time has proven that the affiliation of trade unions with political and religious organisations has been detrimental to employee interests and unity.
Added to this, military rule had always clamped down on trade unions, portraying them as problematic and as barriers to economic progress. Particularly, a decade or more of General Zia’s rule caused the rapid downfall of the labour movement during which trade unions were crushed to ensure that students and workers kept away from any attempts at organising. This has led to one of the biggest deficiencies in our system today, which is the lack of leaders within the political and civic arena. Healthy student labour activism offered an institutional system and mechanism through which future leaders could be groomed and could enter the political and civic governance system.
Successive governments ever since have been passing unsupportive labour laws, ostracising trade unions and devaluing industrial relations in the state. The current industrial reforms being sanctioned continue in this same tradition as we barely see worker welfare being highlighted as part of the economic development agenda. And why would they be, given that parliament comprises mainly of the industrialist, the feudal and the monarch? The first two are better off without any form of labour organising and the latter who by virtue of dynastic politics, is better off with trade unions remaining political outlets and workers remaining factioned.
Hence, there is little hope for the interest of common workers being represented which would be a job for trade unions, only if they had existed in their true spirit. The government’s privatisation drive tries to convince us that corporations will be better managed, will stop incurring losses and become profitable in the long run. But who will this really benefit? If our industries are to have better governance and be of benefit to common people, then we must envision the revival and reinvention of trade unions to serve their actual purpose. No society can prosper until it starts to litigate for the rights of its people and can begin to nominate its leaders from among the masses. The collective representation of workers and their labour rights is one road that leads to such a society.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2014.