Corruption, OBL, Terrorism

June 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

I have just spent the best part of my Saturday morning responding to an uninformed provocation by someone I haven’t spoken to in seven years. It goes without saying that the only way I can justify this otherwise colossal misuse of time is by sharing what I wrote. I hope some of this is interesting.

(In case it’s not clear, the provocation consisted of four points: 1. Pakistan is poorly run; 2. Pakistan is corrupt; 3. Pakistan’s government sponsors terrorists; 4. Pakistan’s population is complicit in the support of terrorism.)


– – – –

“1. Pakistan is poorly run” AND “2. Pakistan is corrupt”

The problem with this claim is not that, as an empirical fact, Pakistan is actually characterized by “good governance,” but that one needs to think more carefully when assessing the explanatory relevance of “bad governance.” There are two questions, here: first, what explains ‘bad governance’? Second, what does ‘bad governance’ explain? On both of these questions, mainstream wisdom offers no sound answers, only flourishes for political speeches. « Read the rest of this entry »


Home Based Workers Organizing

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Contrary to popular perception, most women work in Pakistan, and often inside the home in the informal economy. Sixty-five per cent of the female workforce works at home, and a 2009 survey estimated their number to be 8.52 million, although activists suggest it may be as high as 12 million.

These workers are not protected by formal labour laws and suffer the legal and social disabilities that are typically associated with this form of work – no rights to minimum wage, no social security benefits, inability to organise in unions and lawfully challenge violations of occupational health and safety (OSH) laws.

Home based workers (HBWs) do piece rate work which means they get paid for the number of items they complete.  Often it is seasonal.  Bangle work, for example, is in high demand before the two Eids, and this offers what Zehra Khan of the Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) calls a short time frame to negotiate higher rates from middle men and contractors.  Otherwise, HBWs are overly dependent on middle men who exploit their lack of market access and limited mobility, and hire them for the lowest possible wages without regard to the potentially hazardous nature of the substances used in their work. Because they can.

A backward race

These women though, are brave and tough and often feel they can win the race of piece rate work, and build towards a dowry.

HBWWF General Secretary, Zehra Khan says it is a backward race – in time, their health deteriorates, rates are degrading and the government places remuneration at one third of minimum wage. Workers can cite numbers that would boggle the mind in light of inflated food prices – Rs9 for 1,000 incense sticks or Rs3 for oneshalwar.  Thus, it is optimistic to think they can make a profit, let alone a living wage. The odds are against them, and unless HBWs come together and form effective collective bargaining units,industrialists will continue to exploit them to maximise profits, and they’ll be nickled and dimed into oblivion.

Women conduct all types of work at home, and become experts in some area – they cut, crop, shred garments, and stitch pants and shirts. They make incense sticks – they mix chemicals, dry the sticks, and then paste. With children, they de-vein and peel shrimps and pack them. They glue jewels to bangles, make beedis, and weave carpets.

Hazardous conditions

Working conditions are less than ideal. They squint under poor light, bend and crouch for long periods, and use chemicals that are probably dangerous. Organisers too are often unaware of the exact nature and long term effects of these chemicals and identify them through the symptoms suffered by the women – skin diseases, lung infections, and jaundice.

Home based work is done by women from all ethnicities, be they Bengali and Sindhi women of Rehri Goth associated with fisheries or Punjabi and Urdu speaking women of Akhtar Colony or Gadap Town in Karachi.

While home based work is one of the sources of women’s economic oppression, formal employees are only slightly better off. Factory owners will hire them as contract, temporary or contingent workers in order to avoid paying social security benefits. And because these workers are not issued employment letters, like home based women workers, they cannot access the labour courts which require that you first prove an employment relationship to assert a cause of action against the employer.  And, if they can prove their status, labour courts are painstakingly slow, and susceptible to bribery by employers who wield greater power.  Encroaching further on workers’ rights are exports processing zones that entice multinationals to do business in Pakistan by selling the pliable (and exploitable) nature work force that is disallowed from legally unionising or going on strike.

This top to bottom system of semi and full informalisation of the workforce where industrialists, both local and multinational, are given an unconditional guarantee of a ready, able and willing body to do the work ensures them a higher profit margin at the peril of the entire community.

Labour laws implementation: Easier said than done

It is a small step in the right direction that the Labour Ministry is consulting and procuring feedback in order to develop a national policy on home based workers. The policy aims to accord home based workers legal status and equality in relation to others doing the same work, provide them with marketing opportunities, skills training, occupational safety and health, permission to form unions and bargain collectively, and would mandate middlemen and subcontractors to enter into written contracts with the workers. It articulates a plan to ratify the ILO Convention on Home Work, C177 which requires governments to accord HBWs protections.

