In 2008, sometime in July in the monsoon weather, I was out of money for the month and my salary was not due until the next day. The fridge was empty and while I had a sizable lunch there was nothing in the cupboard for Gugu Guevara, my cat and companion for all these years. As a cat father, I felt miserable. A young kitten lay hungry and I felt helpless. I walked out of the house – dejected but determined – through the rain, logged rainwater across the roads and into the main-market Gulberg, Lahore, and there went to Khan Baba Fish and Kebab House street restaurant. I mentioned in outline my predicament and that I would not be able to pay them for a few days. They waved away my poverty and fried some fish for me and separately for Gugu and gave me naans to take away. Working class ethics and solidarity got me out of that mire. There have been few days since where I have had food insecurity for myself or my dependents.
Yet, food insecurity – that is the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources – and malnourishment is the normal course of life for Pakistanis. The World Food Programme notes that 20.5% of the Pakistani population is undernourished, 44% of children under the age of five are stunted and that 37% of the population faces food insecurity – that is, 81 million Pakistanis.
Statistics are a poor gauge for understanding life: we learn something abstract without a face. Behind statistics are lives. How is this food insecurity actually experienced by people?
I stepped out to find out. A few hundred yards from my house is a posh hotel. It has two guards and an outside receptionist. Abdul, 64, is a guard and we often chat as I pass by on the road to run my errands. We had often remonstrated about inflation and the politics of the rich – what you all call parliamentary democracy – but this day I wanted to know in more detail about his life and daily struggles. He was happy to answer my questions. Abdul Rehman worked as a cloth shop owner and even became the owner of a few shops, but a downturn in the broader economy saw him lose his business and for the past 17 years he has been a security guard. His father was a policeman and served near RA Bazar, and from him he inherited a small house. Abdul has five children: two sons and three daughters. Two sons are married and working. The daughters are not. Abbul told me of his day. “I wake up at 8 am, have a breakfast of daal and roti before heading out for work. I cycle for about half an hour to get here. As you know, I am a guard, hired out by a company to work at the hotel, so I am not directly employed by the hotel. The hotel provides my lunch and sometimes more, and it is a decent meal that helps me save a little money. I work until 11 pm, after which there aren’t many cars around, so I can leave.”
After working each day in the heat, helping guard cars, helping people park cars and leave from tight parking spots around the hotel, he leaves for home around 11 pm. He said, “I get tired when I get home, I barely have energy to take my clothes off and then fall asleep.”
Abdul and I went on a little longer to work out his income and expenditure. I mentioned that I want to write about it, and he gave his permission. “I earn Rs 17,000 per month,” Abdul said, “but the hotel pays the company that employees me Rs 25,000. I am not directly employed by the company, as I said earlier, therefore, I have no pension, no off days, and no sick leave. I don’t get a day off. Sometimes on a Sunday I can take the day off, but normally I work seven days a week. My family’s house is owned so I don’t pay rent. However, we have electricity bills – which in June was Rs 6, 000, food, gas bills and well nothing is quite left for clothes and footwear.” At this point, we both glanced down onto his black polished but hackneyed shoes. “It takes three of us working outside the house – me and my two sons – and my wife and daughters in the house, to make things tick over,” Abdul continued, “but even so we often end up borrowing or taking material from the shop on loan.”
I asked Adbul to tell me about the work his wife does in the house. I asked him about the work his wife does and her routine. “My wife, Sana, does everything,” he said, “She wakes up before me, prepares a breakfast for all the children and myself. She makes sure my clothes are clean, pressed and ready to wear. I am out here working nearly 11 hours so she does the shopping and manages the household and family economy. I am not home to spend time with my children, so she brings them up and teaches them too. She then does many jobs – a cleaner, cook, teacher, banker for all the family among many other things. Without her work, nothing would work.”
While we were engaged in our conversation, Hamid, the receptionist came over, and I asked him some of the same questions.
Hamid earns Rs 22,000 per month. He doesn’t pay rent as his family own the house. However, daily transport costs him 200 rupees, his June electricity bill was 9,000. For gas, he used an LNG canister which costs a few hundred rupees a month. He gets one free meal from the hotel and has one at home.
