Every government suppresses trade unions

By Salman Ali

Altaf Baloch has lived an eventful life working and fighting for the cause of labour unions and paying a price for it in the shape of spending many years in jail. He has supported working class movements through his efforts, standing against martial law regimes and never hesitating to speaking the truth for workers’ rights. The devotion to his cause made him a prominent worker and labour leader in trade unions in the 1960s and 70s. Baloch believes that labour unions are important pillars of a society that can uplift the economy of a country and add to the means of production. Labour Education Foundation sat with him a few days ago and sought his views on the state of labour unions in Pakistan.

Q: Tell us something about your early life?

Altaf Baloch (AB): I am from a small village near Sargodha, the village has been renamed as Kot Musa Khan. I belong to a middle class family. I received my early education from a local school and appeared in the matriculation examination but was not able to get through due to some problems in my family. Later, I came to Lahore and joined Technical Center Mughalpura but left the institution after some time and worked in a textile mill in 1960 but didn’t stay long. I joined a private company in 1966. That was a turning point in my life.

Q: How did you come to the idea of forming a labour union?

AB: Ayub Khan was in power and labourers had started speaking for their rights. Workers also demanded increase in salaries and asked for other benefits from the owners and from the government but owners did not listen to them. We came out on the roads and protested against the Ayub regime. But, sadly, Yahya Khan took over and martial law was imposed. We had to call off our strike and also lost our jobs. After negotiations with the labour officer of the company where I was working, we eventually came back to our positions. After a few weeks, my labourer friends were arrested for staging protests. Different punishments were given to them and shoot-on-sight orders were issued against me. I was going to attend a conference in Layyah when my friends Professor Amin Mughal and Malik Shamim Ashraf came to me from Lahore and informed me that I was on the hit list of the regime. I didn’t attend the conference and came back to Lahore. It was election time and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was running an election campaign. Bhutto promised to me that he would work for the rights of labourers if he comes to power. I consider it as my first step in labour union politics.

Q: What was your experience with the Sharifs while you were working at Ittefaq Foundries?

AB: When I was arrested and released from jail after a month the company didn’t allow me to work there again. So, I found work at Ittefaq Founderies at Kot Lakhpat. Nawaz Sharif was the chief minister of Punjab at that time. Sharifs were against forming labour union. When I raised my voice and formed a union they beat me up and some of us were kicked out though our union had been registered.

Q: You remained in jail for fifteen years? What is that story?

AB: It was a fake case registered against me. When I rejoined the private company with my friends I was heading the union and later we were divided into two groups as some misunderstandings had developed among us. Abdul Rehman, who was my friend and a union leader was murdered on 30th April 1974 at Ferozepur Road. Some of the comrades at that time implicated me and a case was registered against me and my friends. They charged nine other people who we didn’t know. So, FIR was registered against 19 people.

The trial started on 30th April 1976. When the judgment was to be announced the Judge of Sessions Court gave a stay order. The next hearing was to be held on 8th May 1976 at Camp Jail. So, on 8th May 1976 I and Khushi Mohammad were awarded death sentence while other people were acquitted. I was being kept in Kot Lakhpat jail. The next day, a number of labourers staged protest in front of the jail. So, due to security reasons I was shifted to Sahiwal jail. The decision of Sessions Court was challenged in the High Court and then in Supreme Court. Eventually, my death sentence was abolished and replaced with imprisonment. The most important time in my life was when the people who had accused me of committing the murder said sorry to me for their actions. I was released from the jail in 1989. I thank those who supported me during my jail years, including Abid Hasan Minto, Tahira Mazhar Ali, Habib Jalib, and Mir Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo, among others.

Q: Which political party, if any, supports labour unions and works for them?

AB: In my view, there is only one political party which has worked for the rights of labourers and I will not hesitate in saying that it is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). I personally believe Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a great leader who always worked for our rights in any situation. So, that time can be called an era of freedom for labourers.

Q: The Punjab government has recently introduced a new labour law (PIRA). Do you think the law truly represents labour rights?

AB: The Punjab government has recently passed a new labour law which I personally believe is simply against labourers’ will. Some trade unions have met and they have decided that they will not accept this new law. As we study Section 3 (1) of the Punjab Industrial Relations Act 2010, which abolishes workers’ right to form a union in an establishment where less than 50 workers are employed, violates ILO Convention 87 and Article 17 (1) of the constitution. This section must be repealed. Workers of around 4,200 brick kilns in Punjab are likely to be excluded under this section from the ambit of law and from forming lawful unions. The new Punjab labour law reduces the number of ‘outsiders’ allowed in a union’s executive from 25 percent to 20 percent. This will harm the workers’ right to derive strength from the society wherever a union lacks expertise. The trade unions regret the failure of the Punjab lawmakers to define the role and obligations of ‘contractor’. We also protest against the fact that the law approved by the Punjab Assembly is less friendly to labour than the Ordinance it was asked to debate and turn into an Act.

Q: What effects the 18th Amendment will have on labour legislation in your view?

AB: The Punjab Assembly passed the law after the right to legislate on labour was handed over to the provinces under the 18th Amendment. Labourers want a national labour policy. It was a demand of the time and we forced the government to pass 18th Amendment. But the government did not take other stakeholders into confidence while passing the 18th Amendment. Some trade unions have already challenged the provision of the 18th Amendment that abolished the system of labour legislation at the national level. They say that workers in major public sector enterprises had not been consulted in the legislative process that had a direct bearing on the terms of employment. Workers have serious concerns that funds for workers’ welfare, such as EOBI, which are now to be handed over to the provinces, are being squandered on excessive salaries and perks for bureaucrats.

Q: It is a perception that trade union movements have long lost their steam. Do you agree with the view?

AB: I completely agree with that. Trade union movements are on the decline because of policies of the government. Today, the government has failed to deliver. Workers in Pakistan in general and Punjab in particular are the most oppressed lot in all of South Asia. Labour unions are a natural pressure valve for societies. Those who allow this valve to operate properly avoid bloodshed and social unrest. Great Britain is perhaps one of the best examples in this respect, where the labour class was co-opted and made a stakeholder in national progress, politics and governance. Proper labour laws should be introduced by the government and a good friendly relation should be kept. Labourers should also form unity in their ranks to be able organise themselves at regional levels.

Q: Do you think labour unions have been able to play any role in Pakistan?

AB: As we know, labour unions have played a very vital role in many parts of the world. In Pakistan, trade unions have not been recognised as an essential component of society. Every government suppresses trade unions and imposes restrictions and sanctions on constructive activities of trade unions. It is my firm belief that had there been freedom to form trade unions there would not have been economic crises which we are facing. With the help and support of trade unions we can enhance production of the industrial sector.







    Labour Report 2010      
      Hearing The Unheard




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