Around 2,000 workers at a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan, yesterday fought pitched battles with military police after walking out on strike.
They were angry after bosses at the J&M firm served them spoilt meat for their lunch. Other workers joined the action, and soon the entire factory was brought to standstill.
Bosses retaliated by calling in Pakistani Military Rangers, who set about beating the strikers indiscriminately and without warning. Many strikers suffered serious injuries, with some requiring hospitalisation.
The battles took place in the Karachi Export Processing Zone (KEPZ), where unions and protests are banned.
Therefore, it was the local leadership of the Pashtun nationalist organisation, the Awami National Party (ANP), which attempted negotiate a settlement.
Like other ethnic/linguistic-based parties, the ANP receive a regular commission from factory bosses for their efforts to police the workers’ movement, and were anxious that the garment workers’ protest should not spread.
So far, the ANP leadership have managed to contain the action while negotiations with the bosses continue – but not without considerable debate among the strikers.
The strike is significant for two reasons.
First, targeted ethnic, sectarian and political killings are a leading cause of division among workers in Karachi. Dozens of ordinary Pashtuns are killed in the city every week.
But during the strike at J&M, women members of the Muhajir ethnic group made a point of defending male Pashtun workers.
Second, that the dispute started in canteen is significant.
Workers’ protests in Karachi have, until this episode, centred on the question of wages. That these garment workers have begun to agitate over other questions is a sign of their growing confidence.
The ANP leadership may have stalled the workers’ struggle for the time being, but it is far from clear that they will be able to do so indefinitely.