Rangers Injure 8 in Karachi Export Processing Zone; Thousands on Strike

July 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

Today hundreds of workers from the J & M Clothing Co. gathered outside the Karachi Press Club to protest the brutal beating of eight of their co-workers by the Pakistani Rangers (a paramilitary force tasked with ‘keeping the peace’ in Karachi).

The incident that provoked the clash took place a few days ago. After being served rotten meat by the canteen at their factory (a privilege which costs them 300 rupees a month), the almost 2,000 workers employed at the establishment, reportedly the largest factory in the Karachi EPZ, took out a spontaneous protest against management. Unions are, thanks to the treacherous provisions of Pakistani labour law (PDF), illegal in the export-processing zone, but workers have been organized under the aegis of what they refer to as a ‘committee’. Unfortunately, the president of this committee has long been in the pocket of management.

After affairs escalated, the Rangers were summoned–two supervisors (one of them this ‘committee’ president) fingered a few workers as the protagonists of the agitation. They were ordered to leave the factory. After they refused, the Rangers attempted to make an example of them–kicking them in the shins, beating them with sticks (one worker laughed as he told me they broke one on his back), etc. Two workers were beaten unconscious, only recovering later that evening at Jinnah Hospital. Apparently a few others fainted from the shock, as everyone around (including the Rangers, who promptly scattered) had presumed these two dead when they collapsed. Amidst the tumult, eighteen workers, including the injured, were handed letters informing them that they’ve been fired.

Since then work has ground to an almost complete halt at the factory. With the exception of a couple of hundred largely Sindhi workers (who, I was told, are insulated from the rest of the workforce by a combination of clientilistic ties to supervisors and proximity of their residence to the factory), the plant is united in refusing to return to work until the two guilty supervisors have been removed, and all unjustly fired workers rehired.

Aside from the obvious, welcome militancy of these workers, several things stand out about the action. For a city rent by a recent spate of target killings and a country assailed by the rhetoric of imperialists and fundamentalists alike, the explicit cross-ethnic solidarity displayed by the protesters and the prominent involvement of women was very heartening, to say the least.

Additionally, given the centrality of the textile industry to Pakistan’s economy (as of 2004-2005,  it represented 46% of the manufacturing sector, employed 35% of the industrial labor force, and–if one is counting all cotton-based commodities–accounted for 60% of Pakistan’s total export receipts) this protest–on the heels of the massive strikes in the power looms of Punjab–hints at the possibility of an uptick in workers’ struggle in the sector at-large. Nobody needs reminding that, in the context of ongoing structural adjustment, current levels of remuneration will only become more inadequate as events unfold. All things being equal, one can assume that workers’ agitation will grow hand-in-hand. It also behooves us to think carefully about how both the anticipated trajectory of the sector, and the ongoing conflicts between the various fractions of capital positioned along its value chain will affect workers’ prospects in this regard. (For example, recently a trenchant disagreement has been raging over the imposition of the export duty on domestically produced yarn. It seems to have been resolved–by the intervention of the finance minister, against the recommendation of the legislative arm–in favor of the spinning sector, today.)

Of course, the hopes of the armchair observer need to be tempered by what activists see day-in day-out, which–last I asked–is not much. Needless to say, there are those congenital obstacles to workers’ activism in Karachi–high levels of unemployment, as an estimated 40,000 people migrate to the city every month in search of gainful employment; the informalization of the worker’s relationship to his/her employer; the aforementioned ethnic divides; the strength of reformist and clientilistic solutions to workers’ grievances (the J & M protest was delayed by a day, for example, after representatives of the ANP promised to organize eventually unsuccessful talks with management–there are several similar  stories in which they have swooped in to ‘mop up’ and contain the mess made by Capital).

One can only hope that the urgency of the plight of our working-class serves as pressure enough to render impotent these barriers to its self-organization. Goodness knows we need it.

PS: In case anyone is particularly moved by the unveiling of the ‘fetishism of the commodity’, this page lists the many clients of the larger group to which the J & M Clothing Company belongs.

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Karachi burns, again

May 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

The news has been dominated by the Facebook debacle which has now led the Government of Pakistan, directed by the Lahore High Court, to ban not just Facebook but over 1,000 other domains in Pakistan. (For the record, we condemn the ban, while recognizing at the same time that initiatives such as the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” group on Facebook isn’t about advocating free speech at all, but rather is designed to hurt, offend, and inflame.)

