suppresses trade unions
By Salman Ali
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
us something about your early life?
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.
did you come to the idea of forming a labour union?
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.
was your experience with the Sharifs while you were working at Ittefaq
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.
remained in jail for fifteen years? What is that story?
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.
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.
political party, if any, supports labour unions and works for them?
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.
Punjab government has recently introduced a new labour law (PIRA). Do
you think the law truly represents labour rights?
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.
effects the 18th Amendment will have on labour legislation in your view?
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?
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.
you think labour unions have been able to play any role in Pakistan?
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.