Asian Food Worker Frontpage
Union Busting in
Pakistan’s Sugar Mills:
Workers Face Dismissal and
Illegal Detention
Even though this year’s sugar harvest and production are expected to be better than last year, and even with an increase in the government subsidised support price for sugar cane, Pakistan’s mill workers in the province of Sindh face an extremely uncertain future. Three years of attacks and union busting from management has left workers destitute and without secure work.

In numerous mills workers have been confronted with an increasingly harsh pattern of management tactics. These tactics include the withdrawal of benefits and facilities mutually agreed to in negotiated agreements, retrenchments and dismissals, lack of implementation of labour laws, “promotion” of workers to officer status to reduce union membership and deny legal rights, failure to register workers engaged on contract or casual basis and repression and harassment of trade union officers.

The workers of the Sindh Sugar Mills Trade Unions’ Federation (SSMTUF) have experienced a direct assault on the ability to maintain enterprise unions to defend their rights to jobs and livelihood.

In the last three years 1,200 workers were retrenched from two sugar mills managed by the Fauji Foundation, which is run by retired military officers.
The management in these mills reduced the wages of workers by more than 50 percent and refused to pay allowances (which are part of the wages). Workers were paid only their basic salary, which is illegal. Management also refused to pay bonuses. When the local union challenged these acts by management at National Industrial Relations Commission (NIRC), despite a stay order withholding the changes management refused to obey the Commission.

The story is repeated in other mills in the province. In the last two years more than 50 workers have been retrenched and nearly 200 workers have been illegally promoted as officers in Mirpur Khas Sugar Mills. Management uses “promotion” to prevent mill workers from taking part in union activities, but the most important aspect of this tactic is that once workers are “promoted” they are no longer classified as workers and are therefore not covered by the law or locally negotiated agreements. Management thus need not provide legal benefits and facilities and gains the right to fire ‘promoted’ workers at any time and without any reason.

In Ranipur Sugar Mills, all the office bearers of the local union have been dismissed because they opposed the illegal actions of management. More than 250 workers were retrenched from Sanghar Sugar Mills in the last two years while in Habib Sugar Mills, more than 150 workers have been declared officers without consultation or consent.

The workers and union officers in Shah Murad Sugar Mills are facing a critical situation. On April 22, 2000 the mills management dismissed 171 workers under the pretext of running losses and restructuring of the mills. Workers were informed of the mass dismissal through an advertisement issued in a local newspaper, yet the balance sheet of the company showed healthy profits.

The workers staged a protest, demanding the reinstatement of the dismissed workers and requested negotiations with the management on the issue. The union approached the labour department and meetings with the management were held in the offices of assistant labour director for Hyderabad.

The workers of the mills were very upset with their treatment and maintained pickets. However, on November 24, 2000 a case of revolt was registered in the police station against 54 people, which included eleven union office bearers and eleven mill workers. Police arrested 19 people including the general secretary of the union. The arrested workers and union officers remain in gaol and have not been allowed to post bail.

The Sindh Sugar Mills Trade Unions Federation has continuously tried to bail out the arrested workers. The federation wrote letters to the President of Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Labour, the Provincial Minister for Labour and others in this regard. Mr. Basheer Ahmed, General Secretary of the federation, also raised this issue during a meeting of labour leaders with the President, General Pervez Musharraf.

The management of the Al Noor Sugar Mills has an ongoing union busting policy. Close to 80 workers were retrenched before the start of the 2000 crushing season. Many workers were promoted as officers. The union has continuously protested against management’s actions.

On July 3, 2001 the union served a charter of demands to the management, but management refused to accept it. On July 4, when the union held its general body meeting to inform workers about the charter of demands, the management termed this meeting illegal and issued charge sheet and suspension letters to the officers of the union and some workers. The management also started to force the workers to sign resignation letters. The management dismissed 8 union officers, refused to pay arrears of 22 months, locked the union office and did not transfer the unions dues deducted from the salaries of the workers. The management also lodged police reports against the union officers leading to the arrest of five. In accordance with labour law, the union served a strike notice on July 19, 2001. The case went to the labour department, however an attempt at conciliation failed.

The continuous intimidation and refusal to treat the sugar mill workers properly has generated a very high level of frustration among the workers. Workers understand that the present climate is very delicate and wish to resolve these problems via negotiation. Yet, any attempt to continue to harass and bust the unions in the sugar mills can only upset the production schedule for this year’s sugar cane processing.

Sindh Sugar Mills Trade Unions’ Federation is the only provincial body representing sugar workers in Sindh. The federation at its last meeting decided to approach the federal labour minister, provincial labour minister and others demanding a resolution of the conflicts between the owners and workers of the sugar mills before the new crushing season starts.

If the government of Pakistan allows these attacks to continue it can only threaten the industry as a whole. Pakistan is a net importer of sugar, and Pakistanis pay the highest prices for sugar in the region. Any disruption to the production of local sugar will not only hurt the mill workers, but the citizens of Pakistan who will be confronted with even higher prices for sugar. The government of Pakistan cannot remain uninvolved in this dispute when the basic rights of workers are being so thoroughly undermined.

Further Information on Pakistan:
Deeply Troubled Hotel Workers in Pakistan Call For Peace on World Tourism Day [2001.09.27]
Pitfalls and Possibilities: The Globalisation Era Confronts Pakistan’s Workers [2001.08.14]