Hotel workers’ stand in Karachi

March 22, 2010

M.T., a Karachi-based writer who blogs at The Mob and the Multitude, reports on the struggle of hotel workers who were defending themselves from attacks on their wages and the firing of union leaders.

As this article was about to be published, a statement on the Action for a Progressive Pakistan Web site announced that the workers had won a victory, with the hotel agreeing to reinstate four fired union activists within 10 days. The statement decribed the settlement as "a small but significant victory for PC workers. The union remains intact, workers have been restored partially and, above all, the management was forced to negotiate...The occupation goes down as a wonderful example for the working class in Karachi."

A CLASH between workers at the five-star Pearl Continental (PC) Hotel in Karachi and its management is heating up as 150 workers continue to occupy the hotel basement for the third week. The occupation began when four workers, all of them union activists who have worked at the PC for at least 20 years, were fired by the hotel, which has a long history of union-busting.

Mohammad Nasir, one of the strikers, said that three attempts at negotiating a settlement had failed. The workers, he said, "offered to end the strike if the management reinstates all four workers," but the hotel has so far refused.

This is only the latest phase in a struggle that began in 2001 when owners of the PC Hotel, the Hashoo Group, began aggressively attacking workers' rights and refused to recognize the hotel workers' union, even though it is a legally recognized body. They slashed wages, cut pension funds and fired workers who protested. Some 300 workers were fired in all.

Then, PC management accused four workers--all union activists--of starting a fire in the hotel and had them locked up for two months in a secret prison in Karachi. The employees were acquitted in court, but the Hashoo Group attempted to fire them anyway on what workers say are false charges of "absenteeism."

Occupying workers at the five-star Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi
Occupying workers at the five-star Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi

The employees got a court order to stay the firings, one of them in 2002 and the other three in 2006, but that order was cancelled in February 2010. But even before a notification of the cancellation had been issued, the workers were fired.

Backed by more than 100 of their colleagues, the workers occupied the basement of the hotel in late February and have been there since. They are demanding that management reinstate the "PC Four." The striking workers also want the hotel to recognize their union and come to the negotiating table.

The UN's International Labor Organization (ILO) has condemned PC's antiunion policies. An investigation by the organization concluded that "grave violations of union rights had been committed by the hotel management and local authorities," and the ILO has called on the government to conduct a full investigation.

Activists say that the PC's policies are part of a larger trend in Pakistan after the business climate soured in the wake of the September 11 attacks. This, coupled with conditions attached to an $11 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund, has led to a shrinkage of the public sector and increasing inequality. And at the same time that the World Food Program is warning of deepening food security in the country, Pakistan has its first entry in the most recent Forbes' list of the world's billionaires.

GRASSROOTS ACTIVISTS and labor organizations have rallied behind the PC workers. Pakistan's National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) organized a protest outside the hotel on March 17, and an earlier demonstration by supporters and families of the workers was charged by baton-wielding police.

"Representatives of 17 left-wing parties and labor bodies have decided to fully support the struggle of PC workers," said NTUF Secretary General Nasir Mansoor. The coalition of organizations has decided to pressure the Pakistani national media to cover the workers' struggle as news organizations have thus far maintained a media blackout. Journalists at Geo News, one of Pakistan's largest Urdu-language television networks, reportedly have received explicit instructions not to cover the issue.

Karachi activist Abira Ashfaq circulated an e-mail describing the workers' current conditions. "The news is not good, folks," she wrote March 14. "The PC is not budging from [its] position. The workers' current demands are: come to the negotiating table and do not fire the PC Four."

The PC Four include Mohammad Noor, president of the PC Hotel workers' union; Shah Nawaz, the union vice president who has worked as a houseman at the hotel for more than 20 years; and union activists Rao Mohammad Ashfaq and Ubaid ur-Rehman, both of whom have worked at the PC for at least 20 years. Ashfaq worked as a store cleaner and Rehman as a waiter, and they are also the sole breadwinners for their families.

Ashfaq also noted that the food was running scarce in the basement. The management has refused to allow outside food deliveries, so workers have been scrounging for food and eating whatever they can get during mealtimes. When Ashfaq and I attempted to visit the workers, we were blocked by security.

The PC hired its director of human resources, retired Major Zia Jan, after Zia successfully busted a union at the Karachi Electric Supply Company. Zia told the striking workers at PC that they ought to be ashamed of themselves for their decision to fight back.

Workers are also being videotaped as a means of intimidation. "They shoot videos of them eating to humiliate them that--you dare eat our food and then you talk about unions," said Ashfaq. This, she observed, is the same owner mentality that pervaded the region under the British occupation. "How dare you bite the hand that feeds you--quite literally," she mused.

In related news, protests are heating up at a tire factory owned by a retired military general where 1,600 employees have been demonstrating for the last three weeks against the firing of 32 co-workers, including five union activists.

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