Embers May Flare Up!

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May Day greetings from Gulzar Ahmad Chaudhry General Secretary of the Pakistan Trade Unions

‘NO chimney and funnel of any factory or mill was smoldering as workers were on strike throughout the country. The country was the United States where in its one city, Chicago, 400,000 workers were striking. Their demand was fixing eight hours as their working time.

Men, women and children were forced to work for 16 hours under extremely bad conditions and even then they could not break the vicious circle of poverty, diseases and backwardness. Deprived of health and education facilities, they were struggling for years to improve their lot. Working only for eight hours was one of their basic demands. Therefore, they decided to go on strike and take out processions from May 1, 1886.

Above all the differences of colour, creed and race, they were all assembling in large numbers to force the authorities and owners of industrial units to accept their demands. Having unflinching faith in their demands, they were afraid of nothing. And peaceful they were marching on roads in a procession when police resorted to firing, killing four of them on the spot and injuring hundreds.

Eight of their leaders, besides numerous workers, were arrested. Seven of them were sentenced to death and one was handed down a life term. The incarcerated workers were badly tortured. Four of them were hanged on November 11, 1887, another was killed in custody but his death was declared as suicide and two were released in 1893 after serving six years of their jail term.

One of the workers, named August Spies, told the court which granted him death sentence: ‘If you think that you can eliminate the labour movement by hanging us, then you are wrong. Tens of thousands of labourers have stood up to change their lot. If you can silence those who are demanding right to life for themselves, then you should hang us. But, remember, you may put out one ember but the embers glowing around you will burst into a fire you’ll be unable to extinguish.’

Spies’ statement proved to be fateful. The more the oppression of the owners, administration and police the more the labour movement became active and stronger. It managed to achieve all the rights for which the workers of Chicago had sacrificed their lives.

The events of May 1, 1886 and the sacrifices of the labourers are a beacon for the working community the world over. To pay homage to this unprecedented valour, courage and sacrifice May 1 was declared as the World Labour Day in 1889.

May 1 is celebrated as a holiday in various countries. But there are certain countries where it is not observed as World Labour Day. These included the United States itself as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The labour day in the United States is observed on first Monday of the month of September while May 1 is called there as Law Day or Loyalty Day. In New Zealand it is observed on the fourth Monday of October and in Australia on the first Monday of October.

Pakistan is among the list of countries where May 1 is declared as a holiday to celebrate International Labor Day. The world has seen a sea change from 1886 to 2008, but in Pakistan the conditions of the workers are no different than those of 1886 in America.

The minimum wage for industrial workers is RS. 4,600 (US$77). Although the incumbent government has announced that the minimum wage will be increased to RS 6,000 (US$ 100), there is no clue to the implementation of the declaration. Comparing the minimum wage with the prices of essential items, one is shocked to see that the standard set by the successive governments for fixing monthly income is humiliation of the labour and hard work and slow poisoning of the workers.

A 27% inflation increase in one week. Every week the price of oil and diesel is increasing. 1-litre petrol price is RS. 77 (US$ 1.28). A 20-kg flour bag is available at the rate of RS. 650 (US$ 10.8), cooking oil RS. 150 (US$ 2.5) per kg, milk RS. 47 (US$ 0.78) per litre.

Oil prices are being revised upward every fortnight resulting in a hike of public transport fares. A family of six-members cannot meet even its food bill within a meagre amount of RS. 4,600.

It’s no surprise that workers are committing suicide or mothers are forced to sell their sons and daughters. Plato’s vision is not required to see that increasing the monthly wages to RS. 6,000 (US$ 100) is not a solution to the miseries of the downtrodden. Our rulers in the near past had been giving the good news of progress and prosperity day in and day out. The coffers were brimming and the people were happy with having new phone handsets and new models of cars. No doubt the exchequer was full of money – but for the rulers and not the masses – ever new models of phones and cars were there but not for the downtrodden.

These luxuries were meant for those who change their vehicles and mobile phones more often than the ordinary citizens change their clothes. The masses were so trapped in the crises of scarcity of power, gas, flour, oil and ghee that they were unable to learn about the claims of progress and prosperity.

The new government has made a welcome decision of lifting curbs on trade union activities. But is it possible to activate the trade unions when even their formation is becoming next to impossible. Thousands of factories and mills have shut down due to the anti-labour policies of the former government. More than one million workers have been rendered as jobless. The privatisation process introduced in the public sector has served as the last nail in the coffin of the labour movement as the trade union membership has drifted to the last of the workers’ priority list. In Pakistan where only three per cent of the workers are organised through trade unions their number is reducing fast with the downsizing and rightsizing policies of the government.

Looking at the labour movement in the country one finds that the workers associated with any sector have, through their struggle and sacrifices, been following the path set by the Chicago martyrs.

Working for the labour organisations, especially trade unions, has never been an easy task in Pakistan. Since the inception of the country no government, whether it was democratic one or dictatorial, has ever made as its priority the welfare and prosperity of the labourers. It is for this reason that the labour movement has been passing through various phases.

Despite the anti-labour policies of the government, pressure tactics, torture by the owners and administration, the workers have always been raising their voice against exploitative forces. Hasan Nasir, Mirza Ibrahim, Abdur Rehman Shaheed are among those who are the pride of the labour movement.

They were the visionaries who first raised their voices against privatisation and managed to delay the sell-off of many state-owned industrial units at throwaway prices. Karachi’s Steel Mills is one of these units.

Islamabad is a signatory to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees, besides others, the right to do a job of one’s choice. Pakistan is also signatory to the International Labor Organisation (ILO) Convention 98 and 87 which ensures freedom of association and expression, equality and protection to honorable work to every man and woman. It has also endorsed eight basic ILO conventions related to job opportunities, the right to association and collective bargaining, equality in the workplace and elimination of child labour as well as bonded labour.

Unfortunately, these internationally recognised conventions fail to grant protection to the workers here, because successive governments have never taken them seriously.

The gradually swelling contract system and the daily wages mechanism and exempting international investment companies from labour laws have changed the industrial and agricultural scenario in Pakistan.

Eighty per cent of the population working as tenants on agricultural farms are devoid of the fruits of labour laws. While working journalists and press workers have also been deprived of their right to the seventh wage board award, thanks to the collaboration between the government and the owners.

This May 1st shall witness Pakistani workers in a miserable condition. Despite all difficulties, the working community is peaceful but if the situation persists, the poor souls committing suicide may change their course of action.

We demand that the government should not only cut its unproductive expenses but also bring the defence budget in the ambit of Parliament for discussion.

The minimum wage should be fixed at RS.10,000 (US$ 166) per month, all closed factories should be made operative and all sacked workers should be reinstated with repeal of the all anti-labour and anti-state laws.

A tripartite conference should be convened to discuss economic and industrial conditions of the country and for formulating policies, after consulting all three pillars of industry. The government should frame its policies in consultation with labour leaders, intellectuals and representatives of civil society – otherwise the coming days will not augur well for the country and the nation.

For embers are glowing here and there and may become an inferno difficult to be extinguished!’