| A soldier searches the lunch box of a telecom worker in Karachi. (AFP)
Islamabad, June 13 (Agencies): Police detained striking telecom workers, while troops kept services running at Pakistan Telecommunication Co Ltd (PTCL), just days away from a privatisation sale expected to raise more than $1.5 billion.
An umbrella organisation of 300 trade union organisations threatened today to call a “token strike” at other state-run firms on the privatisation list if the government pressed ahead with its plans for PTCL.
Interior minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao warned that the strike leaders could be tried as “terrorists”. Calling the strike an “illegal step”, Sherpao said: “Those threatening the government against the privatisation of PTCL are terrorists according to the law. They will face trouble if they continue their anti-state activities.”
Eight international firms were shortlisted to vie for a 26 per cent stake of PTCL plus management control, and bidding will now be held on June 18 after being postponed from last week due to earlier protests by worried employees.
Trade union leaders at PTCL called a strike on Saturday after rejecting revised terms for the sale that the government hoped would go some way to assuaging fears over job losses. “They have arrested over 700 people during the last three days and in some cases even family members of the workers were harassed,” Shahid Ayub Khan, a member of the PTCL Workers Action Committee, said.
Police said workers had been detained in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, but the numbers appeared substantially lower than those given by PTCL, with only around a dozen reported to have been held in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.
“We are still acting with restraint, but as the deadline approaches there could be severe disruption of communications,” Khan warned. Relief that the government was pressing ahead with the sale outweighed investors’ worries over industrial unrest.
Officials said troops and army technical staff had so far kept PTCL’s services running normally, though workers’ representatives said around 5 per cent of some 5 million fixed line connections had been switched off.
“There is some slowdown, but over all the condition is normal, there is no report of any disturbance,” Ali Qadir Gilani, PTCL’s executive vice president, said. “Army and rangers are managing operational security.”
The privatisation programme is a key part of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s economic reforms, but workers are worried that even with GDP growing at 7 to 8 per cent annually they will struggle without the job security provided by Pakistan’s overstaffed state-owned companies.
Tanzeel Mudasser, a spokesman of National Labour Federation of Pakistan, said a date would be announced soon for a token strike by workers at other state-run firms.