Sher Ali Khan
Up till 1980, the Pakistan Railways accounted for sixty-five percent of Pakistan’s freight traffic. By 2009 this was cut down to nearly 15 percent and now it teeters at 1 percent or even less. So it means its most profitable side has been destroyed. Naseem Rao is the Central President and General Secretary of the Railway Workers’ Union Open Lines. He is one of the leading trade unionists in the anti-privatisation struggle in Pakistan. In Lahore he took time out of his busy schedule to share with Viewpoint insights into the rapid decline of the Pakistan railways and the concurrent struggle of unions in the face of growing calls for more privatisations in the railways. Read on:
You have been involved with the railway unions for quite some time now. Starting out how did you get associated with railway unions?
I am connected to a small area in Sindh called Umerkot, known for severe flooding issues. Traditionally it was farming area but because of the flooding the area is now largely unfarmed. After I finished my education I joined the Pakistan railways in 1986.
When I was growing up there was large peasant movement led by Comrade Ghulam Muhammed Leghari and Ghulam Haider Leghari. I grew up watching their struggles and it had a big impact on my life then. I attended many of his rallies and from time to time heard him speak.
By adulthood I was aware that if there was any genuine political struggle it was that of the workers and peasants. For me this meant that if any real change was to occur in Pakistan it would be done on the backbone of the slogan ‘Workers, students and peasants’.
When I began working at Pakistan railways Mirza Ibrahim’s Railways Workers Union was in place. I got to see Mirza Ibrahim and then Mansoor Rizvi. Without becoming a member or taking a position I set out to work for the railway workers.
After they moved on, there was no one ready to take responsibility for the railway unions. I am proud of the fact that my union is still the largest in Pakistan and is fighting the right struggle.
Can you give a background on the workings of the Pakistan railway unions?
The Pakistan railways are divided into two fronts. One is the open-line establishment and the other is the workshop establishment. The open-line has approximately 90,000 workers and in the workshop establishment there are approximately 14-15,000 workers.
In the open-line establishment the Railway Workers Union is the largest union. We have a membership of over 45,000 workers country wide. I am general secretary of the Railway Workers Union. The Railway Workers Union is one of the largest worker unions in Pakistan. It has a history and tradition of struggle that goes back before partition.
What is the current state of the Pakistan railways today?
From the perspective of trade unionism the current state of the railways is very dismal. We think that the World Bank and IMF policies around the world, have played a vital role in finishing railway transport and replacing it with road transport over the last twenty years. Deregulation and privatisation are now visible in the Pakistan railways.
Currently the Pakistan railway has essentially collapsed. Over the last two years or so freight transport, accounting for almost 50 percent of the railway’s income, has been deleted.
How can we characterise the nature of the struggles within the Railways unions and how have struggles changed since the union began?
Mirza Ibrahim, the founder of our union, is well known for his class struggle since the very beginning. The real asset of the union is that it stands for the working class and fights a class struggle. Our union works as an institution and our members keep a close watch on the imperialist interventions of the US and its institutions such as the World Bank and IMF.
As an institution we have a strong watch on these policies and analyse their impact on the working class and on our struggles. We are the first to raise our voice wherever and whenever these policies hurt workers.
You were saying that IMF and World Bank policies have played a critical role in ruining the railways?
To further their agenda, the first privatisations occurred in Japan. There the Japan National Railways were privatized. Then the American railways were privatised. Over here their policies were enacted in a different way and the railways were intentionally destroyed and corrupt practices on the part of the administration were given a free hand.
There was a strong anti-privatisation movement taking place within the Pakistan railways. The thought was simply that in the face of this strong trade unionism, they would be unable to privatise the Pakistan railways. So they used different strategies which brought the Pakistan railways to a point where its own employees would decide that they would be better off working in a privately run company.
So the situation today until six to seven months earlier, was such that salaries had gone unpaid. This meant that most of the union’s efforts were being diverted to this issue and if the Supreme Court had not intervened our efforts were being permanently diverted into that direction.
Traditionally, two components IMF/World Bank model have been efficiency and cutting excess flab. Privatisation occurs on one side then mass layoffs workers follow it. How has this process occurred in the railways?
This is precisely what we are fighting against. The reality is that World Bank not only wants to break the backs of the workers but also take away their livelihood. There is enough evidence to prove this.
In our country, if you look at any of the public sector institutions that were privatised, the biggest loss was that of people’s livelihood. The World Bank was made to play into the interest of the private capitalist class and its interest. Contract systems, deregulation and privatisation policies are all part of that agenda to further the interest of the capitalist class.
How rapidly has this privatisation process taken place?
This sort of depression has set in the general population that Pakistan railways has failed institutionally it opened the door to rapid privatisations. So they have now opened the doors to private institutions such as Business Express or Shalimar Express and now this new train, which is being called Shalimar two.
During this time, they shutdown the freight services in which they would transport goods of traders who had paid advances was also stopped. As a result, they inducted the National Logistics Cell, to run the freight services.
