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.