Umer A. Chaudhry
Just as Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani reiterated the strong resolve of his government to revise the anti-workers legislation of the country on May 30th, an ugly episode unfolded in Lahore that exposes the deep prejudice against the working classes entrenched in the folds of the Pakistani State. Niaz Shaikh, a labor leader associated with the Labour Party of Pakistan and National Trade Union Federation, was arrested from Model Town, Lahore, by police on May 25th on baseless charges of dacoity that purportedly took place in 2006. His real crime, however, was that he assisted the disorganized workers of the factory unit of an interior designing company to form their first trade union. Such crimes seldom go unnoticed by the owners of the industries who are well aware of how to use the corrupt law enforcement officers. This time around, Niaz Shaik had to face to the brunt for helping poor workers in their legitimate struggle for the fundamental constitutional right to form a trade union.
When the Prime Minister of Pakistan announced his government’s plan to form a new labor policy that will end all anti-workers legislation on May 30th, Niaz Shaikh was presented in handcuffs at the court of the Senior Civil Judge and Judicial Magistrate at Model Town Courts, Arif Khan Niazi, for the extension of physical remand. Upon hearing the issue in detail, the Judge held that the charges of dacoity on Niaz Shaikh were not proved. Niaz Shaikh was discharged and Police was ordered to open his handcuffs. Had the entire drama ended there and then, it could have been a triumph of justice. Justice, however, is never easy to find in Pakistan. The Police, in utter disregard of the Court’s order, refused to remove the handcuffs of Niaz Shaikh and rearrested him. Neither the Court nor Niaz Shaikh was informed if any charges other than the 2006 dacoity lied against him. He was arrested, in plain violation to his fundamental rights and in complete disrespect of the verdict of the Court.
After the second arrest, it took more than a day to find the whereabouts of Niaz Shaikh. His supporters in the meanwhile were running between Model Town and Garden Town in his search, only to find later in the day that he was detained in Garden Town. A new case was framed against Niaz. He was allegedly involved in cheating and criminal intimidation all the while when he was under arrest in Model Town. The workers of the Interwood, in the meanwhile, were being constantly harassed and threatened by the law enforcement agencies.
Niaz was finally able to win his freedom through judiciary on 1st of June. However, the harassment, torture, and humiliation that Niaz went through have gone unaccounted so far.
This small incident is not isolated story of the misuse of power by the Police against workers trying to get together in a union. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, who took up the cause of working people in his official inaugural speech in the National Assembly and ensured the right of union to workers and students, also knows this very well. The prejudice against the laborers is deeply-rooted at various levels of the State and is further galvanized by the corruption and misuse of authority by State officials. The problem exists at a very fundamental level. The issue, then, is whether the government is ready and willing to take any tangible steps in removing these underlying hurdles to the freedom of association.
The ordeal of Niaz Shaikh brings to forth few crucial questions that the government is bound to tackle while they introduce a new labor policy to the people of Pakistan. What are legal safeguards available to the workers to limit the arbitrary power used against them when they attempt to build trade unions in their factories and industries? Are they to face humiliation and loss of employment every time they take a step towards materializing for their basic right to form a union? What are the efficacious forums where the grievances arising from the misuse of State authority against the union workers can be immediately raised and redressed? How will the government ensure that the consequence of demanding a fundamental rights in not so serious and damaging so as to defeat the whole scheme in the very first place? Without handling these issues, any labor policy proposed by the government will remain incomplete and, may be, useless.
The difficulties faced by the ordinary laborers in organizing into trade unions can not be over-emphasized. Leaving aside a multitude of legal lacunas in the statutes for another time, the fundamental problem lies in lack of any support to workers who peacefully gather on a platform to agitate their demands. There is no visible and effective remedy available to the ordinary workers that can protect them from the heavy handedness of the law enforcement agencies. The time and resources needed to pursue a legal case against misuse of authority are enough to put the struggle for organizing the union at the back seat. How can an ordinary worker carry this burden while he searches for justice? The issue, therefore, must be confronted at the policy front as well.
It is a fact that an overwhelming proportion of the labor force in Pakistan is highly disorganized. The promotion of ‘contract labor’ and ‘temporary workers’ in the industry and the gradual de-regularization of the labor market in accordance with the neo-liberal edicts have turned workers into disposable commodities. The problem is further exacerbated by the week political culture, which does not help in promoting unity amongst the disenfranchised classes.
Furthermore, the Pakistani State has historically handled the workers’ participation in politics very negatively. Be it the times of General Ayub when large trade union federations were banned and brutally crushed, the populist government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who sent various labor leader for pilgrimages, General Zia-ul-Haq’s draconian regime when the workers were brutally massacred in Multan, or ‘enlightened moderation’ of General Pervez Musharraf when the PTCL were taken over by the Army for privatization in the face of workers’ demonstration – the working class organization has been suppressed with a heavy hand.
It goes without saying that the freedom of association is not only a fundamental right but also the lifeblood of democracy. There can be no conception of democracy without political associations, popular organizations, student bodies, and workers’ unions. The government has to realize that the truth of their democratic credentials lie not in how long and well they can talk about democracy in their interviews, but the concrete steps that they take to allow the citizenry to form democratic institutions and bodies.
The writer is lawyer based in Lahore. An edited version of this article was published at The News Op-ed on Thursday, June 11, 2009.