EDITORIAL: Out in force

On Wednesday, the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC) laid off 4,000 workers, while 500 employees opted for the Voluntary Separation Scheme (VSS). The next morning the purged employees held protests, which turned violent outside the KESC head office in Karachi. According to media reports, the sacked employees torched two cars, damaged at least 135 cars parked near the KESC head office, partially damaged the utility office and after forcing their way into the building, ransacked equipment and physically attacked top management officials. Meanwhile, the KESC has complained that although it had informed the police in advance of the potential security threat to their offices, the police failed to control the situation for hours.

The KESC in order to cut costs had been planning to outsource these 4,500 jobs to private firms. Although the company’s spokesman Amir Abbasi stated that the employees were given from January 1-15 of this year to apply for the VSS scheme, some serious questions arise as to how ‘voluntary’ this scheme is. Shazia Marri, a provincial minister from Sindh in a letter to the KESC CEO, Tabish Gaughar, asked the company to explain the reasons behind its decision. Ms Marri also rightly pointed out in her letter that this mass redundancy was uncalled for and has left many thousands of households in shock. According to some estimates, the number of people financially affected could be as high as 25,000 when their families and dependents are also counted. The Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain demanded the immediate reinstatement of all the KESC employees otherwise the party would lead a “peaceful movement for their restoration”. Given the sluggish economy and the law and order situation of the country and Karachi in particular, the future seems grim.

The labour laws of Pakistan are weak to say the least. Although workers are allowed to form unions under the law, in reality the situation is a lot different. Most organisations discourage their workers from forming labour unions. The Industrial Relations Ordinance 2002 (IRO 2002) was widely criticised for its controversial provisions under a military regime. The present Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) replaced it with the Industrial Relations Act 2008 (IRA 2008). The IRA 2008 addressed some of the shortcomings of the IRO 2002 but both were insufficient. For example, both excluded from their scope employees of the armed forces and services exclusively connected with the armed forces, the police, PIA security staff, Pakistan Security Printing Corporation, wage-earners above group V, government hospitals, educational institutions, self-employed and agricultural workers. Their exclusion is a prima facie violation of Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan. According to some estimates these groups make-up 70 percent of Pakistan’s total workforce. The new Industrial Relations Act 2010 (IRA 2010) was announced on May 1, 2010. The government tried to bring all groups on board before bringing in this Act, but it was widely criticised for not doing enough. One major fault in the IRA 2010 like all labour laws before it is that no provisions are made for women, disabled and minority workers. One of the inherent flaws of privatisation is that companies want to maximise profit at any cost. In order to maximise profit, companies tend to cut costs, which usually consists of downsizing, as is the case with the KESC.

As these lines are being written, almost every political and religious party has jumped on the bandwagon with these 4,000 employees with no end in sight. But the fundamental question still remains: is privatisation beneficial in Pakistan and what about the rights of the employees? Maybe this is the tipping point that finally turns the tide in favour of the labour unions. – Dailytimes