Workers in Pakistan combative despite flooding

More than 25,000 telecommunications workers have been out on strike in Pakistan since the middle of August. They are striking because they were promised 50% wage increases by the government, but the semi-privatized Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL) has refused to abide by the government’s promise. The management of PTCL has argued that since they are semi-private they are not bound by the promises that the government makes. The company initially announced that it would raise wages, hoping to head off protests, but the wage increases were lower than what was promised (20% as opposed to 50%).

At the same time, management at PTCL is accusing workers of sabotaging its efforts at helping out the country in a time of need (and simultaneously saying that it has also taken a hit because of the flooding). This appears to also be having an impact on the UAE-Pakistan relationship as well, though reports are vague on what this will mean.

On Thursday, striking workers stormed the PTCL headquarters and faced off with police who charged them with batons. A few workers were injured, but the workers were able to get past the cops and storm the building. On Friday, PTCL workers blockaded three of the main roads in Islamabad. They held the road for 6 hours and shut down traffic. The police faced off with them on the main Kashmir avenue but they didn’t make a move against the workers for the duration of the protest. As the rally broke up, the police charged (apparently at the request of management) and arrested 40 and injured several more. It’s a sign of the determination and combativity of the workers that they are able to stand up to the ideological and physical onslaught that they are up against (many of them are also Muslim and fasting during Ramadan!).

PTCL is run by Etisalat, a UAE-based telecommunications firm. They tried, from the outset, to have the strike declared illegal and to get the police to intervene decisively against the union. Management even went to the Lahore High Court to try and have the strike action declared violent, but the High Court refused and ordered PTCL back to the bargaining table. In response, PTCL is withholding wages. Meanwhile, PTCL announced higher profits for FY2010 than they originally anticipated.

But the strike action is having a very serious effect as phone service has been affected throughout the country, and it’s also beginning to have an impact on other industries in Pakistan, too. PTCL is losing clients as capitalists are switching to other communications providers. There seems to be an overall loss of confidence in PTCL’s ability to get its service running (the biggest complaint is that service requests are going unanswered) and effectively handle the labor unrest (other industrialists are accusing PTCL of using the strike as an excuse not to make repairs).

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