However, the policy does not question whether work, especially hazardous work, should be conducted at home at all, considering that most informal work is done in two room homes in slums.  Home based workers are in fact subsidizing capitalists by providing their own water and electricity while they produce at slave wage someone’s product.

The policy specifies that the:

“tendency to forcibly bring HBWs to designated working centres in urban or peri-urban areas will be discouraged.”

A laudable goal as any forced transportation of workers sounds tyrannical. But, this does not address the default where congested homes, where occupants suffer high incidences of infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis, are converted into factories and work stations, where women work, cook, and care for children all at once, compounding the health risks.

Indeed, it defines a HBW as a person who works within the home boundaries or in any other premises of his/her choice. Arguably, work at home helps women who would otherwise not have employment. But then the policy needs to be explicitly worded about safeguards from noxious substances and reimbursements for water and electricity usage.  At this stage, it is rather rudimentary and toothless, and perhaps more will come at the planning, implementation, and enforcement points.

The government claims, in what appears half hearted, that they:

“shall endeavour to convince large, medium and small industry owners  and business owners, employers and their intermediaries to ensure the  home-based workers’ right to health and occupational safety.”

At a later stage, the government plans to:

“upgrade homes in order to make them more hygienic, safe, and comfortable.”

This sounds like an easier said than done proposition. If the government were really serious about it, then this would imply upgrading not just homes, but katchi abaadis and their crumbling infrastructure altogether, and working with yet another set of middle men who provide essential services to informal (and often illegal) settlements. It is a massive undertaking, and the casualness of its insertion into the proposed labour policy implies a rather limited conviction to the process.

Humaira, an ex garment union organiser and activist with Women and Development Association (WADA) talks of a plan to build work centres in communities where HBWs would come without coercion with nearby daycare centres staffed by professionals.  She is not convinced that legislation is the answer as laws need enforcement. She says that workers have not realised their current rights under the law, and new law will not make a difference. Litigants will have to take cases to labour courts and the High Court to demand implementation, and this would require time, commitment, and resources and women who are already confined to home based work would have to rely on men in their families to push their cases.

There is no systematic practice of public interest labour law practice which could facilitate this process.  In 2006, lawyer Faisal Siddiqui, worked with WADA families and helped settle a case for the plaintiffs who had suffered serious burns from the toxic waste that a factory had illegally dumped in the SITE area of Karachi. One child died, one’s legs had to be amputated, and twenty others were injured. This is WADA’s one legal success story though workers rights should not turn on individual benevolence and philanthropy rather than systems.  Generally, there is no joint, ongoing collaboration between NGOs and progressive lawyers to build pressure on employersthrough strategic labour litigation.

Implausible suggestions in policy

The national policy also envisions having employers pay social security for home based workers including health-care, pension, disability, and maternity benefits. However, it does not tackle a fundamental issue. The relationship between middlemen and workers is casual, transient, and flexible; often there are multiple middle men and sources of work behind the middle man.  These sources could be factories, independent manufacturers and/or exporters.  The policy would define an employer as a natural or legal person (corporation) that:

“directly or through intermediaries gives out home based work in pursuance of their business activity.”

It could also be:

“a person who can be an owner, sub-contractor, agent or middleperson, irrespective of who provides the materials, equipment or other inputs used by a home-based worker.”

In a litigious society, such a broad definition would have middle men and industries doing cartwheels trying to pass the responsibility.

Who is ultimately the employer – the one who could be held down to the promise of social security payment?

Understandably, the policy is simply a statement of principles and objectives.  Future plans and laws should address some of the practical complexities of interpretation and enforcement.

Work done by WADA, HBWWF and others

Organisers have made interventions. The Home Based Women Workers Federation organised reproductive health clinics. Zehra Khan underscored the level of ignorance in the communities.  As an example, she mentions the inappropriate use of Dettol for personal hygiene, and the lack of knowledge about diseases. Local units of the HBWWF will occasionally arbitrate on behalf of the worker with the middleman, and negotiate higher wages, albeit these will still be lower than what they should be paid under minimum wage laws. They mediate in domestic disputes, and bring people together to fix a neighborhood problem, a blocked gutter, or cases of sexual harassment. The units participate in facilitated study sessions.

Impressively, on April 11, 2011, the HBWWF and the Labour Education Foundation (LEF) filled almost every seat at the Karachi Arts Council at their home based workers conference.  Most of the women had been bussed in. Yet, their presence was formidable, and perhaps provided the politicians present (Sindh Labour Minister Amir Nawab and Sindh Women Development Minister Tauqeer Fatima) with the visual they needed – a hall filled with working class women and children supporting their national policy on home based workers. In turn, it provided women workers with a social and politicising opportunity.

