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…

Management’s move to hire thousands of subcontractors in their place
renders the rationale transparent. Many of the fired workers enjoyed
reasonable salaries and relatively generous benefits. Their
replacement by a low-wage, casualized workforce is an unambiguous
example of what private ownership portends.

It’s worth noting that management’s strategy is illegal under
Pakistani labor law, which sets fairly stringent conditions on the use
of contract labor (i.e., only permitted for jobs that aren’t permanent
in nature). Of course, in a country whose constitution calls on the
state to “ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation and the
gradual fulfillment of the fundamental principle, from each according
to his ability, to each according to his work,” Pakistanis have long
since understood that rights are only as good as the movement that
demands them.

Unsurprisingly, given the current weakness of the trade unions and the
left, employers systematically make use of casual forms of employment
in order to escape a whole host of legal obligations to their
employees (i.e., pensions, benefits and collective bargaining).

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

MANAGEMENT’S INITIAL moves were met by concerted resistance waged by
an alliance of the labor unions that represent KESC’s workforce. The
early signs were promising–amid large public protests, Karachi’s
political class scrambled to curry favor with the city’s masses,
ordering the 4,500 rehired.

Yet events soon illustrated either the extent of the politicians’
impotence or the shamefulness of their opportunism. A few days after
the workers had celebrated their “rehiring,” KESC’s CEO clarified that
the announcement was political theater, and the 4,500 wouldn’t
actually be spared.

These events form the backdrop to the recent escalation. In the
immediate aftermath of the initial announcement, the workers had
sought and received from the National Industrial Relations Commission
(NIRC) a stay order formally blocking the firings. But absent any
commitment to enforcement, this mattered not a jot to management. Once
the political storm over the protests subsided, it soon proceeded with
its plans uninhibited.

The exhaustion of the legal road moved the trade unions to escalate.
The hunger strike was launched in late April, but after this and the
subsequent protest camp were summarily ignored by management and
Pakistan’s politicians, the struggle hit its peak last week, as the
city was shut down by the union’s call.

Management and its ideologues in Pakistan’s intelligentsia made hay
over a few incidents of violence and intimidation, but the facts are
before us: a city of roughly 20 million, regularly plagued by ethnic
strife and tit-for-tat violence, ground to a halt on the call of a
trade union. Certainly, much of the strike’s success is owed to the
sympathetic stance taken by several political parties–without their
organizational infrastructure, the action would have been impossible.

Nonetheless, this was a significant event in the history of the
Karachi working-class (the squeamishness of many liberals aside, who
have since condemned the workers for causing unnecessary hardship and
collaborating with ethnic and religious parties).

The strike was followed by a decision, taken only a few days ago, to
move the protest camp from the Karachi Press Club to KESC’s
headquarters. This is where the workers find themselves today–camped
out in front of a management that has proved singularly intransigent.
Several factors suggest that the days ahead will be difficult ones.

For one, the CEO of KESC, Tabish Gohar, is well-connected to the
Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the quasi-fascist party that dominates
Karachi’s political scene. Whatever the public posturing of the city’s
politicians, this relationship probably immunizes management from the
threat of significant sanction.

Secondly, since third-party contractors have replaced the 4,500
workers, the disruptive effect of their protests is scant. While
management has cited the protests (and alleged acts of sabotage) as
the principal reason for elevated levels of power outages in recent
weeks, it is difficult to take this seriously. Of course, this in turn
means that–absent further escalation or other pressures–KESC’s
management is in a position to hold out indefinitely.

The same can’t be said for the union. While the 4,500 workers have
thus far shown remarkable solidarity, months of unemployment in a
society without a social safety net have obviously taken a toll,
especially since most of the workers were the principal breadwinners
for their families. Their commitment to turning out at the picket
line, day after day, is a great credit to their struggle, and a
testament, more generally, to the unflinching willingness of ordinary
people to fight in the face of extraordinary odds.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WHATEVER THE eventual outcome, the battle over KESC serves as a stark
illustration of the barbarity of Pakistani neoliberalism. KESC was
simply the latest in a slew of hundreds of public enterprises that
have been handed over to the private sector in recent decades. The
process began under Zia-ul Haq’s dictatorship, but slowly. It took its
real victims in the 1990s and 2000s, as the Pakistani economy was
mortgaged to international financial institutions like the World Bank
and International Monetary Fund.

KESC’s recent track record illustrates the pitfalls of this policy
shift. For one, the decision to sack thousands of workers in the
context of an economic recovery is not only unethical, but
economically counterproductive–as any reasonable economist would tell
you (not that there are many around, mind you), high levels of
employment in the public sector is good, counter-cyclical commonsense.
This logic, it goes without saying, is precluded by privatization.

Moreover, the elevation of profit-making above other imperatives is
simply incompatible with responsible management of the utility itself.
For example, in recent months, Pakistan’s natural gas producers have
failed to adequately supply KESC. The company has, in turn, refused to
run its alternative sources of energy at full capacity, citing the
high cost of furnace oil (an increasing proportion of which, under
recent adjustments to the tariff, is passed on to the consumer
anyway).

As a result, most areas of Karachi suffer hours and hours of power
outages–in recent weeks, many neighborhoods have been without
electricity for the majority of the day. While it’s true that the
government bears a share of responsibility for the city’s woes, it’s
no less true that much of the problem is intrinsic to the logic of
private ownership: installed capacity is only as good as the money it
can make, not the needs it might serve.

Ideally, in a country like Pakistan, utility companies would supply
their services on aggressively pro-poor terms, charging the rich much
higher rates than the poor. While there is some pro-rating in KESC’s
payment structure–for example, charging a higher rate for consumers
that consume a lot of power–this is far from KESC’s priority.

Instead, management’s commitment to steadily raising tariffs in recent
months has meant increasingly unmanageable bills for Karachi’s poor.
Meanwhile, elite neighborhoods are exempt from the worst of the load
shedding precisely because their need for electricity is backed by an
ability to pay.

It is in the context of this widespread disenchantment with the
utility company that the workers’ struggle enters its endgame. The
promise of an alliance with Karachi’s disgruntled residents is a real
one (best illustrated in last week’s strike), but it remains to be
seen whether this can be leveraged to significant, sustained effect.
On the other hand, there is the danger that management will succeed in
scapegoating workers for the power crisis–KESC’s website is plastered
with condemnations of the disruption caused by “miscreants.”

Only a few days ago, the Sindh High Court ordered that the protesters
be dispersed. It’s encouraging that the police have thus far not acted
on this order, but it probably speaks to the readiness of the
establishment to wait the workers out.

Either way, the coming weeks will be pivotal. A victory for KESC’s
workers, on the heels of a successful struggle in Pakistan
International Airlines (PIA) some months ago, would be a great boon to
the trade union movement.

But whether they win or lose, these workers’ heroic struggle makes
clear that, in a Pakistan otherwise dominated by news of bombings and
war, the path to a more humane society will have to be paved by a
working-class movement that is, despite everything, still alive and
kicking.

§ One Response to KESC Workers Fight to the End

  • asad says:

    you mentioned the “sympathetic stance taken by several political parties”. i’d be interested to know which parties, and the extent/depth of their commitment to the KESC workers and the working class in general.

    is there also any recent evidence of emergent solidarities between/across unions? or are working-class actions/movements primarily localised (within specific corporations/industries)?

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