Workers’ Ordeal

Published in Dawn on August 22, 2017

Surrealism runs through the streets…
— Gabriel Garcia Marquez

GARCIA Marquez’s description of the reality of Latin America fits snugly into scenarios here. Or so it seems. How else would you convey the reality of several worldviews that are bizarre but that actually exist? What strange stories are hidden in the harsh realm of workers and the multilayered reality of, say, a public-sector enterprise that shut down its operations in June 2015 and still has on its payroll 12,000 employees?

When I rang up Mirza sahib, an employee at the Pakistan Steel Mills since the 1980s, and asked if we could meet, he said, “I am stationed in Dalbandin”. It was eerie to hear the melodious name of that faraway town in Balochistan. How come he ended up there? A punishment for activism, a case of enforced transfer, I am told. The PSM has a small iron ore project, now closed, in Chagai district. “The machines are lying on a hill and there is nothing to do.”

Mirza has gone through many vicissitudes in his work life. An active trade union worker, he was ‘promoted’ — along with (an estimated) 8,000 workers in the steel mills — to the ‘officer’ category by the management in 1992 so as to debar them from trade union activities.

It happened during the tenure of the then chairman retired Maj-Gen Sabeeh Qamar-uz-Zaman when the collective bargaining agent (CBA) union was affiliated with the MQM. In 2000, the management forced 5,000 workers to quit under an early retirement scheme. Mirza opted for voluntary early retirement. He was sacked in 2002 for raising his voice. He filed a suit in the National Industrial Relations Commission and won in 2010. It is another story how he and his family endured eight years without a steady income, or for that matter, how countless workers and their households survive when they are out of jobs for one reason or the other, or are not paid wages on time.

How are 12,000 workers faring in an organisation that has gone bankrupt and closed shop? The steel mills is now officially a four-day workplace. Some 4,000 employees are in the services departments which function at a minimum level to maintain the huge infrastructure. The majority of workers have nothing to do and none get their salaries for months.

In April 2017 the Economic Coordination Committee approved payment of salaries for January 2017 “on compassionate grounds”. The workers who retired in 2013 onward have yet to receive their dues. The 100-bed hospital is open but short on medical supplies and the patients must pay on the spot for use of the facility.

For survival, the workers avail annual leave, accumulated over the years, else take leave without pay and look for wage work in the surrounding area. Groups of workers are hired on contract by various industrial establishments in Bin Qasim Town. Several lower-tier workers have pooled resources from loans and savings, bought rickshaws and try to eke out a living while others engage in petty trade, I am told.

What saddens Mirza sahib is the fact that the trade unions did not play the role they could have in saving the mill though they had representation on the board. Whichever trade union got CBA status, its representatives toed the line of the political party it was affiliated with, or sought personal benefits. That’s the sad story of trade unionism in our public-sector enterprises. Political parties in power induct employees to please their constituencies in total disregard of institutional requirements and rules. The trade unions in power protect the unproductive workers and aspire to short-term personal gains. What happens to the enterprise and employees in the long run does not concern the trade unions.

The story of the downfall of the steel mills is convoluted and complex, a political-bureaucratic-military tangle, a subject fit for political economists and historians. Overstaffed and labelled a ‘white elephant’ — as it operated on coal imported from a distant continent — the mill was termed a ‘nightmare’ in December 2015 by the Privatisation Commission.

Currently, the PTI-affiliated Insaf Labour Union — a coalition of seven trade unions — holds the CBA status and grapples with the issues of non-payment of salaries, erratic sacking of workers, and corruption, particularly concerning PSM land. Meanwhile, political wrangling continues between the ragtag management and the trade unions. The PPP-affiliated union, which was in power till the April referendum, hinders the PTI-affiliated union’s status as CBA with the connivance of the management: it sued it for lack of internal elections within the union. Alas! There is no learning for trade unions.

View the article on Dawn’s website:

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