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Telecom workers fight privatization

By Snehal Shingavi | June 24, 2005 | Page 11

WORKERS AT Pakistan's telecommunications company are fighting a privatization plan--despite a wave of arrests by the U.S.-allied government.

A weeklong strike beginning in May brought telecommunications to a standstill and rocked the country. After first promising to call off privatization of Pakistan Telecommunication Ltd. (PTCL)--which convinced the more than 55,000 workers to suspend their walkout--the government went ahead with putting the company up for sale.

In the face of more than 1,000 arrests, including several leaders of the PTCL Workers Unions Action Committee, workers were set to resume their strike as Socialist Worker went to press--despite reports that one union of the nine represented at the company had reached a deal for a return to work.

The government's plan to privatize state industries has been proceeding at breakneck speed. Hafeez Sheikh, the government's minister for privatization, told the Asian Wall Street Journal, "Pakistan is open for business." "The government is moving to privatize some of its biggest state-owned companies this year as part of an effort to open up its economy and attract more foreign investment," he said.

On the chopping block are the Pakistan State Oil Company (PSOC), Pakistan Petroleum Ltd., Oil and Gas Development Corp. (OGDC), Water and Power Development Authority, several state-run financial institutions, along with PTCL.

President Pervez Musharraf's government began its privatization drive five years ago, though until Pakistan became an ally of the U.S. "war on terror," it was not seen as an attractive investment for most foreign multinationals. Government officials and economists argue that privatization would make PTCL more profitable and efficient--by allowing management to fire up to half of the employees. But PTCL is already the most profitable of the state-run firms.

In May, casual employees at PTCL went on strike for more regular employment and won. Right after their success, PTCL workers gathered in Karachi to protest the privatization plan. The rally turned into a sit-in and then quickly spread across the country, as workers locked the offices and threatened sabotage of fiber optic cables unless the government negotiated.

More than 55,000 technical, clerical and janitorial staff of PTCL went out on strike in protest of the government's announcement that it would auction off 26 percent of PTCL shares beginning on June 10.

The strike brought long-distance service to a standstill, cutting Pakistan off from the rest of the world. The action forced the government to make a number of concessions: wage increases, employment protection and job quotas for children of employees.

Ultimately, the government promised to indefinitely delay the privatization of PTCL. But this was a trick to demobilize the strike. While the union was negotiating with the government, Federal Commerce Minister Humayun Akhtar Khan told the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry that the government remained firmly committed to privatization.

On June 11, Information Technology Minister Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari announced that privatization would continue--and various Asian telecommunications giants gathered in Karachi to begin bidding on PTCL. The Pakistani government announced that the 26 percent stake was bought by a company from the United Arab Emirates.

As workers prepared for a new strike, Musharraf ordered the military to take control of key installations and to arrest some 1,000 workers, including several strike leaders. Reports indicate that family members of striking workers have been harassed by police.

Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao went on to accuse striking workers of engaging in acts of "terrorism"--because their strike was illegal and threatened the workings of the government. The government has also threatened to fire all striking workers under the 2002 Industrial Relations Ordinance, which allows state workers participating in an unauthorized strike to be fired en masse.

By the middle of the month, PTCL announced that at least one of the nine unions, the PTCL Employees Union, had caved to the pressure and agreed to refrain from striking. In the meantime, dozens of other unions and anti-privatization groups have established a committee to coordinate strike support and anti-privatization protests throughout the country.

The privatization issue has sparked a heated debate in parliament, with opposition party members accusing the Musharraf regime of catering to U.S. interests and ignoring the plight of workers. The strike captured the imagination of millions of Pakistanis--so much so that the daily newspaper, the Nation, reported that "A consensus is developing fast: that the nation should not hand over PTCL."

The government is determined to push ahead with privatization. But they are facing resistance--not only from telecommunications workers, but other working people fed up with the growing economic and political disparity in Pakistan.

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