A massive strike by telecom workers in Pakistan is threatening to derail the government’s privatisation programme which would cut up to 4.2 million phone lines. Over the last two weeks over 55,000 workers at the Pakistan Telecom Company Limited (PTCL) have been involved in strike action. The government’s first response was to postpone the privatisation in the hope of demobilising the workers, and then to announce that privatisation was back on. At the time of writing, the unions had just announced the resumption of the strike.
PTCL has hired an array of managers on short term contracts whose job is ensure a “smooth” privatisation.
In order to get a quick sale PTCL is being sold at a knock-down price that is equivalent to less than one year’s profits. This has attracted corporate vultures from across the world — Singapore Telecoms, China Mobile HK, Telekom Malaysia, Saudi Oger, Emirates Telecoms, Turkcell and the Almal Consortium of Egypt have all been shortlisted.
“Our bosses have deprived us of essential tools and equipment only to bring the company to a standstill, so that there is a reason for privatisation,” said one PTCL worker. The anger of telecom workers first came to the surface last month, when trade unionists hung black flags outside telephone exchanges.
This was followed by a huge rally in Karachi that led to a two-hour strike, which became a three-hour strike. Within a few days the strike had spread across the country.
By the beginning of this week the action had spread to Islamabad, where workers occupied the PTCL headquarters, in case talks between the management and the unions broke down.
The government responded by mobilising hundreds of police. Technology minister Awais Leghari boasted that the government would deal with the strikers severely, describing them as “miscreants”.
The government’s other privatisation plans have also run into trouble. In February, attempts to privatise Karachi’s electricity supply were derailed after massive protests and strikes. The Siemens conglomerate tendered for the company but has failed to complete the deal.
General Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, wants desperately to impress his World Bank and Asian Development Bank friends who fund the privatisation process.
He is looking increasingly weak and has been forced to seek alliances with other political parties to ensure his continued rule. Meanwhile many those fighting against privatisation are demanding an end to his government.
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