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Pearl Continental Karachi Hotel Workers Step Up Mobilization in Seven-Year Struggle for Union Rights

Posted to the IUF website 13-Aug-2008

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Hundreds of union members and supporters rally outside the Karachi Pearl Continental on July 23 to press their demands for justice. Seven years into the struggle, the members are more determined than ever to win union rights and recognition.

The union of workers at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi, Pakistan - a luxury, 5-star establishment where a standard room costs approximately two month's basic salary - is stepping up its 7-year struggle for union rights and recognition. Undeterred by sackings, harassment, violence and hardship, members of the Pearl Continental Karachi Hotel Workers Union are more determined than ever to fight until victory in what has become Pakistan's longest-running labour dispute.

Pakistan's Pearl Continental chain is owned and operated by Pakistan Services Ltd., a subsidiary of the Hashoo Group headed by Sahruddin Hashwani, who is the Belgian government's honorary consul in Karachi. The fight for union rights at the Karachi hotel began in September 2001, when management announced that due to a decline in bookings it would sack all casual and temporary workers and eliminate one day of paid work per week for permanent staff. The union called for negotiations - management spurned the request and proceeded to fire 350 workers. The union was not informed, nor were the dismissed workers: the dismissal letter was published in a daily newspaper on November 8, and the workers were barred from entering the hotel when they reported for work the next day.

More than 40 permanent employees, including union officers, were then brutally sacked for defending the rights of the dismissed workers. What began as a union campaign to defend the rights of casual hotel employees escalated quickly into an all-out management attack on the existence of the union and the physical well-being and safety of its members and officers. In 2002, management arranged for leaders of the union to be falsely accused of crimes. Three union leaders spent more than two months in prison on fabricated charges without a single piece of evidence ever being produced.

Union General Secretary Ghulam Mehboob in police detention. Union officers were detained for over 2 months on fabricated charges for which no evidence was ever produced, then dismissed for…absenteeism.

Union General Secretary Ghulam Mehboob, Joint Secretary Bashir Hussain, and Vice-Chairman Aurangzeg were arrested on January 7 and detained until March 21, when they were freed on bail. On March 2, they were terminated while still in detention. Two other detained union officers, Mohammad Nasir and Mohammad Nawaz, were suspended from their posts for "absenteeism" and remain suspended. Union officers Noor Wali, Ali Murad, Hidayatullah, Moin Khan and Nasreen Reshad were dismissed on March 11 without any prior information. Thirty-one active union members and office bearers were also terminated as the result of an alleged restructuring plan.

The union refused to surrender to these acts of intimidation and continued to hold demonstrations and press conferences. Management again escalated its anti-union violence on July 6, when two union officers –Aurangzeb and Vice-Social Secretary Hidayatullah - were picked up by police outside the hotel while waiting to take off-duty hotel employees to a public memorial for the recently deceased former labour minister Omar Ashgar Khan. They were reportedly beaten by the Assistant Superintendent of police in the presence of two members of the hotel management staff, and released only after more than 26 hours in police custody.

In 2003 the United Nation’s International Labour Organization (ILO), responding to a complaint submitted by the IUF, determined that grave violations of union rights had been committed by the hotel management and local authorities. The ILO instructed the government to fully investigate the incidents of police detention, violence and harassment of union members and report back. The ILO called for action to reinstate the unjustly dismissed union members and officers. To date, no Pakistani government has complied with this ruling. No reinstatements or independent investigations have occurred.

Management abolished the dues checkoff and sponsored a company union - without success, as workers continue to regularly collect union dues. Support for the Pearl Continental Karachi union has grown throughout the labour movement and in democratic civil society in Pakistan. The annual Pearl Continental workers' "Walk for Justice" has attracted a broad spectrum of trade union, political and professional organizations and NGO activists. The Pearl Continental Karachi union has received strong support from the IUF-affiliated Pakistan Hotels, Restaurants, Clubs, Tourism, Catering and Allied Workers’ Federation, the national federation formed in 2005.

Following the recent elections in Pakistan and the appointment of a new Labour Minister, the union has decided to step up its campaign through regular actions inside and outside the hotel and a program of larger rallies to highlight their ongoing struggle. On July 29, dismissed workers and union officers demonstrating peacefully outside the hotel were assaulted by police and taken into custody. Within an hour, union members and supporters from the Pearl Continental Workers Solidarity Committee were protesting outside the police station, and the detained activists were released. Hundreds of union members and supporters held a sit-in demonstration outside the hotel on August 7, and have vowed to return regularly until the victimized workers are reinstated and full union recognition achieved. The union is planning demonstrations at the Belgian consulate, at other Hashoo Group enterprises, and is continuing the daily vigil by dismissed workers outside the hotel. Inside Pakistan, the union is appealing to governments and to international business, civic and non-governmental organizations to avoid using the hotel.

Support the courageous workers at Pearl Continental!

Trade unionists, where appropriate through their national trade union centers, can:
  • Urge governments to raise the issue at every possibility, in all venues, with the government of Pakistan
  • ;
  • Inform travel agencies in your country which you use/have contact about the dispute, urge them to book rooms/events elsewhere;

  • Urge all government/international agencies in which your government participates hosting meetings in Pakistan to use other venues

  • Publicize the dispute as an outstanding example of worker perseverance and solidarity.

Union members, officers and all supporters of democratic and trade union rights are urged to click here here to send a message to the Minister of Labour and to the hotel owner. You are encouraged to send messages by fax as well, using the fax numbers shown in the message on the campaign page to which this article is linked. Copies of your messages will automatically be sent to the union and to the IUF secretariat.

We thank you in advance for your solidarity and support.