A discussion with Pakistani socialists

Submitted by AWL on 18 January, 2017 - 12:36 Author: Martin Thomas

In December, Farooq Tariq, a leader of the Awami Workers’ Party in Pakistan, visited London, and during his visit talked with activists from Workers’ Liberty. Martin Thomas reports.

We started by saying we appreciated the strong socialist line he had taken against Islamic-fundamentalist politics in his speeches during his visit, but questioning the uncritical praise for Fidel Castro in AWP statements after Castro’s death on 25 November. Farooq replied straightforwardly that it was an AWP decision to be uncritical of Castro and Cuba. For that decision, he gave two reasons.

One, that politics in Pakistan is in a “counter-revolutionary period” which allows no space for debate such as over criticism of the Cuban regime. Second, that Cuba has built good health and education provision. So has Sweden, and more so, we replied. But, said Farooq, you have capitalism in Sweden. To our mind that begs the question of whether the “command economy” in Cuba is a superior system to Swedish-style capitalism, and whether any economic superiorities outweigh the lack of freedom for Cuban workers to organise independent unions or political parties, or to have independent media. We couldn’t agree on Cuba, and moved on to other issues.

What are the AWP’s main current activities? Campaigning among the peasantry and working with trade unions, especially against privatisation, and for workers’ rights. The AWP is also campaigning for women’s rights and working to “feminise the party”. The AWP now has 6,000 members. Some 3,000 come from the Labour Party Pakistan, which Farooq previously led, and the LPP contributed most members to the merger which formed the AWP in 2012, but other components contributed more “mass base”.

Since the merger new AWP units have been formed in new areas, for example in Baluchistan, where all the main trade-union leaders are now AWP members. Sindh is also an area of strength, but not so much Karachi (Sindh’s biggest city). The AWP committees were at first formed on a parity basis from the three components in the merger (one-third, one-third, one-third), but since then the AWP has held two congresses, in 2014 and 2016. Now it is planning for the 2018 legislative elections.

Land reform in Pakistan has been scanty even by comparison with India. The 1972 land reform law has been blocked as “un-Islamic”, even though it is written into the 1973 constitution. The AWP campaigns for the big landholdings to be nationalised, and for land reforms. There have been land occupations on some farms owned by the military near Lahore. Some 61% of Pakistan’s population is still rural (the world proportion is now 46%). Large numbers leave the rural areas to go to the cities, even though they can hope for little there beyond life in a shanty town and bits of casual work.

The AWP is supporting legal challenges to the demolition of shanty towns around Islamabad. The “informal sector”, outside official labour laws, is 73% (and increasing) of jobs outside agriculture.

Only about 3% of workers are unionised. Those are mainly in the public sector, and mostly they are older workers, since the public sector takes on few new recruits, instead outsourcing any new activities. The AWP supports a Union for Informal Workers, organising mainly home-based workers, which has been able in some cases to negotiate on piece rates. The biggest industrial sector is textiles.

There has been a surge of Chinese investment, especially in power generation. Farooq said he regards China as a new imperialist power. The AWP is active among university students, although only 10% of the age group get to university in Pakistan (much fewer than in India), and no student unions are allowed. Pakistan spends only about 2% of its GDP on education, which is an exceptionally low figure even among poor countries. Literacy is only 58%, and most students get only five years of schooling, from about age five to age ten. The AWP is working with the Punjab Teachers’ Union on a campaign against a form of privatisation of the education system in which state schools are handed over to NGOs.