Faryal Velmi visited Pakistan recently and talked with Farooq Tariq and other activists of the Labour Party of Pakistan (LPP)
The LPP was established in 1997. With a Trotskyist-influenced leadership, the party has now around 2,000 members across Pakistan and is the main leftwing party in the country.
Farooq told me that the LPP has taken a lead role in attempting to rebuild and bring together the country's fractured workers' movement against the neo-liberal agenda of President Musharaf, who took power in a military coup in 1999.
The public sector has been restructured and privatised, resulting in mass unemployment. New laws, like the Industrial Relation Ordinance (IRO) of 2002, have hacked away at basic workers' rights.
Farooq told me: "There can be no legal strike in Pakistan." Previously the law required trade unions to give 15 days notice to the bosses before they took industrial action. The new laws have made it illegal to give any strike notice, or even take the dispute to court.
I was introduced to Rana Thair Pervaiz, who is general secretary of the Employees' Union at the Adam Sugar Mills in Chistian, just outside Lahore. With the solidarity of the LPP, the union had been on strike for around three weeks. The minimum wage in Pakistan is set at 2500 rupees a month, but the mills were paying only 2000 rupees.
The management have been harassing union members and leaders since their "yellow" union picked up only 18 votes in elections in 1998. They have failed to recognise the real union. The families of employees who have died have not been paid the insurance money which they are entitled to. Rana himself has been sacked for his trade union activities.
Rana showed me a letter from the District Labour Officer that confirmed that the factory had been illegally paying below the minimum wage. But a local police chief responded: "What law are you talking about? Is Pervaiz Musharaf legal?" Rana smiled and said, "What are you supposed to say to that?"
The workers are giving as good as they are getting. When the police arrived at a strikers' protest to move them away from the factory gates, the workers threatened to take the policemen's trousers off and then occupy the town centre. The police retreated.
Since then the Adam workers have won all their demands, and got the sacked workers reinstated.
Farooq talked about a "labour aristocracy" that has completely sold out; sits in the government's skewed new arbitration committee, the Workers-Employees Bilateral Council; accepts the anti- union laws and privatisation; and makes deals with the bosses and the military.
"Credibility has been lost. There is a leadership crisis in the movement", said Farooq. "There is an elderly left that has forgotten to fight. They are content in their past history and do not want to make new history". Some of that "elderly left" has still not "recovered" from the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
The LPP has formed the National Trade Union Federation, which operates as a rank and file organisation with members representing most of Pakistan's trade unions. The chair of the Federation is an LPP member, Yousaf Baluch, a longstanding railway union activist.
Along with the NTUF, the LPP has been organising workshops and study circles, as well as producing propaganda against the sell-out leaders and explaining what they should be replaced by.
The main obstacle in building what Farooq calls "a genuine progressive trade union movement" has been the religious fundamentalists. Support for religious fundamentalism or political Islam has increased tremendously in the last two year. The country's six main religious fundamentalist groups have come together to form the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), and got 15% of the vote in the elections of 2002.
They did that on the back of organising enormous anti-war demonstrations which targeted the military regime for its U-turn to oppose the Taliban and then support the US war in Iraq. The MMA now controls the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). It is seeking to implement its version of Sharia law, and has already legislated against coeducation and the use of women on billboard advertising, as well as introducing its own school and college syllabuses.
The biggest party in the coalition is Jamaat-i-Islami, which boasts millions of members. Founded in 1941, the party has never before held as many positions of power as it does now. It has huge bases in the youth and student movements, and the Mayor of Karachi.
The MMA's power base is Pakistan's 75,000 madrasas (religious schools). Their intervention in the labour movement is a new venture. "In the 1970s they said that trade unions were 'un-Islamic'. Now they want to be part of them!
"They have intervened successfully and have grown into a real threat to the workers movement," said Farooq. They have formed their own confederation called the National Labour Federation (NLF), which is gaining many affiliates.
MMA-affiliated groups have gained ground in all the major trade unions, and are poised to take the leadership in some. In the employees' union of WAPDA (the Water Power and Development Authorities), one of Pakistan's biggest trade unions, an MMA-affiliated slate got 46,000 votes, only 4,000 behind the winners, in the last elections.
"They always compromise with the bosses and retreat. They have never called a strike in any of the unions that they have influence over", said Farooq.
But the power of the MMA's political wings means that a number of big industrial disputes have been "sorted" by influential clerics or MMA politicians ringing the owners of factories and "coming to an agreement". This has made the MMA look quite impressive to many workers. They feel more secure inside a movement which can mobilise so many on the streets and which has a big influence in the political establishment.
"Whenever the LPP has intervened in campaigns that the MMA and fundamentalists are involved in", however, said Farooq, "we have snatched them away".
He gave me the example of the landless peasants' movement which sprang up in 2000/1. The military occupied the land of thousands of peasant farmers. The fundamentalists led the movement at first. They advocated that the peasants give in to the military in order to get a bit of the land back.
The LPP intervened, campaigned against compromise, pushed on a programme of civil disobedience, and were largely successful. That victory is just one of many needed as the MMA use the internet, print, TV and radio propaganda to promote their reactionary and conservative demagogy.
