It is time our intelligentsia went beyond the privatisation mantra and started thinking seriously about feasible proposals to rehabilitate PIA
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
The complete breakdown in relations between the management and workforce of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) once again underlines the serious structural malaise in our public sector institutions. The PIA strike is yet another bitter pill to swallow for the embattled elected government at a time when labour unrest is already on the up: tens of thousands of Pakistan Post workers have been campaigning against the planned privatisation of their organisation for some weeks, whereas latent tensions in Pakistan Railways, Islamabad Electricity Supply Corporation (and a number of its sister agencies), and the two main oil and gas companies are threatening to bubble over.
It is amazing that the government continues to open up new fronts for itself at a time when it can scarcely afford to do so. At times like these, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) die-hards insist that it is the ‘bureaucracy’, or the ‘establishment’ that is unilaterally making decisions on corporatising/privatising state enterprises and that the elected government then gets saddled with resolving the subsequent stand-offs between workers and management that inevitably result. While the weaknesses of this elected regime vis a vis the permanent state apparatus are plain for all to see, it is unbelievably disingenuous for the PPP to claim that it is not willingly towing the privatisation line.
Let us not forget that there has been serious unrest in Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL) virtually since the PPP came into government almost three years ago. While PTCL was privatised by the Musharraf junta, the PPP has been weak in its dealings with the Arab oligarchs who purchased the company, has ordered the use of force against peaceful striking workers, and has been careful not to publicly acknowledge the scandalous decline in PTCL performance and share values (profits have decreased 200 percent while the share price has fallen from more than Rs70 to less than Rs20).
Soon after the last general election, the PPP announced the privatisation of the Oil and Gas Development Company Limited’s (OGDCL) largest gas field in Sindh (Qadirpur), only to be forced to retreat in the wake of an uproar within the province and across the length and breadth of the organisation itself. More recently, the Privatisation Commission released a list of almost 30 public sector enterprises to be sold. In short, purportedly pro-labour elements within the PPP should quit claiming that their party remains committed to even a social-democratic agenda.
It was the first Benazir government in 1988 that set in motion the privatisation process; the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto more or less admitted that times had changed and that the PPP could not longer espouse the same socialist principles that it once did (critics will even call into question the extent to which ZAB was committed to socialisation of property). It goes without saying that the Pakistan Muslim League that jostled with the PPP throughout the 1990s was even more gung-ho about privatising state assets -- PML cronies were major beneficiaries of the sale of public banks. However, there is now almost no meaningful distinction between the two major parties when it comes to implementing neo-liberal policies.
It was not so long ago that the prime minister actually conceded that the nationalisations that took place in the 1970s were a mistake (he was referring specifically to educational institutions but there is little doubt that he holds the same position across the board). There was virtually no attempt made by PPP stalwarts to refute the PM’s positions, which reflects that times really have changed.
PIA is a particularly striking case. Trade unionism within PIA has long been dominated by left-of-centre forces, and till today the PPP retains substantial influence within the organisation. This is why it makes no sense that the government -- or the current management team which has been installed virtually by presidential fiat -- made no attempt to take the unions into confidence over the proposed ‘outsourcing’ of European routes to Turkish Airlines.
Of course, it is important to bear in mind that the immediate stand-off is between the management and a segment of pilots, rather than the more blue-collar staff and workers. Of course, as is always the case in such situations, the latter have been at the forefront of the protests, given that their more influential colleagues are actually in the trenches with them, for a change. The interior minister’s efforts to lobby the pilots on Thursday clearly reflect a strategy to divide the staff. And it would not at all be surprising if this strategy eventually worked.
Either way, the fact of the matter is that our public sector institutions are begging to be restructured, and all the PPP, PML-N and other mainstream parties can come up with is to privatise them. Granted they face tremendous pressure from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank, but this is by and by. At a time when Western governments are putting in hundreds of billions of dollars in a virtual nationalisation of financial institutions, our elected leaders should be willing to say no to the donor orthodoxy.
That they have not till now done so, and continue to help push state enterprises, such as PIA, towards complete insolvency, is indicative of a lack of political will and imagination. The strike will not last very long, but it proves just how bad things have gotten. It is time that our intelligentsia also went beyond the privatisation mantra and started thinking seriously about feasible proposals to rehabilitate PIA and other enterprises whilst keeping them in public hands.
PTCL is a great example of how rigid neo-liberal thinking exacerbates our already bad economic situation while subjecting workers and consumers alike to untold misery. PIA is already in a bad way; the government should acknowledge that it cannot unilaterally enforce decisions upon employees and then come up with new restructuring initiatives that have broad-based consent. The same sort of approach is required in Pakistan Railways and WAPDA. The commanding heights are a trust of the Pakistani people. On this basic principle there should be no compromise.