The Kashmiri public sector workers strike movement, which involved 50,000 workers at its height, backed up by international solidarity, forced the right-wing Muslim Conference government of Attique Khan to sign an agreement making important concessions to this oppressed section of workers.
Concessions in the signed agreement include the right to organise trade unions, and the re-employment of 108 unfairly sacked Public Works Department workers, including back salary, which amounts to Rs3 900 000 (£36 000). The agreement also states that 200 contract workers, originally paid Rs 1 500 a month, will be paid a wage of Rs 4 000.
The Paramedical Staff Association will be recognised as a union and the agreement states that the brutal anti-working class Special Powers Act will be scrapped. Other concessions include back payment of extra “Hill” allowances to workers and more grants for house building. A commitment was also made to look at the implementation of Labour laws and courts. Seventeen out of twenty-one demands put forward by the public sector workers Employment Action Committee (EAC) were formally accepted in this agreement that was signed with the government following two and a half hours of face-to-face negotiations with the Prime Minister.
As a result of these concessions, the Poonch EAC suspended its strike, until 20 March, giving the the government the chance to carry out the reforms. The EAC has only suspended its strike action because there were previous cases where the government signed agreements with workers in disputes and simply did not carry them out. If all the new concessions, made in writing, are implemented, it will cost the government billions of rupees.
The mass movement of public sector workers began after the devastating October 2005 earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people and made millions homeless. It was a response to the failure of the Pakistani and Pakistani Controlled Kashmiri (PCK) governments’ failure to implement promises - to compensate working class families and to conduct a speedy recovery. This movement made an historic mark on the workers’ movement in this impoverished region of the world, where many people said working class collective action was almost ruled out. What is even more note-worthy, is that some of the most oppressed sections of society, such as women workers, joined in this struggle.
Workers’ rights denied
PCK is one of most oppressive regions in Asia, as far as workers’ rights are concerned. Workers did not have basic democratic rights, like the right to form unions, or recourse to Labour Courts. Over the last sixty years, none of the governments agreed to implement even the most minimal standards put forward by the ILO.
The most important lesson of the latest strike was that it was workers’ mass action which forced burning class issues onto the government’s agenda.
The public sector strike was covered widely in the Urdu language press and began to get the keen attention of other oppressed workers in conflict with their employers. The Lawyers’ Associations also took up the struggle of the public sector workers.
Protest letters, organised by the CWI, from workers and young people around the world, were sent in solidarity. Pakistani trade unionists, under the banner of the Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan, also organised solidarity (see photographs). The strike was also covered by Radio Deutche Welle urdu service and the BBC.
Even the leaders of the pro-capitalist parties, some of whom are in opposition, were forced to support the workers’ demands although this was only really lip-service ‘support’.
But one thing stood out, none of the main political parties - even the nationalist ones – gave any real support to the public sector workers’ strike. This vividly emphasised the need to build an independent party of the working class in Kashmir
During the strike, workers put forward the idea of running their own candidates in elections. But what was clear, above all, was the leap in morale and consciousness of workers during the struggle, when they got a glimpse of their potential power.
During the movement, strikers also raised the need for a new workers’ party to put forward a solution to the national question, uniting workers in struggle across the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir, as well as uniting working people in Pakistan and India.
The members and supporters of the Trade Union Rights Campaign Kashmir and of the CWI played a vital role in helping to build and organise solidarity for the striking workers. They raised the need for a united struggle of the working class, youth and the poor to get rid of capitalism and feudalism in the sub-continent. This is the only way to abolish poverty, hunger, and disease. A workers’ and peasants’ government, which caters to the basic needs of the majority in society, would be a first step along this road.
One of its main slogans of this important struggle was, "Workers of the World unite!" This put working class struggle back on the agenda in one of the most impoverished and repressive areas of the world.
Solidarity for striking Kashmiri public sector workers
The press report below and photographs are from a solidarity protest on 16 February outside the Islamabad Press Club to mobilise support for the striking Kashmiri public sector workers.
Azam Junjwa, Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan, Islamabad
It was organised by the TURCP and attending were Azad Qadri Secretary General TURCP, Nazir Javid Dy Secretary General Public Works Department employees union, Ch Mukhtar, President Federal Employees Council, Shakeel Khan, General Workers Union, Naeem Raza and Sadiq PTCL Lions Unity union, Azam Newaz from the Hawkers Union. Shahid Zaheer from the TURCP as well as many other members of trade unions in Islamabad.
Below we reprint an article from the English language Dawn newspaper which gives an account of the protest.
Report from Dawn newpaper
Protest against unfulfilled govt pledges
By Our Staff Reporter
ISLAMABAD, Feb 16: Activists of the Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan (TURCP) here on Friday held a demonstration to express solidarity with over 20,000 public-sector employees in Azad Kashmir who are on protest since February 6, demanding the government to fulfil it promises.
Soon after the October 2005 earthquake, President Gen Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz promised to government employees in the calamity-hit AJK that loans borrowed by them from banks would be written off.
“The government is yet to honour its words,” said Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan Secretary-General Azad Qadri while addressing the protesters who gathered in front of the camp office of the Rawalpindi-Islamabad Press Club.
Mr Qadri said on one hand employees were still waiting for relief, while on the other banks had stopped paying pension to thousands of retired employees.
He said the government had written off loans running into billions of rupees availed by industrialists across the country, but was unwilling to provide any relief to the earthquake- affected people.
“It is an irony that labourers and employees have no right to form unions in the AJK as there are no labour courts that can provide justice to the victims of ruthless capitalism,” Mr Qadri said.
The demonstrators demanded that the government should extend the coverage of labour courts to AJK as well, where employers were exploiting workers in the absence of any legislation.
He said even the media had ignored thousands of employees and members of the Mulazimeen Action Committee, Poonch, who had been protesting peacefully against the AJK government.
He said the labourers would hold demonstrations against the AJK government across the country if their grievances were not redressed soon.