WADA and HBWWF both complain about the lack of market alternatives for the home based workers.  In fact Sapna Joshi, an Indian delegate working with a South Asian regional alliance of HBWs, HomeNet, highlighted effective marketing as the number one obstacle to women’s economic empowerment.  Writer Zofeen Ebrahim gives the example of a worker who gets Rs20 to Rs50 for every one dozen girl’s dresses she stitches.

She quotes the worker:

“I know I’m getting very little because the same dress is sold for 200 rupees by the factory to a retail shop. I saw the label myself just before it was being packed and sent off.”

Women can’t market their products directly; yet, frustratingly, they are cognizant of the real value of their work to consumers. WADA tried a system where one of their organizers agreed to place the products in the market for the HBWs thus replacing the middle man. Although well intentioned, he had to abandon the project when storekeepers refused to pay advances for the pants, and it wasn’t feasible for the HBWs to wait indefinitely for returns on meagre capital. The bundles of unsold clothes were sitting in some back shelf in their office waiting for a better idea.

HBWWF, though, is a bit more ambivalent about embracing the role of marketer. They are more explicitly leftist, and explain that there is a risk of becoming an exploitative middle-man.  They cite examples of NGOs that market products for home based workers, but end up retaining a big chunk to run their own enterprise. HBWs usually end up unhappy subsidising the enterprise.

What is a fairer alternative?

Is there a marketing model that works in tandem with the battle that home based workers must necessarily wage to rise above the oppressive system completely – a battle that necessitates an ideological rejection of privatization and capital friendly globalization and strengthens home based workers’ unions towards a larger movement?

Hold the government accountable

The National Policy does not have clear plan either. They mention an affirmative action policy, quite nobly, where the public sector will purchase non-industrial handicraft goods from home based workers – thus cutting out the middle-man, and that various ministries would work together on the marketing issue. Ambitiously, they announce, they will push “OECD countries for preferential or zero tariffs on the South Asian HBWs” products collectively in order to protect the communities of home-based workers “from the demerits of the globalization.”

The policy states that:

“federal and provincial governments shall set up inter-ministerial and cross-sectoral autonomous bodies to put their policy into action.”

However, since the wheels of the justice, the legislature, and administration turn slowly, it may take a while for HBWs to receive actual social security benefits, employment cards, and to realize the impacts of protectionism.  The way forward for HBWs is to hold the government to their promises, and to build the unions, and bring these unions under the fold of intercity and province federations as the HBWWF has done with three unions in Hyderabad and Karachi, and in Balochistan.

The key is to build local bodies and mechanisms for workers to directly negotiate for better rates, demand full disclosure of all chemicals used in processes and safe practices, use the courts and police as a stick, and explore economic alternatives to the middle man. Communities that are economically disempowered need immediate solutions as well as long termed ones – access to markets, education, healthcare, and awareness around health and safety.

Unions must go viral

While many organisations are working with home based workers (HBWWF and WADA are just two), organisers are guarded about their work and there seems little cohesion or non tokenist leadership amongst the HBWs.

NGOs obviously cannot cater to 12 million HBWs. Inevitably, unions must go viral and do movement building, shut down shops, use seasonality to their advantage.  Leadership must evolve.  A dependence on donor funding for the work should cease. Workers in different informal sectors (fisherfolk, domestic workers, and home based workers) must demonstrate solidarity with one another. Unity must also be forged between the formal sector and the non home based informal sector. At the home based workers convention, the National Trade Union Federation extended its full support to home based workers’ unions – a good gesture.

There is a world to win, but not without workers seeing the commonalities of their oppression.

Abira Ashfaq

Pakistan host to largest refugee population

June 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The UN announced today that Pakistan is host to the largest refugee population in the world – 1.9 million people (source: Dawn; note that refugees are distinct from internally displaced persons). The vast majority of these refugees are Afghans who have been displaced due to the relentless wars in Afghanistan that have now spanned over three decades. The global population of refugees is also very high, at 44 million people. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of refugees are NOT flooding Western countries, as the UN report takes pains to note:

The United Nations sought Monday to debunk what it called ‘worrying misperceptions’ about movements of displaced people saying that developing countries hosted 80 per cent of the world’s refugees.

The total number of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons, had not ceased to grow with the figure reaching nearly 44 million people in 2010, the UNHCR said in a report.