Farooq told me: "We have a very clear policy. We will never have any alliances with any religious fundamentalist groups. There is no way we should go along with them in any so called anti-imperialist struggle... because religious fundamentalism is not anti-imperialist."
I told Farooq about how the left in Britain has very happily joined hands with fundamentalists. He responded:
"My main message for Europe is that they do not understand the nature of religious fundamentalism. Those left groups who promote and advocate alliances with religious fundamentalists do not know what they are dealing with. In Britain, the fundamentalists are a small minority. Here they have become a semi-fascist force".
Since the coup by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979, large sections of the military have had very close links to fundamentalist clerics and organisations. The relationship has changed over the decades, but even after the political earthquake of 11 September 2001 and Musharaf's decision to back the USA's "war on terror", the association is still alive and well.
Musharaf has used the fundamentalists to drive a wedge between him and the non-fundamentalist opposition, and to provide a stark ultimatum to the West - accept him, or look who is standing behind him, ready to take power in a nuclear-armed state.
With one hand he is cracking down and banning fundamentalist groups, and with the other he is relying on the MMA for support in the National Assembly.
As dialogue with India resumes and the issue of Kashmir's future is brought to the fore, Musharaf's relationship with the fundamentalists is becoming quite frayed. He has twice survived assassination bids, which many claim come from rogue fundamentalists increasingly frustrated by the MMA's relationship with the military and taking matters into their own hands.
Another area where the comrades from the LPP have to face down religious conservatism and bigotry is the Women Workers' Helpline (WWHLP). Founded in 2000, the organisation operates autonomously and has units in Karachi, Hyderabad, and Lahore. It is dedicated to empowering and building solidarity with Pakistan's working class women by informing them of their legal and trade union rights and assisting them to put those rights into practice.
A sticker that the helpline produces reads: "Wake up women, wake up. Only you can make your own destiny".
The organisation provides assistance over the phone, organises training workshops and seminars, and holds regularly monthly meetings in and around Lahore. WWHLP has organised a number of issue-based demonstrations, as well as women's rights rallies and an annual demonstration.
I met Bushra Khalid, who is the secretary of the WWHLP. She told me that she first got involved with trade union activism when she worked in a hospital and witnessed a female colleague slapped in the face by a male doctor. "I thought, next time it will be my turn. That's not right". She spurred her women colleagues to form a union of their own. (A union did exist, but was exclusively for men). After 20 years of service she was sacked from her job because of the success of the union in taking up the demands of the women workers.
Unemployed, she was still defiant. "Well, I thought, first I organised in secret, now I will do it in the open." She now works out of an office in the LPP headquarters.
The helpline has been campaigning on domestic violence. An extremely high percentage of Pakistani women suffer from domestic violence, and many deaths result from it.
For example, husbands or in-laws tamper with gas stoves so that they explode in the face of a woman as she turns it on to cook. The injury is put down to a technical fault in the cooker, but the sisters at the helpline call it a "weapon" against women.
They regularly visit the only public burns unit in Lahore. There are only an handful of beds, nowhere near enough to tackle the influx of women who are horrifically burned. "There are new cases everyday, and they are the women who are still breathing. The majority of women don't make it."
The helpline has used street theatre to raise this taboo subject in working-class communities and got a good response, from men as well as women. They are also campaigning hard to get some legislative protection for women against domestic violence. Some women MPs have taken heed and are tabling legislation.
They face opposition from the MMA and Jamaat-i-Islami. "They say that domestic violence is a private issue and if a women is a good wife, why will anyone want to beat or burn her?" The disgust on the face of the comrades is evident.
Another key issue at the moment for women is the "Hudood Ordinance". An archaic and discriminatory law hurried in by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1980, it states that the rape of a women must be witnessed by four Muslim men, failing which the women faces a charge of adultery and is liable to be imprisoned and stoned to death.
A special committee was set up to review the law, and has reported that it should be repealed immediately. Nearly all of the major political parties agree.
The MMA objects, with the MMA-controlled NWFP provincial government voting unanimously to keep the law. The women's wing of Jamaat-i-Islami has held a number of demonstrations in support of the law, saying that those who want to repeal it are imposing the ideas of a few westernised women on the nation, contrary to the will of the majority of women.
Yet it is poor working class women who suffer most. It is estimated that one women is raped every two hours, and one subjected to gang rape every eight hours, in Pakistan. Up to 75% of the women in Pakistani jails are imprisoned or convicted under Hudood.
One of the ways the helpline has been most effective is in the solidarity it gives to women who have been raped. The comrades told me about a case where two young girls were raped by male relatives. Activists travelled to the town, organised a lawyer for girls, and assisted in a local campaign which brought out the whole community in support.
It did not please the local police inspector. He went off to the barber's as they waited at the police station to discuss the case with him and returned saying "rape happens everywhere, so of course it's going to happen here". With the police completely indifferent, the men escaped and went on the run.
My visit to the Labour Party of Pakistan headquarters ended with a trip downstairs to their busy printshop, where the press churned out copies of the LPP's paper, the Weekly Mazdoor (Worker). Pictures of Lenin, Marx, and Trotsky adorn the walls, with stickers that the Women Workers' Helpline and the LPP has produced. One fittingly reads: "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty."