Protests erupted throughout Pakistan after the shooting dead on the picket line of three striking workers at Karachi Airport on February 2. The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) employees were part of a nationwide strike against the privatisation of the state-owned airline.
One of those killed, Inayat Raza, was a veteran trade unionist and former leader of the left-wing National Students' Federation (NSF) in Karachi in the 1980s.
Newsmedialive.com reported on February 2, “Zubair, a PIA worker, who was critically wounded by gunshot, succumbed to his wounds at Jinnah Hospital. Earlier, Inayat Raza and Saleem Akbar died after suffering from straight firing … The clash took place after [paramilitary] Rangers and police tried to stop PIA workers from holding a rally against the proposed privatisation of the airline. Water canon was used [and] Rangers … baton charged and fired teargas shells … An empty shell [from a] Sub Machine Gun was found from the scene. Spokespersons of police and Rangers later claimed in a statement that none of the personnel fired shots over protesters.”
Dawn reported on February 2 that police Deputy Inspector General Kamran Fazal claimed the bullets were not fired by police. “We instructed our personnel not to handle the protesters violently. We are trying to find out who initiated the clash,” he said.
Dawn said that a public relations officer for the paramilitary Rangers claimed in an official statement, “No Rangers personnel has fired to control the protest at [the airport] terminal today.”
The dispute began on January 21 when Pakistan's National Assembly passed legislation to convert the national flag carrier into a private company. On February 1 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “enforced the Essential Services (Maintenance) Act 1952 for six months, barring protesting members of the Pakistan International Airlines from participating in any union activity,” Dawn said.
Information minister Pervaiz Rashid threatened, “Those continuing the strike would be treated as enemies of PIA and Pakistan.”
There were protests in the capital, Islamabad, on February 2 after news of the Karachi killings broke.
The February 3 Nation said, “Political activists and workers from various unions … converged at National Press Club organised by Awami Workers Party (AWP) … to denounce … the use of paramilitary forces against workers who, they said, were exercising their fundamental right to protest and called for justice for the victims.
“The demonstrators also called for the immediate withdrawal of the Essential Services Maintenance Act, whereby the government had banned union activity in PIA. They demanded that the government should halt the plans for privatisation of the national carrier via the undemocratic means of presidential ordinance…
“Malik Nasir Awan of the PIA Joint Action Committee said that the government was now resorting to all-out violence to suppress the democratic demands of the striking PIA workers.
“He said that the privatisation of PIA was literally being carried out at gunpoint and the future of the airline including the jobs of tens of thousands of workers was at risk. He said that the right of workers to unionise was a fundamental human right that the striking workers would go to any lengths to defend.
“He termed the government's imposition of the Essential Services Maintenance Act as a blatantly dictatorial imposition that struck at the heart of democracy in the country…
“Veteran [telecommunications industry] trade unionist Malik Maqbool condemned the assault on striking workers of PIA and expressed his solidarity … He said that the government's promises to workers about PIA were of no value as the privatisation of [telecommunications] had been carried out through the same undemocratic means, and as a result tens of thousands of workers had been laid off and … performance had deteriorated [while] the government and private owners had lined their pockets at the country's expense.
“He said that the only way to halt the privatisation of other state assets like PIA was for workers of all industries to unite against the government's anti-poor privatisation policies.
“AWP Punjab President Aasim Sajjad Akhtar said what had happened in Karachi was a brazen assault on the right to organise and the freedom of assembly. He said there was absolutely no excuse for the government to order a crackdown by paramilitary forces.
“He said that the use of the Essential Services Maintenance Act to ban union activity was a clear sign of the undemocratic, anti-people attitude of the current government. He said that the PML-N [the ruling party] was clearly beholden to the dictates of the international financial institutions and private investors rather than the people of this country, and today's action was proof that they would go to any length to please their creditors.
“The only solution to this dire scenario, he said, was for workers across sectors to join forces and call for a truly popular-democratic debate on the pro-people reform of state institutions in the country, one that held both the civilian and military rulers of the country accountable to the citizenry.”
On February 3, the AWP held protests in Hyderabad and Lahore demanding that the Rangers officer who authorised use of force be immediately dismissed from service and tried under the relevant laws for murder.
The Lahore protest marched to PIA headquarters where AWP general secretary Farooq Tariq condemned the imposition of the Essential Services Maintenance Act and asked the government to immediately revoke the draconian law. He said such laws did not belong to constitutional democracies and the government could not be allowed to deny its citizens their fundamental right to political assembly.
He condemned on-going privatisation based on the neoliberal dogma that catered to the interests of big businesses and crony capitalists.
“The failure of this vision to address the grievances of the country's working people could be seen very clearly in the outcome of past attempts to privatise public sector enterprises in the power and the telecommunications sector.
“Multinational and domestic capitalists had been the only beneficiaries of such attempts as they siphoned off profits extracted from the labour of the working people into a minority of private hands and denied the country the opportunity to spend them on public welfare,” he said.