Resisting exploitation, but …

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

BASED on a doctoral thesis, this book explores the different kinds of leaderships that control labour informally outside the workplace and those exercising authority within the framework of the factory in Pakistan. Although this research was conducted in the ’70s and focuses on two case studies of the cotton textile industry in Karachi, it continues to be as relevant today as it was then.

As the author, Dr Zafar Shaheed, who works for the ILO, points out in the Introduction, he has not focused exclusively on the institutionalised process of labour relations or the factory situation. His study extends to the “workers’ community”. This approach is significant in two ways. First, it widens the scope of the book and enhances its utility because the trade union movement in Pakistan has never been a very strong and effective one. Inheriting only nine per cent of the industrial establishment of undivided India in 1947, Pakistan did not have organised labour in substantive numbers to provide the base for a vigorous trade union movement. Had the author focused only on the formal institutional relations between labour and the employers at the workplace, the book would have been of limited value. Secondly, by studying the informal power structures in the workers’ community, the author gives the readers a better understanding of the labour situation in the country.

Given the weakness of trade unionism in Pakistan and the bias of laws in favour of the employers, it is a wonder that the workers have found a way to negotiate their way round the oppressive conditions that were their lot in the initial years of Pakistan. Much depended on the recruitment process. If a jobber or an intermediary was involved in hiring workers through an informal, personal procedure, a network of ties of dependency was inevitably created. This acted as a restraining force on the workers. Since most workers were in-migrant labour, with the exception of the Muhajirs who had migrated en masse at the time of Partition, the workers developed close ties with their community. This facilitated their transition to urban life and the acquisition of a home apart from their job.

While this made life somewhat easier for the in-migrant trying to find his bearings, it also created a power structure in the community at the social level rather than through the formal organisation of the workplace. This was in the nature of a client-patron relationship that extended into the workplace as well.

In this objective situation, the factors that determined the workers’ approach were the degree of their consciousness, the organisational structure of the factory management and the role of the white collar labour leader in the workplace. Generally the power relationships were such that the workers were dominated by the local patron who prevented the emergence of solidarity among the workers in order to consolidate his own power.

When the workers became aware of the exploitative nature of this relationship they began to resist it. The resistance came from the militant shop floor leaders from within the community. Their new found awareness enabled them to organise themselves not just in the factory but also in the community. The turning point came in 1968-9 when there was a backlash against Ayub Khan. The Basic Democracy he had created provided the community influentials the opportunity to get themselves elected to the new local bodies and thus consolidate their political power as well. The workers adopted the road to militancy and could not be restrained by their leaders. This led to the fall of Ayub Khan.

Although Ayub Khan had to face the brunt of the labour’s anger, this did not break the control of the community patrons who were then known as BD-wallahs. They were in turn coopted by the People’s Party to win support in the 1970 elections. Industrial militancy continued to grow and forced the PPP to respond by adopting a socialist agenda. Thus the balance of power shifted towards the workers.

According to Dr Shaheed, government interventionism in industrial relations has failed to curb labour militancy. Getting tired of the lengthy procedures involved in dealing with labour courts, the workers would get impatient with their white collar leaders who alone could negotiate through the legalistic jargon of labour laws. They resorted to strikes, picketing and other such means to get their demands accepted.

Dr Shaheed wrote his thesis in the mid-’70s. Although the political situation in Pakistan has undergone a sea change ever since, he believes the structure of the labour sector remains the same as ever. The rich-poor divide has widened and democracy is a distant dream. But the fact is that the status of labour has been weakened further in the wake of globalisation and the advent of neo-liberalism. There has been a marked shift towards the informal sector allowing businesses to bypass labour laws, ban trade unionism and employ contractual labour.

Dr Shaheed pins great hope on the labour movement because he believes it is “relatively independent of political influence”. He even terms it as a “nursery for democracy”. This optimism appears to be misplaced in today’s circumstances.

This book is a storehouse of knowledge about the labour movement in Pakistan. But as is usually the case with theses-converted-into-books, this publication makes heavy reading. It is structurally not too logically organised — it is not chronologically arranged nor is it thematically coherent.

The Labour Movement in Pakistan: Organisation and Leadership in Karachi in the 1970s
By Zafar Shaheed
Oxford University Press, Plot # 38, Sector 15,
Korangi Industrial Area, Karachi
Tel: 111-693-673
ISBN 0-19-547345-0
350pp. Rs550