Abdul and I went on a little longer to work out his income and expenditure. I mentioned that I want to write about it, and he gave his permission. “I earn Rs 17,000 per month,” Abdul said, “but the hotel pays the company that employees me Rs 25,000. I am not directly employed by the company, as I said earlier, therefore, I have no pension, no off days, and no sick leave. I don’t get a day off. Sometimes on a Sunday I can take the day off, but normally I work seven days a week”
“Hamid,” I said, “Don’t you think you are getting poorer and almost working for free? Isn’t it the case that after you pay for food, transport, clothing, electricity and for your household – which supports you by working to reproduce your labour – you are left with nothing?” Hamid, who has a naturally forlorn expression on his face at normal times, turned further glum at the thought and was lost into himself for a moment before he retorted that indeed that was the case. Working had not made him richer or better off but in fact, poorer.
Hamid, Abdul and I continued in our conversation to estimate the profit that the owners of the hotel made per month. We calculated – and I had some inside track on the accounts – that they took Rs 4 million per month in profit after all costs. Yet, for Rs 17,000, Abdul and by extension his wife and daughters – for they reproduced his labour – worked near 12 hours and 7 days a week. And Hamid, for Rs 22, 000, worked 6 days and likewise his family, to reproduce his labour. To keep coming to work costs much more than that. What makes Abdul and Hamid’s work possible is their constant digging into the reserves of their collective family and community resources: the wages don’t do it. Simply to turn up to work, they need women’s labour at home and then the community’s loans and barter. Often, workers sell the few assets they have – like gold – to keep themselves turning up for work. The hotel owner, in taking their labour, also takes their wife/daughters’ labour and the collective resources of the working class community, and with a smug face he watches as he wheels around in his new Toyota jeep the threadbare soles of Abdul’s shoes – duly polished each morning by his daughter.
This is capitalism! It starts with genocide in the Americas and colonisation and today continues to pillage the working classes of their lives.
We concluded our conversation with an agreement that ‘the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.’ But what precisely does this term mean?
What Hamid and Abdul affirmed is noted by Marx as the tendency of capitalism to pauperise labourers. Marx argued that exploitation of labour by capitalists will lead to the working class working more without ‘real wages’ going up. Sounds great, doesn’t it? We work but we effectively get poorer. For example, to sustain the same level of living our parents might have had, we have to work far harder than they did. If we have upward mobility – and very few do – it is often because we inherited wealth, which we invest for passive income. Our wages don’t take us far. In the Third World, this model is challenged by ‘primitive accumulation.’ Each generation sees a new set of scoundrels who decide to find ways to loot the collective wealth of the taxpayers or our natural resources.
Musharraf probably took it to an illustrative extreme when he handed over Pakistani citizens to the US for money. Thus, social mobility is linked to inherited wealth or corrupt schemes of loot and colonisation – not to hard work and wages. If it were linked to hard work, then Sana and Abdul would be rich and our owner in the latest Toyota jeep poor. The system is designed to reward inherited wealth and extracts in exchange for misery the labour power of those who do not inherit wealth. The misery of the many is directly then linked to the riches of the few. The pillage of natural resources with extreme colonial violence is also part of the way of capitalism and the local elite work. This is illustrated for us in Balochistan and Sindh (just look at the murders and violence of Bahria Town Karachi to extract the ancient lands of Sindhis).
After talking to Hamid and Abdul, I walked on through Jail Road and its near 8 lanes – which with great difficulty I crossed – and onto a cafe on Main Boulevard. Outside the plaza, where the cafe is located, I was greeted by Khurram Mukhtar.
Khurram Mukhtar and I have casually conversed over the past year or so. Each morning, I made my way to this cafe to write, and upon arrival his beaming face would greet me. He practiced his English with me, and I enjoyed the opportunity to inhibit my native language. He has a jet-black beard down to his collarbone and long wavy hair that stops just above his shoulder. He wears dark blue trousers and a shirt that is sky blue, a dark blue cap, and croc shoes – hackneyed like that of Abdul’s and stitched back together. The sartorial choices are not his and do not reveal him, but are his work uniform. Like Abdul, he is a guard and car-park assistant. For more than a year, our conversation would end after the usual pleasantries and slow revealing of intimate details that a developing friendship requires. Then, one day, when Comrade Ramis – an activist with Mazdoor Kisan Party and a lawyer – came to meet me at the cafe, he informed me that Khurram was also a comrade and had been leading activists in recent struggles around Packages Mall.