The NLC, which is a state-run enterprise, has also had role in institutionally destroying the Pakistan Railways?
This is the real question, actually because it has been one of the major reasons for destruction of the Pakistan railways. In the late 1970s during the time of General Zia-Ul-Haq, retired general Abdul Qadir brought this into being which is not the main issue.
It was actually, the creation of a core coordination committee in which a serving brigadier was made the head. This brigadier, would then divide how much of the freight transport would be divided amongst the NLC, Pakistan railways and private carriers. The result was that it was provided shares, which proved less valuable, and more profitable freight transactions would go through the NLC.
To give a context of the impact up till 1980, the Pakistan Railways accounted for sixty-five percent of Pakistan’s freight traffic. By 2009 this was cut down to nearly 15 percent and now it teeters at 1 percent or even less. So it means its most profitable side has been destroyed.
The railway union has historically been one of the stronger unions in Pakistan. How has the government tried to break down the union over the years?
Well, one thing that railway workers should be given credit for is whenever dictatorship has come in this country, the railway workers have been the first to stand up and struggle for democracy.
During the time of General Zia-ul Haq, the rally taken out from Gari Shahu railway station in Lahore, by the railway workers was the first large-scale rally against the dictator at the time. It was from there movement for restoration of democracy began.
The railway workers were the first to jump in the arena in protest for democracy and have given countless sacrifices in this regard. In the same manner, during the time of Ayub Khan, the railway workers played an important role for the struggle of democracy.
So when General Musharaf came to power, he had seen these examples, so he tried to make such policies that would ensure that railway workers would not rise against him. So his first decision was to place curbs on the railways unions in Pakistan.
In what nature were these curbs on the railway unions?
Interestingly by 1993, already there were curbs on ninety-percent of the railways open lines. This was done through enforcement of the ministry of defence line. This is also a weird sort of drama, as it specifies that in the time of war, the armed forces can be allocated seventeen lines but the amount of lines that have been notified during peace and war is twenty.
So the funny part is that the Pakistan army does not need the lines that they have been allocated. So you can see the methods in which they have been able to suppress the impact of the unions.
The point I am getting at is that during the Musharaf era, the goal was to break the trade unions in the Pakistan railways. This was done methodically, through the Musharaf era, 1000s of workers were fired. Workers associated with the unions were either transferred or fired.
So General Musharaf waged some of his biggest battles on railway workers and I think that there was thinking behind this that the tradition of resistance against dictatorship in the past meant it was important to teach a lesson. This was also done to freely implement anti-worker policies on the railway workers. It was because of these policies, that the railways have collapsed.
How has the induction political involvement through labour wings hurt unionism in the railways?
If we are talking about true trade unions then there are no more than three within the Pakistan railways. These unions work according to their own decision-making and processes.
But in general though, if you were to explore what has hurt trade unionism the most in railways, it has been through the mainstream political parties labour wings. The trend now is whoever makes a political party also creates a labour wing which is attributed to various government institutions.
In the same manner, the political parties have attributed labour wings towards the Pakistan railways. This influx has definitely impacted the unity of railway workers and has historically tried to undermine the just fight of the unions. This is because every party has its own agenda and these wings work according to those agendas.
The politically aligned trade unions such as Jamaat-e-Islami’s union have historically been indifferent or apathetic to the systemic privatisation but we are clear that we want an end to these anti-worker policies.
There is a lot of propaganda against the workers, labelling them and the institution corrupt. How do you address this?
Well, there are two types of propaganda taking place. One is the propaganda against workers, which started during the initial phases of privatisation and deregulation. The media aligned with big capital in its assault on workers’ rights and credibility. Then there is the age-old colonial and bureaucratic mindset, which has always said that the workers never work.
This is to distract from the original point in which, we believe that the question that people should be asking is how does an institution such as the railways go to the state it is in. Our viewpoint is clear, there is mass corruption aligned with lack of investment from the state of Pakistan, political interference, nepotism and then finally the policies. Remember in all of this process, the worker was excluded.
The people formulating the policies regarding the railways have typically lacked the qualifications. The biggest issue is that working people of the railway have never been given their due share in the policy-making process. Those people making these policies are not connected to the train operations and people connected with the train operations are not connected with the policy making.
One can only blame the workers, if they had a role in formulating or creating the poor policy direction present within the railways.
Moving forward, how do you see the anti-privatisation struggle progressing and what steps do you see need to be taken to improve the strength of the union movement?
The most real strategy for the current situation in the country would be if most private and public sector unions could unite under one united umbrella. My inner feeling is that until this occurs we won’t be able to compete with these interest-backed policies over the long run.
These small struggles such as the one my union is doing in the railways will not progress. What we are trying to do is create a sense of unity in the workers struggle. That being said in this country there is no independence of the trade unions just used as sweet talk by the government that we have provided union rights. There are many places where still workers are not allowed to form unions.
21 February 2013.
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