Asian Food Worker Frontpage
Ending Fragmentation and Confronting Restructuring - Pakistan's First National Sugar Workers' Federation Emerges
Newly elected representatives of the Pakistan Sugar Mills Workers' Federation, sitting from left: Chaudhry Samiullah (Senior Vice President), Abdus Salam Memon (Secretary General), Gul Rehman (President), Malik Lal Khan (Chairman); standing from left: Abdul Majeed Leghari (Organiser), Mohammad Akber Arain (Finance Secretary), Aslam Wafa (Deputy Secretary General) and Muslim Khan (Publicity Secretary).

Pakistan's sugar workers have long been weakened by fragmentation and disunity coupled with a class of employers who have more often than not preferred to sideline unions from workplaces rather than negotiate.

Furthermore, Pakistan's sugar sector has serious problems of over capacity, meaning unions face continuing pressures from sugar mill owners over productivity, job losses and even plant closures. With Pakistan's government making tentative steps towards liberalising its economy through reductions in tariffs and other protective measures, there is little doubt that the forces of globalisation in the form of foreign investment and increased sugar imports will soon come to affect the sugar sector. Coping with, or even overcoming, these problems is all but impossible for a divided trade union movement.

Globally, the sugar sector is under the enormous pressure of competition and restructuring - in every major sugar-producing country across the world, workers are being forced to work harder, for less pay and with decreasing employment opportunities. Where trade unions are divided, they are encouraged to compete against each other regionally, nationally and globally in a race to the bottom, where conditions and rights are expected to be bargained away.

In this context the national convention of sugar mill workers' unions held in Karachi from 17 to 18 May 2003 attended by over 110 delegates, is an important change in direction for Pakistan's sugar unions. At this meeting, sugar mill unions and their representatives founded the Pakistan Sugar Mill Workers' Federation (PSMWF). The emergence for the first time of a united federation of sugar mill unions in Pakistan signals an important and historic step in creating a labour movement capable of serving Pakistan's sugar workers and delivering to trade union members secure jobs and workers' rights, with the possibility of wages and conditions which allow for dignity and decent livelihoods.

Delegates at the convention raised a number of concerns in regard to recent efforts by the national government to change labour regulations as set out in the Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) of 2002. Delegates emphasised the need for the recommendations of the Tripartite Labour Conference and the Workers-Employers Bilateral Council of Pakistan (WEBCOP) to be implemented. In addition, in the convention undertook a set of important acts of solidarity by:
· calling for the reinstatement of retrenched sugar mill workers;
· demanding that workers in agriculture and fisheries be allowed to unconditionally exercise freedom of association rights (presently denied to agriculture and fisheries workers in Pakistan);
· calling for the government to provide relief to the thousands of small sugar farmers in the province of Sindh facing severe crisis due to shortages of water; and,
· expressing deep concern over the situation at the Pearl Continental Hotel, Karachi, where workers continue to be punished due to trade union activities.

Convention delegates heard messages of solidarity and congratulations from sugar unions and the international trade union federation representing sugar workers, the IUF.

Ron Oswald, General Secretary of the IUF, on behalf of the IUF's global membership, stated that; coming together to launch a national trade union federation for sugar workers, you are taking the indispensable step in building the organisational strength which is necessary to effectively confront employers and the government and more effectively defend and enhance your members' needs and interests.
We wish you every success in this crucial endeavour, and hope that the new federation can serve as a model for the labour movement in Pakistan to help overcome its historic divisions.

Felix Anthony, National Secretary of the Fiji Sugar and General Workers' Union, urged delegates: stand united because that is the only way to protect and ensure that the workers in the sugar industry are full partners and are given their fair share of benefits that are derived from the industry...Unity is critical in also ensuring that workers are treated fairly and with dignity

Bill Shorten, National Secretary of the Australian Workers' Union (AWU), noted that: more than ever it's important that workers in our industries are organised, and that national unions around the world share their experiences...The AWU hopes that your convention is conducted in a spirit of comradeship, goodwill and optimism, and that Australian and Pakistani sugar workers are able to work together on common issues - as well as compare notes about our cricket teams and how the next test may turn out!

William P Ludwig, President of the AWU also sent a massage of congratulations.

Ma Wei Pin, IUF Asia and Pacific Regional Secretary, in his message to the convention, noted that under the the pressures of corporate-driven globalisation and restructuring,

sugar workers' unions are faced with the prospect of being marginalised by mill owners and ignored as management goes about making drastic changes or else regarded as a negotiating counterpart. Weak local unions are easily ignored; in some cases they may be used simply as window dressing to show 'consultation'. In order for a union to be able to represent members' interest and negotiate changes changes with management, it needs, firstly
, to be knowledgeable and well-supported by workers at the local level. Secondly, it needs to be backed up effectively by a strong national federation of sugar workers that has a national strategy for the sugar industry and is well-supported by a majority of local sugar workers' unions throughout the country. International solidarity, as always, is a critical ingredient. Unless sugar workers and unions are able to re-organise themselves effectively in order to negotiate seriously on workers' behalf as mills and all other sectors of the industry undergo restructuring, the future will be organised entirely for those who have the benefit of capital.

Convention delegates heard responses to their deliberations from the Secretary of the Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PaSMA), Umer Latif, and the Convener of WEBCOP, Ahsanullah Khan. Both welcomed the formation of Pakistan Sugar Mill Workers' Federation and said the employers should be happy to negotiate with an industrial trade unions’ federation to meet the challenges of corporate-driven globalisation and to save the national industry.

Prominent trade union leaders Nabi Ahmed, Basheer Ahmed and the Director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), Karamat Ali, spoke to convention delegates. The convention decided that the provincial chapters of the federation will be formed within next three months by constituent unions.

Delegates adopted a constitution and elected as office bearers Mr. Gul Rehman as President, Malik Lal Khan as Chairman, Abdus Salam Memon as Secretary General, Chaudhry Samiullah as Senior Vice President, Aslam Wafa as Deputy Secretary General, Abdul Majeed Leghari as Organiser, Akber Arain as Finance Secretary and Muslim Khan as Publicity Secretary.

Related Stories
Workers demand amendments to IRO [Source: Dawn 19 May 2003]
Union Busting in Pakistan’s Sugar Mills: Workers Face Dismissal and Illegal Detention [Source: 29 October 2001]