In July 2010 the unionists—Akbar Ali Kamboh, Babar Shafiq Randhawa, Fazal Elahi, Rana Riaz, Muhammad Aslam Malik and Asghar Ansari—were involved in leading a strike, organized by the Labour Qaumi Movement, of about 100,000 power loom workers, demanding a 17 percent increase in the minimum wage. The government had already agreed to the raise, but textile bosses refused to implement it.
On the day of the strike “a lot of tear gas was thrown at workers and some were beaten by the police,” said Farooq Tariq, spokesperson for Labour Party Pakistan, in a phone interview from Lahore. Company thugs also started firing at workers. Some workers fought back, going back inside the plant.
The six workers, who are members of both the Labour Qaumi Movement and Labour Party Pakistan, were accused of burning down a factory during the strike. “This is a fabricated charge,” states the website of the Labour Education Foundation, an organization raising money to help sustain the six families of the incarcerated unionists. “If the factory had been burnt down,” commented an attorney for the workers at the trial, “then how was it able to operate again, three days later?”
Three months after their arrest they were slapped with terrorism charges, explained Tariq.
On Nov. 1, 2011, an anti-terrorist court judge sentenced the six unionists to a combined 590 years. The Lahore High Court has agreed to hear an appeal, but so far no hearing date has been set.
Three other power loom workers who have been incarcerated in Faisalabad for the past six months are about to be tried for similar charges. “These workers have been in jail for two and a half years,” stated Tariq. The bosses and their government “want to make this sentence an example for every worker seeking to fight for a wage increase. Never in the history of Pakistan has such a massive punishment been imposed on workers who went on strike for a wage raise.”
This case shows that the government seeks to use its “state machinery to suppress the workers movement in Pakistan,” stated Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labour Education Foundation, in a phone interview from Lahore. “It’s important for workers to fight back and get solidarity from other trade unions.”
One example of this were the dozens of May Day rallies organized in Faisalabad by various unions, reported the Express Tribune, and in other cities around the country.
Nine power loom workers in the port city of Karachi were also arrested on terrorism charges last month. “There was no strike going on at the time,” stated Tariq. “They were just arrested because the union has been active fighting for better wages and conditions.” Six are currently in jail and three out on bail, Mahmood said.
Faisalabad, the country’s third largest city, is the center of Pakistan’s textile production. Of the estimated 300,000 power looms in the country, 200,000 are based here and set up mostly in the form of small units in houses where workers are paid piece rate.
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