Labour movements – 27 Apr 2023

AS we approach May Day, it is fitting to revisit its origins and the struggle of workers to achieve an eight-hour workday.

American workers resorted to their first general strike beginning May 1, 1886, in Chicago for the same cause. On May 4, the police were attempting to disperse the agitating public in support of the strike, when an unidentified person lobbed a bomb towards them. The retaliatory firing on workers and the explosion led to death and injury among the police officers and civilians. These events of May 1886 are called the Haymarket affair.

Similarly, workers in Pakistan have also demonstrated for realistic wages and benefits and the implementation of their rights by employers as guaranteed by law. Sometimes, these protests have turned violent.

In 1972, the labour federations of SITE, Karachi, were involved in violent agitations against the mill owners, who had defaulted on the payment of the workers` wages, and had reportedly dismissed some workers unfairly from service.

Furthering these protests, some 2,000 workers also overran the Sindh Assembly.

Some of the mill owners were publicly humiliated and 10 workers lost their lives in police gunfire. In September 2012, some 260 workers perished in a devastating fire at a factory in Baldia Town, Karachi. This colossal loss of human lives could have been avoided had factory owners complied with safety regulations.

The agitations which took place in Chicago in May 1886 were for a specific cause, ie, the eight-hour workday. Later, some other factors also contributed towards achieving this goal in the decade of the 1910s, which had experienced the traumatic events of World War I (19141918) and the worldwide pandemic of the Spanish flu.

The war caused the death of 20 million people, while 21m were wounded. The pandemic was responsible for the death of some 50m people around the world. The death of 10m civilians reported during the war included several factory workers. In January 1920, in the aftermath of the war, all countries got together to form the League of Nations. In view of the gravity of the situation after the war, and to accelerate the process of industrial development, different benefits were given to workers.

The first convention released by the InternationalLabourOrganisationrelated to the fixation of the eight-hour workday.

At the time of the division of the subcontinent, there were unions only in the railways and ports, both of which were in the public sector. A look at the history of the workers` struggle in Pakistan showsus that the first major industrial strike took place in March 1963. The strike led to the closure of almost all factories in Karachi`s SITE area and continued for many days. Later, industries in Karachi`s Landhi and Korangi areas were also shut down in support.

The striking workers were successful when the government agreed to provide legal cover to their key demands.

Consequently, two labour welfare laws were promulgated, which extended a medical scheme to workers and their families in 1965 and brought improvement in terms of employment in 1968.

Since independence, the labour movement had been dominated by federations and labour associations wanting to establish a socialist society in Pakistan. Labour leaders would often quote the sayings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin in their addresses to workers and would also distribute communist literature among them. The Pakistan Railways Workers Union, led by Mirza Ibrahim, wouldreceive financial assistance from the Soviet Union for promoting the cause of communism. Ibrahim remained in this position for over30 years when, in a referendum held in May 1982, his union was defeated by the union affiliated with the National Labour Federation (NLF).

The NLF, which is associated with the Jamaat-i-1slami, was effectively led by Prof ShafiMalik, from 1969 to 2000, in different capacities as its president and general secretary. Setting high and difficult standards of wisdom and integrity, Shafi won laurels for his federation as well as the Jamaat. During his term, the NLF had its collective bargaining agent unions in numerous large organisations all over the country. These included the Pakistan Railways, PIA, the Karachi Port Trust, the Karachi Development Authority, Wapda, the Pakistan Steel Mills, etc.

Shafi is a staunch advocate of the idea that instead of May Day, Pakistan should celebrate `Youm-i-Khandaq` on Zilqad 8.

In pursuance of the war strategy, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) had himself participated in the digging of the trench that was more than nine kilometres long, together with his companions, to keep the enemy at bay.

It set an unmatched example of respect and dignity of labour. • The wnter is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

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