Telecom unions under attack in Pakistan

By Farooq Tariq(11\11\2010)

Following a strike at Pakistan Telecommunication (PTCL) that was brutally suppressed by the government, a wholesale witch hunt of union activists is taking place. Over 250 have been suspended from their jobs and another 280 terminated. Thirty-five union leaders have been charged under anti-terrorism laws. All this for demanding a wage increase according to the agreements signed at the time of PTCL’s privatization in 2005 and in violation of the PTCL Re-Organization Act 1996 Clause (35) & (36).

In April 2006 Emirates Telecommunication Corporation, commonly called Etisalat, assumed control of Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited – part of the $2.6 billion deal to buy a 26 percent stake in PTCL. It was agreed at the time that all the 61000 PTCL workers would enjoy the same wages as public employees. Their wages would be increased at the time of government notification and Etisalat would respect all labour laws.

Etisalat management has broken a number of promises. In 2005, management stated that none of the PTCL workers would lose their jobs after privatization; “surplus” workers would be sent to countries where Etisalat operates. Yet in four years, over 35000 workers have lost their jobs.

In June 2010, after a record price hike, and under immense working-class pressure, the PPP government announced a 50 percent increase on basic pay. But Etisalat did not implement the wage increase at PTCL. When all the main four unions united and demanded in writing that management respect the agreement, their demand was ignored.

Although the PTCL revenue for 2009/2010 stood at 59.37 billion Rupees, this legal demand required approximately one billion Rupees per annum.  

On 2nd August 2010, the PTCL unions decided to organize a national strike for two hours each day in order to press for the wage increase. All 26000 workers acted positively. On August 16, the workers at PTCL escalated the action to a total strike.

PTCL management offered a 30 percent wage increase with another 20 percent increase linked to worker productivity by December 2010. Yet management’s arrogant attitude is “The productivity of a worker becomes zero when they are active in unions.”  Workers deserved, under the law, a 50 percent increase as of June. Management’s ploy was rejected by the workers and their unions. They saw the offer as an attempt to cheat the workers and break the power of the unions. They also knew that the management will not increase the wages as promised and wanted a clean deal not linked to any conditionality.  

The role of “independent” media during the strike

The telecom sector was nearly paralyzed because of the complete strike; thousands of telephone lines were out of order. But management would not agree to sit at the table with the unions and discuss their demands. For most of the “independent” media this was not considered “breaking news.” Meanwhile Etisalat management doubled and tripled advertising in the corporate media. Hence the media did not report on the strike and massive worker demonstrations. 

Most of  the reports about the strike were highly negative. Journalists friendly to the workers explained that all their strike coverage had to be cleared by the company’s advertisement departments. Apparently PTCL advertising increased tenfold during the strike. It was no accident that Ufone, PTCL’s mobile service, blanketed their ads continuously over the private television channel. The PTCL website ( reveals at least 139 print designs of products advertised in the media. 

PTCL management bribed the police for crackdown

On 3rd September, the striking union leaders met Khurshid Shah, the Federal Minister of Labour, and asked him to intervene to end the strike. Eid ul Fitre was approaching; the full-force strike had entered its 17th day. The labor minister told them that within three days the main demand – a 50 percent wage increase – would be met. At strike camp, the union leaders happily announced that workers could go home, that the demands would be met.

However, management had other plans. Unwilling to pay one billion Rupees to increase wages, PTCL Management opted to spend another 350 million Rupees to crack down the legitimate peaceful strike of low-paid employees. They bribed the police and other officials to proceed with a crackdown.

By the evening of 3rd September, hundreds of policemen were mobilized to attack the strike camp. One of the Superintendents of Police, Faisal Memon, told police constables responsible for the subsequent beating of worker leaders that the resulting injuries should be severe enough so none should be able to walk to jail. Dozens of strikers were rounded up and brought to the police station. Over 50 were arrested, with three central leaders booked under anti-terrorist laws and 35 others booked under 7ATA (Anti Terrorist Act).

Arrests continued for the next 24 hours as homes were raided. Workers were arrested at police check posts in different parts of the city. This wholesale repression of the strikers clearly involved the collaboration of the police with Etisalat. Yet by Monday, with the strike crushed, there was little still news of the brutal events aired by Pakistan’s “independent” media. No support was forthcoming from the main political parties.

As a condition for receiving their wages, PTCL workers were forced to sign a statement disassociating them from the strike. With Eid approaching and their leaders arrested, most signed. Over 250 workers were terminated and the climate of repression continues.