Meanwhile, Karachi has been suffering terribly, with 23 people killed on May 19 in targeted attacks. May is always a tricky month, and not just because of the heat. Readers may recall that May 12, 2007 was one of the deadliest days in recent Karachi memory. On that day, supporters of the lawyers’ movement were prohibited from demonstrating peacefully, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) took the opportunity to not just shut down free speech and peaceful assembly but also take aim at its political rivals. On May 12, 2007, 46 people died and about 150 people were injured as the result of orchestrated violence by MQM thugs. These thugs were unhindered in their mayhem, and in some cases even helped, by local law enforcement authorities. The targets of the violence were ostensibly supporters of the deposed judges, but were targeted because of their status as activists of local opposition parties, most notably the Awami National Party (ANP).

To understand why the MQM would want to target the ANP requires a bit of background on Karachi politics. First, it must be understood that the MQM was the brainchild of the military establishment, in the 1980s when General Zia was in power and the dictator du jour in Washington. The party, supported no doubt a very real constituency on the ground, was meant to weaken the power of opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chief among them. This was possible because of a radical demographic shift that had occurred in post-independence Karachi. Starting in 1947, Karachi became home to millions of “refugees” from India who were mostly Urdu-speaking, mostly from the United Provinces (later Uttar Pradesh) in India, and mostly urban and lower middle class. This was in contrast to the local Sindhi-speaking population, which was largely rural and working class. A vacuum was created with the departure of Hindus from Sindh, since this group represented most of the wealthy elite. But instead of allowing for upward mobility for local Sindhis, the departure of elite Hindus allowed the newly-arrived migrants to rise to the top, which they could do much more easily given their advantage in education, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial experience, and not least their fluency in Urdu which gave them tremendous cultural capital. In time, the urban centers in Sindh, most notably Karachi and Hyderbad, came to be dominated by the Urdu-speaking community, or Muhajirs (migrants) as they came to be known.

The PPP was certainly the first truly national party, drawing from all ethnic groups within Pakistan, but the party had an especially faithful following among Sindhis. So nurturing the MQM, which represented the Urdu-speaking, would be a useful way for the establishment to weaken the PPP’s position. And that’s precisely what happened. Today, the MQM controls the local government of Karachi, and it holds most of Karachi’s seats in the provincial and national assemblies. The appeal of the MQM has been primarily to claim discrimination on behalf of a privileged group – that is, to want to maintain privilege and power in the face of rather feeble attempts to redress the grievances of the poor (in this case, mostly rural and Sindhi). So one can immediately see that the party is a reactionary force. But it has become much more sinister in the recent past, bordering on fascist, and the targeted attacks on May 12, 2007, and again on May 19, 2010, are good illustrations of this.

What’s happened to Karachi in the last two decades is yet another demographic shift. This time, the city is seeing a rapid increase in the Pashtun population of the city (driven by war, drugs, foreign intervention, and the ever-present lure of The City). Karachi now has more Pashtun people than Peshawar. It is Pakistan’s largest Pashtun city. By some accounts, the Muhajir and Pashtun populations of the city are almost at par. So the MQM feels threatened. Thus, the attacks on ANP activists (the party representing Pashtun interests), the targeting of Pashtun neighborhoods, the demonizing of Pashtuns as extremist and violent, and the narrative of the “Talibanization of Karachi” and the need to fight against it. All of this makes the War on Terror extremely useful for the MQM for entirely local reasons, and for the most banal of motives: to hold on to power.

What happened on May 19, then, was a reminder from the MQM – that they’re still in charge, and no challenge to the party’s authority will be tolerated. And, in an ironic twist of fate, the government at the Center, led by the PPP, now also finds it convenient to deploy the War on Terror for its own ends (also for banal motives: power and cold hard cash). The PPP is also in coalition with the MQM in the Sindh Assembly, but it is in coalition with the ANP at the Center, which means it has done some balancing act in the last few days. But it seems clear which side it will come out on. Just today, the Interior Minister announced that the deployment of Rangers in Karachi will be increased:

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said that the recurring of the targeted killing incidents in the metropolis after every four-five months is a part of a conspiracy to destabilise the country and its links go to Fata and Swat…

He said that the deployment of Rangers in the city was being increased and the special powers conferred upon them under the Anti-terrorism Act of 1997 had been extended for three months.

So, to recap: the reactionary MQM conducts a terror campaign against Pashtun Karachiites, the PPP uses this as an opportunity to link the very local processes in Karachi to the war in FATA, and the federal government gets to keep its hold on Karachi via the brutal Rangers. Ah, the War on Terror – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

PC Workers’ Victory!