“The purpose of this transfer of our status was to stop us being made permanent staff. Had we been made permanent, which is mandatory under labour law, after 90 days of employment we would have gotten benefits such as sick leave, increased paid leave, pension and health insurance. The employers, to avoid the extra costs this would have incurred, put pressure on us to become outsourced workers”
So, on this occasion, as I approached the cafe for the hundredth time in the year, I excitedly asked him to tell me all the details of the struggle he had led with others. “Comrade,” he said, “I started working as a security guard at Packages Mall in 2019. I was trained in administering first aid, operating rapid scan machines – like they do at airports – and customer communication among much else. I spent nearly three years on the payroll and employment of Packages Mall. However, I and forty other colleagues – male and female – were asked to move our employment from Packages Mall to a company named Piffers Security. The purpose of this transfer of our status was to stop us being made permanent staff. Had we been made permanent, which is mandatory under labour law, after 90 days of employment we would have gotten benefits such as sick leave, increased paid leave, pension and health insurance. The employers, to avoid the extra costs this would have incurred, put pressure on us to sign up with Piffers Security and become outsourced workers. After three years of working with the aim of being made registered regularised workers, we felt betrayed and wanted to fight for ourselves. Yet, we needed money to keep up our daily food expenses – so we signed over to Piffers Security, while also thinking of how to fight for our rights. Muhammad Usman, a leader of sorts of our movement, had heard of Dr Taimur Rahman through his songs for workers’ rights, and so he contacted him for advice on social media. Taimur, in turn sent to us Comrade Irfan and Comrade Ramis Sohail of the Mazdoor Kisan Party. Ramis, being a lawyer, asked us to gather our pay-slips that had Packages Mall written on them, bank statements that showed our salary and other such documents that proved our direct employment with Packages Mall. 40 of us did so. He explained, when we met him, that the case could take years and it would be a long and difficult fight, yet we were determined to not let our labour rights be trampled on and decided to pursue the case against Packages Mall. Our position was that we were entitled to be made permanent employees with labour benefits, and should be made so.”
“As our case was on-going in the Labour Court,” he continued, “the management of Packages Mall came after us. The first victim was our leader. They put it clearly to us that either Muhammad Usman would remain at work and the rest of us would be fired or he would have to leave and the other 39 of us could stay. Muhammad Usman walked. However, it did not stop there. As new security staff were brought on site and trained by Piffers Security, those of us from the older staff who were fighting to be made permanent were fired. By October 2021, near 75% of the older staff had been fired and replaced by newer ones. The case was still going nowhere and we were low on morale. At this point, Comrade Irfan told us to not lose hope and he helped us organise ourselves for protests. We designed a leaflet with our story and demands and distributed it to other workers of Packages Mall and on social media. We also held a demonstration in front of the main gate of Packages Mall. Many media outlets came to cover our protest, but none except one aired the report that they recorded, because the management had paid them off. One video did make it and I pray even now for the health of that reporter. It aired and was put on Youtube but after a mere hour or so, it was removed. Again, the management paid off the media house. The protest did lead to some results and Packages Mall lawyers started talking to us. However, this too, after a month or so, led nowhere. Comrade Irfan again asked us to gear up for a protest. This time we decided to do so at the Lahore Press Club. We announced the date of our protest and prepared our placards, and just a few hours before we were to stage it, we were contacted for negotiations. Packages Mall offered those who had been fired 12 months’ salary each, in return for the end of our protests. We were split among ourselves on whether we should accept their offer or continue to fight it out in court. But after thinking it over, we did accept. I and many others joined Mazdoor Kisan Party, and comrade, we have to now fight on two fronts. The immediate help that workers need against their bosses and to survive, but also for systematic change of this system that grinds us out of life, while we live. So, we have immediate livelihood struggles of workers and we need to stand together and help win fights for each other, but we need to move further and change this system in more fundamental ways too, towards the redistribution of wealth.”
At this point, Khurran apologised for the long duration of our conversation and excused himself with a smile.
Workers can’t wait for the bourgeoisie to change. It is not a question of individual industrialists and their morality: capital will always drive to accumulate wealth from the labour of workers and take it to unproductive uses such as flats in London or gold-plated guns, irrespective of the hunger of 80 million Pakistanis. Intellectuals, wage labourers, students and the middle class need to join Khurram and their other comrades in organising for living wages, pensions and then slowly we move to greater changes to socialise the wealth that we create. We need to learn from the workers of Packages Mall and consider protest tactics and general strikes.
The rich have the money, which they have accumulated from our labour. We need to take our share back rather than work ourselves even more into the ground. This is the struggle from which we need no rest.