In 1972, six Pakistani workers were gunned down by police during a peaceful demonstration in Karachi as a part of the ongoing labor movement. On Saturday June 7th, the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research organized a moving memorial for the martyred victims.

The labor leaders in attendance honored the memory of the workers and lamented that the Pakistani labor movement had regressed significantly since 1972. The one thing that has remained constant is the conflict between state officials and labor leaders.

In fact, several of the organizing labor leaders for the memorial have outstanding arrest warrants due their activities in budding labor unions.

The labor movement began in 1971 in response to the widespread firing of workers in Karachi. The textile mill owners had virtually no accountability, either to their workers or to the government. Unjustified layoffs were becoming par for the course in the Sindh province, but the local employees were fed up. They finally decided to organize a protest.

Workers gathered outside Feroz Textile mills in a peaceful demonstration on June 7, 1972. The police opened fire on the crowd with no provocation. The police were trying to disperse the gathering, and they decided to do it with lethal action.

A key organizer, Muttahida Mazdoor Federation Shoaib, was shot and killed in the protest.

The next day, a funeral was held for Shoaib. The funeral was attended by a mourning and outraged crowd of laborers. The funeral turned into a protest over the police’s actions just one day ago.

The police open fire yet again. Five workers were killed this time.

Despite widespread support, the labor movement withered in the face of state-sanctioned violence.

Today, Pakistani labor leaders regret that labor conditions today are even worse than they were in 1972. They said that at least then there were bonafide unions and workers had collective power.

The labor situation in modern Pakistan is as dire as ever. Labor unions are nonexistent since most companies explicitly forbid them in their contracts. Collective bargaining is unheard of, and worst of all, child labor and slavery still exist.

These atrocious labor conditions have wreaked havoc on the already downtrodden Pakistani working class. The country has faced an increase in terrorism from the Afghan war. Floods have ravaged the homes and destroyed the crops of millions of Pakistanis. Unemployment and poverty run rampant, and the working poor are powerless to improve their condition through formal labor unions.

Their only hope lies in the prospect of collective action like their ancestors did in the 1972 labor crisis. This time around, Pakistan should have the backing of the international community. Human rights violations are no longer tolerated so easily.

Despite the upward battle the working poor face in Pakistan, they look to gain inspiration from the sacrifices of those six workers over forty years ago.

– Sam Hillestad

Sources: Daily Times, US Department of Labor, Pakistaniaat, PWF

Photo: Balochistan Express