Trade unions are chronically weak in Pakistan. Splintered in many small unions (in 2000 there were 7.220 unions) they organise only about one million workers which is about 2.4% of the workforce. Of these trade union members only 1,5% are female! The trade union movement has been dominated by a bureaucracy who look at their small unions like little princedom. Often they are connected to one of the main bourgeois parties in which they are helped by various reformist and centrist forces who collaborate with these parties. (e.g. Manzoor Ahmad PPP’s Labour Bureau or the PTUDC of “The Struggle”)
The working class faces a very difficult social situation. Of a total employed labour force of nearly 54 million (according to the official statistics of 2011), about 18 millions work in the countryside and 16 million in the cities and towns. More than 45% of them are employed in the agricultural sector (amongst the employed women the share is even ¾!), 13.7% work in the manufacturing sector (the share amongst women is more than 10%) and 7% work in the construction sector (nearly all are men).
Of these total labour force 36% are formally wage labourers (40% amongst men but only 21% amongst women), 27.7% are classified as “contributing family workers“ (only 17.3 amongst men but 63.4% amongst women!) and 35% are so-called “Own account workers” (40.5% amongst men and 15.6% amongst women).
Because of successful oppression by the various regimes in the past decades and the betrayals by the bureaucrats many workers have jobs in the informal sector. 73.8% - i.e. nearly ¾ - of all employed in the non-agricultural sector are employed in the informal sector. (Inside this informal sector between 40-45% each are wage labourers respective self-employed).
Naturally workers in the informal sector are suffering from a particular insecure situation which makes trade union organizing difficult. In addition to the past regimes have limited or banned trade union activity. In the Industrial Relations Ordinance 2002, promulgated by then-President General Pervez Musharraf, restrictions on labour rights have been extended to the workers in the Old Age Benefit Institutions, Workers Welfare Funds, Pakistan Mint, watch and ward, security and fire services staff in different organizations. Trade union activities were banned in KESC and PIA and the activities in the banking industry are still restricted. Agricultural workers have remained outside the ambit of labour rights and laws. The IRO is also not applicable to the Export Processing Zones (EPZ) and Special Industrial Zones (SIZ). Contrary to that, workers in Sri Lanka have the right of association and collective bargaining even in EPZ operating in that country.
This does however not mean that trade union activity is not possible as massive strikes at PTCL and KESC have shown in the last years.
The RWO works inside the trade unions and advocates the program of class struggle, socialism and workers' democracy. We fight against the divisions of the union movement in many small unions. For broad, mass unions which organise the workers in the whole industrial branch!
Given the fact that most of the Pakistani working class are not unionised, we call for a broad campaign to build new unions on a democratic basis. Defend the unions against state repression! Unions must not be banned in any sector of the economy! We call for an end of all laws which limit and strict the rights of trade unions. New trade unions who ask for registration must be recognised by the authorities without delay.
The trade unions must be purged from the grip by the bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is a layer which is connected with the state and capital via jobs and privileges. It is far away from the interests and living circumstances of the members. The struggle for the liberation of the working class must be based on the broad mass of the proletariat rather than their upper strata. For a mass campaign to win the broad masses for the unions (including the overwhelmingly female domestic workers)! For a rank and file movement inside the unions against the bureaucracy!
In the class struggle trade unions are important but not sufficient. Particularly important is the formation of mass rank and file Action Committees which strive to integrate all activists and workers independent if they are member of a union or not. The goal of such Action Committees must be to transform themselves into broad, comprehensive combat organizations at the work place, in the district, schools and universities. This orientation is not in contradiction to the work within the existing mass organizations (trade unions, etc.), but rather complement to these activities. The regular work within the unions at the grassroots against the bureaucracy improves the ability of the independent organization of the working class. The support of each opportunity to build broad committees of struggle in turn strengthens a grassroots movement in the unions. Similarly it is important to build militant Action Committees of the poor peasants as a basis for a revolutionary peasant movement in alliance with and under the leadership of the working class.
While we reject the subordination of unions under the control of bourgeois parties we neither advocate anti-party syndicalism. Particularly in circumstances where the class struggle and the independent organization of workers is so much restricted particularly because of the concrete political circumstances (role of the military, reactionary pressure against public activity of women etc.) a linkage of the trade union struggle and the political struggle is essential. But the orientation must be towards the formation of a worker’s party and towards intervening in political life independent of any bourgeois party.
A new Workers Party would be an enthusiastic supporter of the formations of Actions Committees and Workers’ and Peasant Councils. At the same time such organs – reflecting the tendency of the toiling masses for self-organisation – would be a fertile ground for a Workers Party to recruit the most class-conscious, revolutionary elements.