Friday, May 2, 2014
Daily Times Editorial May 3, 2014
May Day reflections In a hopeful sign, the weakened workers’ trade union movement put on a better show than has been the case for some years in its rallies this May Day. Naturally, the pivot for most of the rallies was the large cities hosting the bulk of industry, commerce and the professions. The slogans, demands and pledges were not anything new though. Repetition of more or less the same demands every May Day reflects the stubborn continuing sameness of the problems that afflict the working class but also inevitably lend a ritualistic air to the proceedings. May Day commemorates the sacrifices of the 1886 Chicago martyrs killed by police firing for taking part in a working class rally demanding an eight-hour working day. The day is marked as a holiday in about 80 countries, and informally celebrated in many others. Two significant exceptions to the traditional labour rallies currently are Turkey and Iran, in both of which May Day rallies are banned. For the first time since the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Russia held a May Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square. Throughout Europe, the day found the greatest traction in rallies protesting unemployment. In Pakistan, a Labour Policy was enunciated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in 1972 amidst the first flurry of reforms introduced by him. The Policy provided for social security, old age benefits, and set up a Workers Welfare Fund. The 1973 constitution too upholds labour rights in various Articles. In addition, there is no dearth of labour laws. However, the present struggle of the much weaker working class movement is for legislation in areas where there are gaps, but even more for the implementation of the existing laws, which are practiced more in the breach. Various ILO conventions have been signed by Pakistan, some are still to be signed, but here too the implementation part is far from satisfactory. The incremental rollback of workers’ rights since General Ziaul Haq’s reactionary regime have been exacerbated in recent years by the ‘attack’ of the employers. To overcome the effects of socialisation of the workers through concentration in large factories and learning class solidarity in struggle, employers have managed over the years (with help from successive governments) to circumscribe the right of collective bargaining by placing limits on trade union formation (any workplace employing less than 50 workers is disallowed a union), a contract labour regime through labour contractors, depriving the workers of all protections, outsourcing production to home-based workers, etc. Domestic labour goes unrecognized, unprotected, abused, even murdered. Child labour remains widespread despite its abolition in the early 1990s. If anything, its incidence has steadily risen in the middle of the recession. How can the well-meaning universal school enrolment drives succeed in the face of this rising phenomenon owed to increasing poverty? The minimum wage of Rs 10,000 remains a fiction confined to paper, especially in the private sector. Safety and working conditions issues have become an increasing concern in recent years, with the Baldia Town fire that consumed 250 workers’ lives bringing us as a society to a new low. All this and the lived experience of the working class from day to day inevitably compels the May Day rallies to once again raise voice against unemployment, inflation, utilities’ load shedding, terrorism, lawlessness, privatisation, gender discrimination and the exploitation of the working class generally, but especially in the agricultural and informal sector. The long standing demand for working class representation in parliament seems like pie in the sky given the wealth-based game elections are. This demand can perhaps only be fulfilled by reservation of seats exclusively for the working class in parliament. The ‘triumph’ of capitalism in the Cold War has left the world without a coherent alternative to unbridled capitalism. The result is owners of wealth are able to drive down wages (even more so in the current recession because of lack of jobs) and deprive, through various manipulations, the workers of their legally given and inherent rights as human beings. Capitalism triumphant has bared its ugly fangs and swallowed up generation after generation of the poor, marginalised and oppressed working masses all over the world. Unless the workers of the world overcome their weaknesses, including disunity based purely on rivalries and ambition, they will prove no match for the vastly superior resources and cunning of the capitalist class. In Pakistan in particular, a return to the heyday of working class resistance to exploitation is only possible if principled unity and the bigger cause inform the thinking and practice of the working class.