Karachi is the largest city of Pakistan, with the country’s biggest shipping port and has significant industries in its vicinity. The city has the largest proportion of industrial workers in Pakistan.
On 28 August 2021, a huge protest rally of more than a thousand factory workers from Korangi and Landhi industrial areas of Karachi was held under the banner of the Workers’ Solidarity Committee.
The main demands of the rally were the implementation of Rs. 25,000 per month minimum wage, as announced by the Sindh Government, the elimination of contractual labour, and the implementation of industrial safety laws. More than this, however, the rally of the Workers’ Solidarity Committee – formed by a liaison between the Red Workers Front (RWF) and various active trade unions in the industrial areas – has as its long-term goal the forging of class unity among workers to further the struggle against capitalism.
The rally was attended by a large number of workers from General Tyres, Opal Laboratories, Adam Jee Engineering, IIL, Merit Packaging, Atlas Engineering, Denim Clothing, Suzuki Motors, Feroze Textiles, Aspin Pharma (Johnson and Johnson), Phoenix Arms, Artistic Millennial and many others.
The plight of the industrial workers in Pakistan, which forms the background to this outstanding display of courage and class unity, is well known to everybody. But in the past one and a half years, the bosses have taken full advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to escalate their onslaught on the workers, leading to severe exploitation and deprivation. Almost the entire workforce of these prison-like industrial areas is hired on daily wages through short-term labour contractors. Very few workers remain with permanent employment. Forced retrenchments have become a daily routine. Pakistan’s labour laws heavily favour factory owners, yet even these few lame laws and regulations are left unimplemented. Workers are left reeling under an oppressive regime of contracted labour and outsourcing. Meanwhile, ‘labour NGOs’ and yellow unions have mushroomed, acting as a brake on the development of the labour movement. The combined effect of all these factors has been to breed an atmosphere of apathy and alienation among the workers.
In these circumstances, feeling the pressure of growing resentment among the workers, the Sindh government reluctantly raised the minimum wage to Rs. 25,000, although no serious measures have yet been taken to implement this legislation. Whilst this sum is peanuts in comparison with the rapidly rising levels of inflation that have been experienced in the past few years. Nonetheless, this half-hearted move by the government was welcomed by the workers. The bosses, however, are completely unwilling to grant even this meagre relief to the workers and have blatantly refused to implement the minimum wage. This detonated a wave of anger and resentment among the workers.
On 27 August, a mobilisation campaign was conducted in the industrial areas using a mini-truck fitted with a loudspeaker. On the same day, a fire broke out at a chemical factory located in Mehran Town, Korangi in which 21 workers lost their lives. The mobilisation campaign of the committee was immediately directed towards this factory, where members of the committee gave speeches, chanted radical slogans and demanded that the owners of the factory face immediate prosecution for their criminal negligence of workers’ safety.
One day before the rally, the city administration, the intelligence agencies and the police began systemic harassing the organisers in an attempt to pressure them into cancelling the event, threatening them with dire consequences should they fail to do so. The factory owners had begun to panic due to the radical campaign of the Workers’ Solidarity Committee. Moreover, they knew very well that instead of yellow unions, the leadership of the rally was in the hands of the courageous General Tyres Workers’ Union leaders and the Red Workers Front. Not only were repression and continuous harassment used, but scores of yellow union leaders and labour NGO activists were unleashed against the rally organisers in order to poison the atmosphere. But the exemplary courage and determination of the workers and their leaders prevailed and won the day.
On 28 August, the rally set off from Hospital Chorangi at 2.30 pm. Hundreds of workers riding motorcycles joined the rally led by General Tyres Workers’ Union. A heavy contingent of police was deployed at Bilal Chorangi, where they attempted to disperse the rally. However, the workers passed straight through the contingent and on to the rally to its culminating point at Godam Chorangi Korangi industrial area, taking the form of a huge protest demonstration in front of the Korangi Association of Trade and Industries building. The demonstration received a further boost when it received the representatives of 400 workers of a denim factory who were facing forced retrenchment. Addressing the rally, speakers said that the owners are so blinded by their lust for profits that they have refused to provide even the tiny relief for the workers in refusing to implement the minimum wage. It is the criminal negligence of the owners, the labour department and the government who were responsible for the deaths of 21 workers in the factory fire a day earlier. Speakers demanded the immediate implementation of industrial safety laws. Various speakers highlighted the issues regarding the provisioning of social security, overtime payments and old-age benefits. Female speakers highlighted the issues faced by women workers and stressed the need to forge class unity among men and women workers.