March 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

We’ve just received word about from activist Riaz Ahmad. He says:

PC Hotel occupation ended today at 9pm (on March 20). 1 of 4 activist restored. the other 3 will be restored in 10 days. Mangt forced to negotiate w union President Nasir. Jubiliation amongst occupying and protesting workers as they meet intside the hotel after 26 days of a brave occupation and strike by over 150 workes. Its a workers’ victory, said Ghulam Mehboob Secretary of PC Hotel Workers Union…. Ghulam said the management (Aslam Siddiqui, PA to Hashwani [owner of the PC]) was forced to negotiate with union President Nasir in the basement today where over 150 workers were occupying.

Its a small but significant victory for PC workers. The union remains intact, workers restored partially and above all the management was forced to negotiate which it has avoided since 2002 when it sacked over 300 union members, including office bearers of the union (except the 4 which were sacked on Feb 24 and now restored). The occupation goes down as a wonderful example for the working class in Karachi.
A fantastic step in the larger struggle. All issues are obviously not resolved, and we’ll bring you news about what’s next. Meanwhile, workers at the tire factory are still protesting.

PC Workers’ Occupation

March 8, 2010 § 1 Comment

UPDATE III (see the PC Occupation page)

UPDATE II (Monday March 8th, 2010)

  • Sign the petition HERE in solidarity with the PC workers.
  • Please see further down on the page for facts about the PC workers strike.
  • Want to get involved? Download factsheet and petition HERE. Or, contact us at progpak@gmail.com

The latest round of negotiations has failed. There have been three negotiation sessions in the last 11 days. The workers have offered to end the dharna if PC reinstates the PC-Four and continues negotiations on the other demands. The PC management has refused. There are now approximately 200 workers in the basement. Some of those who left briefly to go home were disallowed from returning. A few others continue to work their shifts and then return to the basement to continue their strike. Food is scarce.

The PC has a staff of 550-600 people on daily wages. The management is hiring new people to cover the duties of the striking workers. Some say that workers from the Marriott Hotel across the street which the Hashwani Group also owns, have been brought over to cover duties at the PC. The Hashwanis are not budging from their position. However, the Human Resources Director as well as the General Manager appear to be softening on their stance, perhaps because they are worried about the increasing visibility of the strike. The police has so far not taken any action and even reportedly called it a “peaceful” demonstration, but workers fear that charge sheets have been drawn up for use in the future.

The next round of talks is scheduled for 2pm on Wed, Mar 10, 2010.

UPDATE I.

  • Sign the petition HERE in solidarity with the PC workers.
  • Please go to the PC Workers Occupation page for more details and facts about the strike.
  • Want to get involved? Download factsheet and petition HERE. Or, contact us at progpak@gmail.com

Initial negotiations failed, and the latest round is set for Monday, March 8 at 3pm at the Labor Department. During prior talks, the PC management demanded that the workers put an end to the dharna first before further discussions. PC also attempted to force approximately 60 workers to sign an agreement saying that they will not take part in the strike, and that if they should do so, the PC has the right to sack the workers. All of them refused to sign the agreement.

The JUI (Jama’at-e-Ulema-e-Islam) has come out in favor of the workers. The party has issued an ultimatum that the PC re-instate the dismissed workers. The Karachi leadership of the JUI is also involved in negotiations with the PC management over this issue. We must ask: where o where are the secular parties?

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EARLIER POST

APP has, throughout, gone to great lengths to remind all and sundry that in Pakistan, too, there are workers and ruling classes, occupations and strikes, struggles and victories.

Last week, 150 of these workers seized the basement of one of Karachi’s most iconic hotels, in protest at the targeted sacking of four trade union activists by management. This follows a sordid history of repression at their workplace; an ILO investigation concluded that “grave violations of union rights had been committed by the hotel management and local authorities.” All this is fitting, of course, for the fat cat under threat is one of Pakistan’s richest men.

The Pearl Continental Karachi, occupied!

A 9/11-induced downturn in business had provided a pretext for the hotel’s management to fire some three hundred workers. Four union activists–“the PC Four”–were targeted, around this time, on the trumped-up accusation of having started a fire in the hotel. These workers were held in a secret Karachi prison for two months, before a court acquitted them of the charges–and produced, also, a ‘stay order’ on their dismissals (renewed, thrice, in 2006). Last month, however, these stay orders were canceled, and the workers summarily dismissed. In response, the PC Four, backed bravely by 150 of their colleagues, took control of the basement of the hotel.
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Food for Thought

February 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve asked S. to write a blog about the politics of food in Pakistan as he’s starting an organic farm here. But, while we wait for that, I thought I’d share photos of the greenhouse he’s set up here to test organic seeds. For a full slideshow with captions, go here. I tried posting it below, but there were issues.

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