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.”

Continue reading

Media and Labour

Published in Dawn on August 13, 2017

NOAM Chomsky pins his propaganda model on “inequality of wealth and power and its multi-level effects on mass media interests and choices”. The media’s structure and its five basic filters, as pointed out by Chomsky, are the same the world over, although there are variations in cultural and political filters specific to each country. Hence, it came as no surprise when I saw the news of the death of five coal miners on page six of a national newspaper a few days ago. Generally speaking, the deaths of workers are deemed fit for page two or three and if the number of dead is higher, the news is taken on the front page. I wondered about the filters in this case: was it the location of the event (a village east of Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir — and not in the provinces) or lack of representation (no trade union mediation).

Continue reading

Map of Resistance

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2017

INVISIBLE to the frenzied world of urban dwellers, and anchored in the rural hinterlands of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe, live communities of peasants — small farmers, tenants, sharecroppers — joined together in their tumultuous fight against forces bent upon usurping their rights to land, to produce and to continue their way of life. La Via Campesina (literally ‘the peasant way’) is a unique international labour movement representing 200 million rural workers in 73 countries.

Today, April 17, is the International Day of Peasants Struggles celebrated by La Via Campesina the world over to honour the 19 members of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement who were shot dead by the military police on this day in 1996 in the village of Eldorado Los Carajás during a demonstration against federal appropriation of land cultivated by 3,000 rural families.

Continue reading

NYC Transit Workers

Published in Dawn on August 11 2016

I HAD come to believe that the gloom that surrounds trade unionism in my part of the world was a global phenomenon, and that collective bargaining negotiations were dying practices. Not so in New York.

The public transit union, called Local 100, which represents 42,000 workers and retirees of the city’s public transportation system (subway, buses and surface trains), is currently gearing up its campaign for a new charter of demands with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), due in January 2017. The union holds elections every three years and negotiates a collective bargaining contract every five. In the first week of August, the union held a two-day workshop to discuss campaign strategy in order to win a fair deal.

Continue reading

Lessons of History

Published on June 8 2016 in Dawn

THE convoluted history of the labour movement in Pakistan is replete with negativities: state oppression by both military and democratic regimes, ethnic and ideological divides among workers, employers’ subversion of genuine workers’ representation through pocket unions, to name a few. Yet it was a brief, two-year flicker of industrial labour struggle that stood out for its promise of labour solidarity and potential for sustained movement, had it not been extinguished by Z.A. Bhutto’s civilian martial law regime in June 1972.

Continue reading

Modern Labour

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2016

The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. — Antonio Gramsci

THE old world of the labour movement started unravelling in the 1990s when finance and production went global, kicked up by unbridled capitalism. In the new system of production, traditional labour relations — characterised by long-term employment, job security and workers’ representation — fell apart. In developing countries, union density plummeted. Was it the end of organised labour? Or, have new forms of labour solidarity started filling the vacuum?

Continue reading

Justice and Impunity

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2016

IT was an early March morning in 2009 and I was cruising along one of the primary roads in the central business district area of Dhaka city where many of the ready-made garments (RGM) factories are housed in old buildings.

Young girls in droves, dressed in shalwar-kameez, were emerging from the side lanes, stepping down from the buses, crossing the road, chatting on the footpath, bending over street vendors’ wares now and then and heading towards their factories for the morning shift.

I was in Dhaka to get a sense of what makes Bangladeshi RGM women workers organise for their rights. I climbed a narrow staircase of a building where many girls had gone. The factory was on the first floor. From the small landing I looked through the iron grille padlocked from outside: women bending over sewing machines in rows. A surly young man guarded the door: “outsiders are not allowed”, he told me.

Continue reading