Workers’ Strike for Minimum Wages in Pakistan
(Taimur Rahman of the CMPK reports from Pakistan.)
Defence Road, on the outskirts of Lahore, is a massive industrial area where thousands of workers are employed. Police and local administration here are often in collusion with local gangsters, capitalists and landlords. The working class in this area is almost completely non-unionized. Most workers in the area are first generation workers that have arrived from various villages all over the Punjab and live together in small cramped quarters. They send money back to their families in villages and try to eke out a meagre existence in the cities.
The CMKP has been working in this area for the last 12 years. We have seen the area change slowly. We have seen the roads develop. Farm land change into estates for the wealthy. Massive schemes that have robbed people of land in order to feed the land mafia. A flyover is now being constructed over the area. Today our supporters run to thousands and we have built a left-wing working class constituency.
The comrades of the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation, Working Women's Organization, and Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party, who enjoy a very close working relationship under the banner of the Mazdoor Action Committee, decided to launch a concerted campaign on the issue of the provision of minimum wages. The minimum wage of Rs. 6000 is rarely paid in the area.
Workers at Naveena textiles (a very large company that exports shirts) were being laid off without proper notification. Moreover, minimum wages were not being paid to workers at this factory. The workers demanded that all their dues, including both wages and gratuity, be cleared on the basis of the recently announced minimum wages (i.e. Rs. 6000).
As a result on 28 July we helped to organize a strike. The response by the mill administration was that the local police was called out and workers were beaten black and blue. Warning shots were fired at the feet of the workers. It was more than obvious that the police was totally partial to the mill owners.
We helped organize a second strike on the 31st of July. However, this time the police had been called at 6 am in the morning and had completely occupied the entire building. The buses of workers were moved into the gates and under police supervision inside the factory they were made to work. Workers that had been illegally laid off assembled outside the premises and were beaten brutally. Four workers were taken into custody.
CMKP comrades called the press. We stood at the gate raising slogans, clapping, and chanting in rhythm. We could see from the factory gate that police men with guns were stationed on the roof top of the factory. Workers from inside the factory, having heard the commotion outside, left work and all came to the roof and raised their hands in our support. But they could not come down because of the heavy police presence inside the factory.
Workers demanded that their comrades beaten and arrested that morning be released before any negotiations. After some time management relented and released the workers. Eventually, in the presence of the press, the management stated that they accepted the demands of the workers and informed us that they would speak to the owners and announce the date of the clearance.
We came back outside and saw that comrades of the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation had also arrived. They gave us very sound advice. They said that we must immediately register the union and that we must request a labour court officer to come immediately to the factory. They called the labour court people and we announced this news to the workers.
By now we were standing around in small dispersed groups in front of the factory gate, waiting for the factory management to announce the date of clearance. Suddenly and without warning the police charged at our labour leader Azam Naqvi. We were all kicked, slapped and hit with batons.
We were taken to the police station and detained. Farooq Tariq of Labour party Pakistan came to the thana as soon as he heard about the incident and was with us for nearly the whole day. Furthermore, LPP that mobilized for our support in Karachi and other areas, as did many other Left and progressive groups and individuals.
Finally the police said they would let us go for the night but only on the condition that we come back to the police station in the morning and surrender to the magistrate. The next morning when it came time to go to the court they placed us in handcuffs. At the magistrate office, one of the HRCP lawyers Asad protested against our being handcuffed. We were eventually released on bail.