“In today’s world, there are worrying misperceptions about refugee movements and the international protection paradigm,” said Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Fears about supposed floods of refugees in industralised countries are being vastly overblown or mistakenly conflated with issues of migration.

“Meanwhile it is poorer countries that are left having to pick up the burden.” The UNHCR’s annual report on refugee trends found that most of the world’s displaced were seeking sanctuary in developing countries, including those which are among the world’s poorest.

In other words, rich countries, chill. No one is flooding your societies, and no one is jumping over your borders. No, the biggest impact is being felt by those poor countries which you have exploited and bombed as you seek to advance your neo-colonial agenda.

To our fellow Pakistanis, we note this as another reminder of just exactly how the ISI and the military establishment as a whole has continued to sacrifice the people of Pakistan – and of course, most grievously, the people of Afghanistan – for the sake of advancing its own narrow institutional interests. And of course, by “narrow” we mean those most exceedingly narrow of interests: cold hard cash. It’s been almost amusing to see the Pakistani political machinery jump into gear in the aftermath of the OBL operation, to desperately try and ensure that the flow of US aid keeps coming uninterrupted, into the coffers of the Army and its friends, and of course eventually into the overseas bank accounts of high-ranking officers and government officials. Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis continue to have terror rain down on them, with seemingly no end in sight.

The Press Club Protest Genre

June 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

I don’t know how I feel about Press Club Protest.  At some level it affirms the state’s pretense of freedom of speech, assembly and our other constitutional guarantees at one sacred spot only. I, myself, have sat in police offices telling officials about what the roads our procession will follow onwards to the Club. But of late, I have stopped going. I didn’t go for the protest for Sarfaraz, the boy killed by Rangers last week at the Benazir Park in Karachi, because I was tired of seeing the same 17 people. And obviously the real struggles are happening outside KESC buildings, the real battles are in communities and streets. When you have power outage for weeks, its the neighborhood that comes out; when a pipe needs fixing, its the people directly affected that come out, and not outside the PC, but outside a municipal office.

But Press Club for me, Karachi, Lahore, or Sukkur, and specially the Press Club Protest is a Place Holder. Its not politically smart to abandon any space completely even if the space has gradually diminished in its capacity to challenge the status quo, and has become impotent — the protest cloning itself week after week. I would rather that the world continue this protest for three interconnected reasons.

1) For the novice or the unattached it a venue for politicization and solidarity meet-up, for birth and growth, a place where you expect to see and connect with the happy and the conflicted, rebellious faces; and its better than sitting in inaction and rot. For newbies, its also a “safe” starting point, and to (oh) the places they will go.

2) If a press club protest suddenly attracts many more people, then it could be amazing. And at some level, its about the people, not the place; there could be a clamp down and a suspension of fundamental freedoms quite promptly (and brutally) if one day some 2,500 uninvited Pashtuns showed up from Landhi to protest drones.

3) When the revolution comes, its going to be an easy place for many activists to show up with or without a text message, especially the ones who are not linked to a union or a community based group, and are floating through NGOs and organizations, or simply reading at home, the students, and the youth. Read text: “We are taking on the (ISI) goons. 1 Million expected.” But where? Kashmir Road Sports Complex, Peoples Stadium, KU campus. Press Club is intuitive, kind of like a catch all space for the old and young who are opposed to something. The only real alternative I can think of is Mai Kolachi.

The Caveat: What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that radical groups totally need to revamp their mode of press club protest utilization. For lack of creativity and discipline, we see the same: procession, burning of effigies, photos, chants (although these improve time to time), hunger strikes, followed by chai, if the activists have time, which they usually don’t. It is good to let off steam, but like ANSWER rallies in the United States, if it becomes the sole purpose of your protest, then its bad. Then letting of steam is letting go of momentum. Plus, you must have roots in the relevant communities, and build campaigns rather than come out in orphan protests that are not backed by on the ground action. Campaigns followed by a PC protest (as a tactic) would be an opportunity to do the requisite publicity and meet up. But I wanted to say, in this moment, lets not completely give up Press Club, but reinvent it. Bring the cool back into it. Make it bigger, hipper, dangerous-er.

And here are two moments in time that I thought the press club protest was quite nice.

I wrote this on September 10, 2010: AND

And then earlier, A CASE OF EXPLODING RED FLAGS, on Saturday, November 8, 2008 at 11:59pm:

If it were possible to romanticize one rally, it would be this one. There was a current in the air. The shot from the van caught a sea of red flags. These belonged to the labor party. Our 120 brown, red and back signs were conspicuous in their condemnation of the bombing up north. One that Sherbaz made awkwardly read “Stop Killing Small kids.” Sorry, Sherbaz, but my Urdu can be as expressive as your English. Husna made an enthusiastic show of hers – Pashtuns are not Taliban. Pashtun students fought to be photographed, and demanded I get them the pictures. They are on Flicker, guys, and we’ve have had a number of views.

