Workers from Ravi Autos factory near Lahore have stepped up their protests demanding justice for young labour leader Muhammad Rizwan, who was murdered in broad daylight last month – allegedly by goons acting on behalf of the factory owner Kamran Afzal.
The workers say they have been protesting since the February 17 violence, in which armed men opened fire on the workers’ living quarters, resulting in the death of Muhammad Rizwan. Two other workers, Muhammad Zeeshan and Muhammad Ramzan, were severely wounded in the attack. Today’s protest marks an escalation in the workers’ campaign for justice. Workers from nearby factories have been joining the protests.
The entrance to Ravi Autos remains blocked, while the factory owner is not present. Local labour leaders were joined by representatives of trade unions and political parties. The political organizations represented at the protest ranged from left-wing parties and trade union federations to the ruling PTI, JUI-F and TLP. Significant contingents of activists from the Bonded Labour Liberation Front and brick kiln workers’ organizations arrived on the scene, led by women.
Workers have written demands for justice on the gates of Ravi Autos, including “Arrest Murdering Pharaoh Kamran!” & “Oppressors, You Must Answer: You Must Account For The Blood”.
Speakers at today’s charged protest rally outside the factory spoke at length about “capitalists’ impunity” in murdering workers who stood up for their rights. Moreover, they highlighted the effects of Pakistan’s ongoing economic crisis, which affect the working-classes disproportionately.
Workers say they are being pressured into ‘compromise’ over the matter, but the mood remains defiant. The workers’ leaders state that factory owner Kamran Afzal, despite being nominated in the First Investigation Report (FIR), has not been subject to any action by the authorities.
Ravi Autos is a large unit which employed up to 1,400 workers. The unit manufactured auto parts for a number of major companies, including Suzuki Corporation and Millat Tractors (Massey Ferguson Ltd.)
The labour dispute in which the late Muhammad Rizwan took the lead involved over 4 months of unpaid wages. Workers say that the factory management also denied them a number of bonuses that were due to them. The workers’ grievances included irregular payments in tranches over the course of every month.
The dispute came to a head when the factory owner allegedly responded to the workers’ protests during the month of February by sending armed men against them.
Eyewitness testimony from the workers states that on February 17, despite assurances of protection by police officials present on the scene, armed men entered the living quarters where local leader Muhammad Rizwan stayed. He was murdered in the firing, while two others were severely wounded.
Moreover, eyewitnesses say that the armed men were dozens in number, and that some were even apprehended by angry workers on the scene. They were, according to the workers, handed over to police. Rather than stop the shooters, police helped them to flee the scene along with the owner – who was allegedly himself present at the scene.
Immediately after the murder, workers from Ravi Autos, along with employees from other factories in the area, took to the streets in furious protests – blocking the Lahore-Sheikhupura highway and setting fire to the owner’s car as well as a supply truck.
They say that rather than providing them with justice, the authorities have been pressuring them to make a ‘compromise’ with the owner. The workers insist that they will not back off, but will instead step up their campaign for justice.
The author is the Features Editor at The Friday Times.