Thousands of textile workers have achieved a landmark victory for precarious and informal workers in Pakistan
Approximately 10 000 workers from the Labour Quami Movement (LQM), a nascent power loom workers' movement, began a 155 km march from the industrial city of Faisalabad to Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, to demand that factory owners comply with the minimum wage. The mass peaceful action compelled the government to accede to the workers' demands and ensure that factory owners increase their wages by 28 percent, in line with the current minimum wage in the country.
Earlier, the Labour Wing of the Muslim League Nawaz [the ruling party in the Punjab] had made an agreement with factory workers to raise the wages by 13 percent. However, the Labour Qaumi Movement refused to accept it, arguing that the Muslim League neither represented them nor acted in their interests. They subsequently held a mass meeting and warned the district administration of a long march on foot to the office of the Chief Minister in Lahore.
The district administration invited the LQM leadership to engage in negotiations and postpone the march. The leadership refused to cancel the march but accepted the offer of negotiations. After the negotiations, the administration gave in, and the demand was accepted.
The LQM is a movement of power loom workers that originated in 2004. At the time, the bosses of the power loom industry treated a majority of their workers as bonded labour. A grassroots movement of workers, the LQM is working on true democratic values and is setting new examples of workers’ struggle in Pakistan. This new kind of unionism is inspiring many in Pakistan.
Poverty and labour rights violations in Pakistan:
The successful industrial action is unprecedented in a country where few factory owners respect the minimum wage. The current minimum wage is 8000 Pakistani rupees per month, or $84. Many workers are employed on an informal basis, and routinely experience gross labour rights violations. Estimates vary, but bonded labour, particularly in the textile industry, is thought to exceed at least one million. Child labour is ubiquitous, and 14-18 hour working days are common. Approximately 84% of Pakistan’s population live under the poverty line, and as the price of staples increased by over 10% in the first few months of 2011, another 6.94 million Pakistanis have been forced into poverty in 2012.
Anti-democratic practices in Pakistan:
The growing strength of the LQM is an important signal that anti-democratic practices will not be tolerated lying down. In their annual survey of workers' rights in Pakistan, the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) reports increasing police and paramilitary violence against workers in the country, as well as false imprisonment, private-sector discrimination against and intimidation of union members.
The movement's victory stands in stark contrast to the workers' strike in July 2010, when more than 100 000 textile and garment workers from the LQM went on strike in Faisalabad to secure a 17% pay increase that had been passed by the government, but which employers refused to pay. In November that year, the Anti Terrorism Court sentenced six LQM leaders involved in the strike to a total of 490 years in jail on what the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) has described as falsified charges.
The ITGLWF strongly condemned the brutal campaign waged by employers on workers and unions in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Armed thugs employed by factory owners attacked workers. Some were shot while others were badly beaten. Factory owners and their henchmen resorted to violence by throwing stones and bricks at a peaceful march of workers, while police used tear gas. Around 100 workers were arrested. 25 workers were injured, including Tahir Rana, the president of LQM Faisalabad district, who was critically injured.
Successive ITUC and ILO surveys have documented an international shift towards greater repression of the right to collective bargaining and collective action by both state and private-sector actors. In this context, the emergence of the LQM as a strong democratic force in Pakistan is both remarkable and important.