A two-week strike by thousands of long-exploited government sector workers in Pakistan’s Balochistan province was closed by a trade union alliance last Friday following a court order declaring their work act “illegal”.
The strikers, facing the threat of looming state oppression, demanded a 25 percent increase in wages, and benefits such as those paid to provincial government employees in other provinces. The demand for higher wages resonates among people working across the country, who are struggling to make ends meet as the cost of living soars.
Announcing the suspension of the strike, leaders of the All Balochistan Workers ‘union and the Grand Workers’ Alliance claimed work action would continue within a month if there is no progress in negotiations with the provincial government, which is a close ally of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and co. Pakistan populist Islamist Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Such a procrastination tactic, which sparked outrage among many workers, is a typical way unions around the world are using to demobilize militant struggles and pave the way for their defeat.
In order to end the strike and sit in the “red zone” of the provincial capital, Quetta, the Balochistan High Court called on negotiators on both sides to show “flexibility” in their talks. Explaining that in practice this means that workers must give up their demands and accept whatever the government claims it is capable of, Chief Justice Jamal Mandokhail stated threateningly, “Until the end of the protests, we will remain in court, and if the demonstrators don’t leave everyone will enter. jail. “
The struggle of Balochistan’s public workers is part of a global revival of the working class struggle as opposed to the capitalist ruling elite who prioritizes profit over the lives and livelihoods of workers amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. With almost no health care system and a social safety net, Balochistan, the country’s poorest province by far, has been hit by the pandemic.
The working poor in the province and the poor have also been hit by a greedy pro-market “reform” program championed by the International Monetary Fund and implemented by Imran Khan and his PTI government. Despite the economic catastrophe sparked by the pandemic, Khan’s government has been relentlessly pushing ahead with everything left over from social welfare programs and price subsidies, raising taxes and closing publicly owned companies, destroying thousands of jobs in the process.
Tens of thousands of workers from various government departments, including schools and hospitals, joined the strike in Balochistan, which started on March 29. They are all paid poor wages, regardless of the critical nature of their jobs. Over the next two weeks there were demonstrations and sit-ins in Quetta and other cities, effectively halting or disrupting government business, until unions submitted to an anti-worker court order and called off the strike on the night of April 10.
On the same day, the teachers boycotted the start of the middle school matriculation exam. A similar boycott by health workers resulted in the postponement of the mobile polio vaccination campaign. On Monday, April 5, the strikers forced a virtual halt to Balochistan from across the country by a road blockade linking it to three other provinces in Pakistan. The protests had an impact on the delivery of supplies to US occupation forces in Afghanistan.
The strike in Balochistan followed a similar struggle in Islamabad, where the government was forced to hand over a 25 percent salary increase to federal government workers after a brutal crackdown on the strikers failed to stop their struggle.
In Balochistan, workers are defying a cynical ban on all public gatherings hastily imposed on the night of the strike by the provincial government on the pretext of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government deployed a massive contingent of armed forces to prevent processions of workers from entering the main government installations, and to intimidate daily anti-government demonstrations. For most of the last two decades, Balochistan has been under effective Pakistani military occupation, using torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings to suppress the ethnic-nationalist Balochi separatist insurgency.
The government refused to make any concessions to the workers during the strike, instead demanding that they return to work immediately. Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan Alyani responded to the strike by saying that the strikers should “all be in prison”. He disdainfully stated that the workers were “not carrying out their official duties properly.” If workers do their job “right”, the chief minister continued, “we are ready to raise their salaries not once but twice.”
Chief Minister Khan Alyani deplored the additional financial “burden” the government would bear if it succumbed to the strikers’ demands, which are estimated at 10 to 15 billion Pakistani rupees (US $ 65.5 to $ 98 million). He also complained that he had to increase the allocation of pension funds for retirees, which had risen from 30 billion to 50 billion rupees over the past two years.
The Chief Minister of Balochistan, who comes from one of the large families of traditional Balochistan landowners, continues to blame current workers and retirees, who want livable benefits, for the state of the utterly bankrupt social infrastructure in the province. “Will there be a time when the government does nothing for education, health, roads, dams, social welfare, agriculture [since] we will only pay salaries, pensions and benefits? “proclaimed Khan Alyani.
Most government employees, including clerks, teachers and paramedics, support their families with a monthly wage of around 18,000 to 20,000 rupees, about $ US117 to $ US130. An increasing share of the government workforce is hired as temporary workers, even though they have worked for many years, denying even the small benefits of a worker having a permanent job. The majority of Balochistan government employees are the sole breadwinners in their households.
Balochistan has been impoverished and destroyed by decades of persecution and neglect by Islamabad, despite its abundant natural resources and strategic location. The latest United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report detailing the socio-economic conditions in Balochistan, dating back to 2018, estimates that a staggering 71.2 percent of its 12.3 million people live in poverty, compared to 38 percent for Pakistan overall.
Khan Alyani and the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) represent part of the provincial ruling elite, and have played a key role in maintaining the PTI’s “austerity” coalition at the federal level. Typical of the country’s utterly corrupt bourgeois elite, Khan Alyani’s declared fortune is more than 728 million rupees (or nearly $ 10 million), and includes overseas property. Pakistan’s evil capitalist elite is notorious for hiding most of their wealth offshore.
The PTI government has acknowledged that 10 million people across the country have fallen into poverty as a result of the pandemic. A more realistic estimate would yield a much worse picture, such as the health effects of the pandemic itself. Officially, there have been 730,000 COVID-19 infections and more than 15,600 deaths. But the true figures, covered by virtually non-existent testing and, in many countries, primary health care facilities, are undoubtedly several times higher.
When compared to other countries, the situation in Balochistan is even more dire. The province only conducts around 1,100 COVID-19 tests per day. When several hundred doctors and other health workers protested the lack of personal protective equipment to treat patients amid a spike in coronavirus cases in the province last April, Khan Alyani ordered police to beat and imprison them.
Amid massive job losses and worsening poverty, only about 45,500 people in Balochistan have received assistance from the federal government, while the provincial government has provided no assistance. Designed as a face-saving measure by Prime Minister Khan, the federal government’s “aid” is limited to a hugely inadequate 12,000 rupees (US $ 78) per household.
Amid another wave of the pandemic, sparked by a more contagious variant, Prime Minister Imran Khan has refused to take any action to contain a spike in infections. A calculation by Bloomberg estimates that at its current pace, Pakistan will take 10 years to vaccinate 75 percent of its population. The government refuses to allocate the funds needed for vaccination, arguing that it is unable to pay the fees.
The growing discontent in Baluchistan is not limited to government employees. Protests erupted earlier this month against the state-run Quetta Power Supply Company over a power outage, which in some areas lasts up to 22 hours a day. Protesters blocked a highway on April 1, bringing trade across Balochistan with Afghan cities to a halt.
Balochistan has also been hit by simmering sectarian tensions. When eleven coal miners from the Shia Hazara minority were dragged out of their sleeping huts and brutally killed by Islamic fundamentalists in January, protracted protests erupted in Quetta and the miners’ coffins were part of a road blockade for several days.