Pakistan’s political turmoil has suddenly seized the attention of Washington’s think tanks and policy wonks and made a brief, clumsy splash in the sparring between Democratic presidential hopefuls (with Obama, Clinton et al debating the wisdom of attacking Al Qaeda across Pakistan’s border).
However, up until now, Pakistani politics have been dealt with mainly as a question of “stability” versus terrorism, with a secondary emphasis on the prospects for the country returning to civilian rule. Vague White House pronouncements on the need for further market “reforms” aside, Pakistan’s economy has been largely absent from the debate. Needless to say, the challenges facing the country’s working class have been entirely absent.
In July, I traveled to Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and Sialkot to meet with labor activists and other civil society groups, as well as some factory managers. I passed through busy cities and wide open fields and met with campaigners who deal daily with child laborers in brick kilns, women sexually harassed in textile mills and bonded laborers on cotton plantations. The tactics employed by the organizations I met with varied widely, from interactive theater to rehabilitation programs to interfaith dialogue to research.
Pakistani activists face deep-seated challenges, such as an unequal, essentially feudal division of land (cemented under British rule) and the decades-long decline of the country’s trade unions. But there is much, too, in the terms of Pakistan’s international trade relations that must be altered if workers are to share fully in their nation’s extraordinary economic boom—a boom which has seen the economy go from 5 percent GDP growth in 2003 to over 7 percent today.
With the notable exceptions of the soccer ball and surgical instruments industries (both centered in Sialkot), few of Pakistan’s exports have faced the sort of labor rights scrutiny that is routinely given to the products of other countries, such as China. A cotton sector that ranks as the third largest in the world and a massive textile industry somehow pass right under the global media’s radar.
Moreover, as noted, countries like the U.S. are wholeheartedly backing General Musharraf’s efforts at privatization, with little attention to what this means for the lives working people. Between 1991 and August 2006, the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) notes that “the number of public sector industrial units and utilities privatized… reached 161”—affecting an unofficially estimated 700,000 workers (“Denial and Discrimination: Labour Rights in Pakistan,” May 2007). Effectively union-free zones have sprung up around major cities . PILER says 41,000 bank employees alone lost their jobs (see Harry Kelber, “The World of Labor,” The Labor Educator, July 20, 2007). Stable, fulfilling work with strong communities is disappearing.
There is resistance within Pakistan: union activists at the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works are challenging a ban on union activities and resisting a possible retrenchment that might hand the shipyard over to unskilled contractors (“Arbitrary imposition of GHS rejected”, The News, August 2, 2007). And Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry overturned a plan to sell off Pakistan Steel Mills to a private group that included a close friend of Prime Minister Aziz (Chaudhry was later fired for his temerity on this and other issues, only to be reinstated by his Supreme Court colleagues).
But it is important that the international labor movement support Pakistani activists. This support should come through pressuring the government of Pakistan and foreign firms to abide by ILO provisions, through financial backing of labor organizations operating in both export industries and the informal sector of brick kilns and cotton fields, and through a dialogue with the country’s civil society at large.
As the Bush administration becomes increasingly identified with the authoritarian policies of Islamad, thereby deepening hostility to the United States, the Democrats would do well to see Pakistan in the whole, not just narrowly through the lens of nuclear and terror politics, and to ponder what sort of engagement will truly lead to the stability they seek.