May 30, 2010

Waiting for something to give

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Over the past few months federal government employees have been on the streets protesting for wage increases. On 19 May, clerks, teachers and a smattering of blue-collar workers held a rally and sit-in in the federal capital. Thankfully, their democratic right to assemble and protest was not violated, ostensibly because wielding the big stick in Islamabad constitutes a public relations disaster for any incumbent government (contrast this, for example, to the gratuitous violence that was visited upon students of the engineering university in Khairpur the other day because they dared to protest against inordinate load-shedding). Yet no responsible government official came out to listen to the protestors. Ever since dozens of leaders of the All-Pakistan Federal Government Employees Federation (APFGEF) have been on hunger strike at Aabpara chowk.

The protestors are demanding a 100 percent increase in their basic salaries. On the face of it, this is a very substantial demand. But let’s not forget that something close to a 100 percent increase in basic salaries of armed forces personnel will be formally announced in the upcoming budget. Then there is the more general fact that real wages of government employees (and for that matter working people across the board) have declined steadily in recent years. Even if the APFGEF’s demands are met, the minimum wage would increase to Rs14,000 (assuming that we take at face value the prime minister’s announcement on May Day that the minimum wage will be increased from Rs6,000 to 7,000). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently congratulated our economic managers for maintaining a 12 percent inflation rate. So what is Rs7,000 really worth?

There was a time when the labour movement consistently maintained that the monthly wage should be equivalent to eik tola sona. It is an indication of just how weak the labour movement is that a 100 percent increase in basic wages is equivalent to a little more than one-third the price of eik tola sona (which these days varies from as low as Rs35,000 to as high as Rs40,000).

And the reality is that the protesting federal government employees will not even get close to a 100 percent increase. The sitting government clearly has no plans of acceding to the demands of its own employees, even while it has made no such objection to an increase in the defence budget under the guise that an increase in the salaries of armed forces’ personnel is imperative. Meanwhile the rather alarming fact that there is currently no labour law in this country should not be allowed to slip under the radar screen. As of 30 April, the Industrial Relations Act — 2008 (IRA) lapsed and no new legislation (or presidential ordinance) has replaced it. It is said that the problem is not a lack of political will but instead a new technical quandary that follows the passing of the 18th amendment and the abolition of the concurrent list. Labour is now an exclusively provincial subject and therefore it is up to the provinces to pass legislation to protect the working poor. No sign as yet of any action on this front on the part of any of the provinces.

It is too bad that so few people in Pakistan appear concerned with the virtual disappearance from the policy agenda of the working class. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their apolitical welfare agendas were once thought to have filled the void that was created by the retreat of the labour movement (which was undermined globally by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the concomitant emergence of neo-liberal ideology). But the NGO honeymoon has been over for a long time. The idiom of resistance and rebellion against the system is dominated on the one hand by ethnic-nationalism, and on the other hand, by the religious right.

Bit-part efforts such as those of the APFGEF are of course necessary, but in and of themselves will not reverse the prevailing trend. Among other things it is important to bear in mind that the majority of working people are now subject to informal arrangements which leave them completely at the mercy of the market and without any formal recourse to the law (even when it does exist in some shape of form). The mass of workers in the agrarian economy stand out in this regard; a similar unprotected mass exists in urban areas as well. In recent times there have been successes in organizing such workers, with the most prominent case being that of power-loom workers in Faisalabad and Jhang. But this is just the tip of the iceberg and much more systematic and widespread initiatives must be undertaken by those who are committed to a working-class politics.

In the meantime, those who are wandering the corridors of power (and I mean those have been legitimately elected to wander these corridors rather than those who have occupied them uninterrupted from the outset) should bear in mind that increasing economic and social disaffection cannot simply be ignored or placated by invoking tired old slogans of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’. While there is no simple correlation between poverty and the rise of parochial ideologies, it cannot be denied that those on the margins of society tend to be amongst the more easily recruited to ideological causes. When working-class ideologies were front and centre, it was those on the margins that were primarily attracted to them. Now ethnic-nationalist and religious ideologies have penetrated the social mainstream and it is therefore hardly a surprise that significant numbers of working people — particularly youth — are flocking towards them.

It appears that the mainstream parties have given up totally on policymaking that even protects what the working-class currently possess. They make up for their lack of political will by engaging in the most typical kind of sloganeering. It would be much better if they undertook symbolic steps that showed that they at least acknowledge the working-class agenda. So, for example, why not come good on the promise to meaningfully restore trade union rights; even better would be the granting of trade union rights to workers in defence-related industries. Instead the emphasis appears to be on heady May Day gatherings at the Convention Centre in Islamabad that simply reinforce the dominant patron-client logic of politics. The APFGEF has announced that it will march on parliament if its demands are not met by 2 June. Even if the government will not increase wages by 100 percent, surely it should be willing to give its own workers something?

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