There were moments of nerve racking tension. The jeep we had hired began to move. The driver made a unilateral decision to start the march. And as if by magic people began to race after it. Ushering a march is a strange job; no one really listens to you and with a glassy inevitability in their eyes, they charge toward you with signs. I stupidly gave my information to a man dressed in white who was probably an intelligence guy. It was already too late when a PR friend alerted me saying he is not a reporter. A very spirited chanting ensued. Hum Mulk Bachanay Niklein Hain, Aao Hamaray Saath Chalo. I know, it’s a little pompous and delusional to think a baby rally can save the country.

But in Pakistan where drawing room cynicism is high, such statements uncannily come across as sincere and compassionate. Things are bad out here. People’s wages are the same; yet the cost of living is out of control. Urdu press will regularly report of parents selling their children for a few thousand rupees. Rising prices are numbers for us but a matter of starvation for many. Hence, our message of protest resonated with many. A call to halt the massacre of civilians in the Northwest sounded a whole lot like a call for economic justice (roti kapra chath) for the urban poor. We did not get the usual snickers – the typical look of amusement in the eyes of people watching a co-ed tamasha in overwhelmingly male public spaces. People related. People were dead serious. People filled balconies and murmured ‘mashallah.’

Everyone is sensing the pinch. After the lawyers redefined the genre of protest through a 19 month mobilization, the common people are no longer cynical about the show of street power. I may have imagined it but there was even a nod of appreciation for women’s participation. Perhaps, it was just me coming full circle in my own skin in a place that appears close to home, and a place that had better tolerance.

For a believer like me, it was a silly and sentimental moment when I spotted a masjid minaret and a church steeple in the background of a shot of a protest brimming with left wingers and socialists.

On the gender thing though. In saddar, especially, there is such overwhelming presence of men, and a scattering of women, like salt on an immense salad. And they are busy rushing, playing invisible, and hiding curves, follicles, and mouths. However, I do not think people want this kind of gender apartheid. They want a more mixed society and inter-sex interaction, and softness. Yet when it comes to being down with freedom for your own family’s women – you don’t see even the activists encourage them to come out. The rally ended at the historic press club. People made speeches. We dispersed. I dealt with emotional outbursts – my own included. Earlier that day, I got into an argument with a Karachi multi millionaire; he’s a liberal and a philanthropist with bubbling patriotism. Ideologically he is not on the same wavelength. He doesn’t think we have condemned the Taliban loud enough. We have. But we’ve been clear that there are more people dying and being displaced due to the bombing by Pakistan, Nato, and the US than by the Taliban terror. However, we can not deny that the Taliban are a fascist force. He said he does not trust people with foreign passports to speak for the welfare of Pakistan. And I do not trust Pakistanis who own multiple properties, to speak for the welfare of Pakistan

KESC Workers Fight to the End

June 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

A piece on the fight of workers against retrenchment at the corporation that (hypothetically) supplies Karachi with electricity. Even if, unfortunately, the odds don’t look good, their struggle has been inspiring stuff. And proof positive that Pakistan, too, is made of more than Generals and Terrorists.

– – – – – –

FOR ALMOST 50 days, Karachi–Pakistan’s “City of Lights”–has played
host to a trenchant display of working-class militancy. Some 4,500
workers from the Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation (KESC) have
found themselves waging a rearguard battle against management’s
decision to sack them from jobs many have held for decades.

A 20-day hunger strike was followed by days of continuous protests,
one citywide strike and an open-ended protest camp since June 9 on the
road ringing the corporation’s headquarters.

KESC, controversially privatized by the Musharraf dictatorship some
six years ago after more than 50 years of public ownership, has been
run since 2008 by a management team appointed by Abraaj Capital, a
UAE-based private equity firm.

And despite lofty proclamations that competent, foreign investors
would solve Karachi’s electricity woes, all signs suggest that the
current ownership’s methods are par for the private equity course. Its
commitment to turning a quick profit promises dark times ahead–for
workers and consumers alike.

The recent protests have their origins in a late-December decision to
declare thousands of workers (drivers, sanitary workers, security
guards, office attendants, etc.) “surplus” to requirements at the
corporation–despite public promises made amid the fanfare of the
original takeover that all 17,000 employees of the utility would be
well looked-after…

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