The trade Unions in PTCL

PTCL management has had a history of hostility toward trade unions. According to both national labour laws and practice, a referendum for recognizing union collective bargaining should be held every two years. During the last 12 years, only three referendums have been held in PTCL: the first in 1998, the second in 2004, under General Musharaf’s dictatorship, and the third in 2010.

PTCL management has always interfered in the referendum process by using all its resources to oppose a positive outcome. Even the National Industrial Relation Commission, the body that conducts the referendum, is intimidated. Every year the workers have to go on strike in order to push management into accepting their demands. And every year, management uses a variety of repressive measures before finally agreeing to some demands. The only unique aspect of the process in 2010 is that management’s response was even more brutal. This was possible because of police complicity.

PTCL privatization experience

Following the crushing of a 2005 strike against the privatization of PTCL, when the Musharraf military dictatorship ordered the army to occupy all the telephone exchanges across Pakistan, Etisalat (UAE) won management control through the purchase of 26 percent shares. The deal between the dictatorship and Etisalat has been recently evaluated as “unclean” by the chief justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan.  

Most of Etisalat’s lucrative promises at the time of privatization -- to bring in new investment, technology, training, and with no job loss, in fact creating new jobs, better services and reduced rates for customers -- have not been realized.

Etisalat also forced the government to accept payment in 10 installments. Before privatization the PTCL was one of the most profitable public sector institutions with an average annual profit of over 30 billion Rupees.

Now Etisalat (UAE) wants to purchase 25 percent more shares and take total control over the institution while breaking the back of the workers. 

In 2009/2010, the PTCL total revenue reached nearly 60 billion Rupees yet management claims a net profit of only 9 billion Rupees. It is hard to believe profitability has declined. At the time of the privatization total revenue was 65 billion and net profit nearly 30 billion.

Further, in 2005, PTCL employed 61000 workers while today there are less than half. There may be two obvious explanations for the “declining profit”: fiddling with the figures and the high cost of top management personnel. According to one estimate, the top 800 receive more than the total wages of the 26000 workers.   

Since the September repression of the workers struggle PTCL, management has stopped the annual bonuses for more than 2,000 employees and refused to pay wages to more than 500 others. Hassan Muhammad Rana, Secretary General of Pakistan Telecom Employees Union, and several other leading union activists were unlawfully dismissed. Approximately another 250 employees have been terminated in clear violation of Pakistan Labour Laws.

The National Industrial Relation Commission suspended the termination orders and declared these unfair labour practices, but management has not accepted these orders.

What to do now?

Given the strike’s defeat, workers are reluctant to struggle. In this environment, how is it possible to move forward to protect workers’ rights and fight the repression of the union’s activists? On 5th November a joint meeting of activists from different unions in PTCL, leaders of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and the Labour Party Pakistan discussed this question. After a three-hour meeting, it was agreed that it is necessary to revive the confidence of the PTCL workers.

In this context, fighting the legal battle to defend the framed worker leaders is central. This requires the support from other trade unions, social movements and political parties. It also means launching an international appeal for solidarity. Projected are the following:

  • A Multi-Party PTCL Workers Solidarity Conference to be held in Lahore on 25thNovember by the Anti Privatization Alliance working closely with the National Trade Union Federation and Labour Education Foundation.
  • A public meeting of PTCL workers, trade unions and activists from political parties to be held on 3rd December in Lahore. After consultation with the relevant unions and LPP activist’s similar actions will be organized in Sindh, Khaiber Pukhtoon Khawa provinces and Islamabad.
  • A national and international appeal will be launched this month. It will demand the reinstatement of the 530 terminated and suspended PTCL workers, for the withdrawal of false cases against worker leaders, for a 50 percent wage increase with payment of the agreed-upon bonuses, and for the renationalization of PTC.

We need your support

We need you support. Please contact us for more details. Please forward this information to all your networks, email lists and websites. Pass resolutions to condemn Etisalat’s ant-worker practices.

For more information contact:

1-  Hassan Muhammad Rana, Secretary General Pak Telecom Employees Union (CBA),

2-  Khalid Mehmood, Director, Labour Education Foundation, 0321 9402322,

3-  Nasir Mansoor,  Deputy General Secretary, National Trade Union Federation,

4-   Malik Maqbool, President PTCL Lines Staff Union,







        Hearing the Unheard




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