In September 2012, Ali Enterprises, a textile factory complex in Karachi, was burnt to the ground. The factory employed 1500 men, women and children. At least 258 workers, many of whom were in the factory to collect their wages, were incinerated. Though labour accidents in Pakistan scarcely make the news, the worst industrial disaster in the country’s history did breach the silence. Politicians appeared on television to shed tears for the fallen, newspapers ran heart-rending accounts of the tragedy, and the government announced millions of rupees worth of compensation for the victims’ families. The only voice missing in this clamour was that of the worker. No trade union took to the streets; no worker turned on their master. Workers’ dissent had long ago been choked into silence.
Years of suppression and a changed political milieu have altered Pakistan’s labour dynamic. Organised labour is in decay as most unions have failed to evolve and provide a contemporary voice to workers. Veteran unionists say it was the state’s collusion with the industrialist class that crushed them, and even now, the few remaining unions face questions regarding their relevance and ability to survive. The ongoing story of WAPDA, Pakistan’s once powerful Water and Power Development Authority, is instructive. WAPDA’s dismemberment and large-scale retrenchment of workers coincided with a larger pattern of state coffers being used to benefit private companies. The result is the steady erosion of labour rights in Pakistan.