Pakistan Reader# 157, 24 February 2021
The mixed public response to the pay hike questions the government’s financial capacity for that. Inadequacy of the raised amount is also under criticism.Muhmina Mumthaz Jahan
The government employees of Pakistan have been demanding a pay hike for the last two and a half years as the prevailing inflation had made it difficult for the government employees to make both ends meet. All Government Employees Grand Alliance, the umbrella organization of Pakistan federal government employees and All Pakistan Clerks Association were already pressurizing the government to take back the decisions regarding the abolition of pension and non-implementation of annual increments. (Govt Employees Protest Abolition of Pension, Dawn, 20 January 2021). Months before, AGEGA had announced the protest sit-in at Pakistan secretariate and Pakistan parliament on February 10 if the government is not decided on the 40 per cent increase in their salaries, to reduce the disparities between different pay grades and in the decision to end the yearly increments in salaries.
The PTI government was open-hearted towards the demands of salary hike. Prime Minister Imran Khan formed a three members ministerial committee- comprising Defense Minister Pervez Khattak, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan to talk with the government employees and to resolve the issue. The cabinet has decided on a 25 per cent increase in the salary of federal government employees before the announced sit-in of employees. The government had the view that the protest will literally halt the operations of government offices. However, AGEGA sticks to their demands of a 40 per cent increase despite the cabinet decision of a 20 per cent salary hike for grade 1 to 16. The government also became strong on them and arrested leaders of employees’ organizations on the eve of the announced protest.
The February 2020 protests
On 10 February about 2000 protesters gathered in the red zone after their leader Rehman Bajwa and nine others were arrested overnight. secretariate employees locked Pak secretariate inside. Govt employees from other depts including Radio Pakistan, PTV etc. also joined with them. They started to march towards Parliament then. The strike brought government affairs in ministries, departments, and divisions to a standstill. Employees belonging to many government ministries including the Secretariat, Cabinet Division and Kohsar Complex had all refused to go to the office, resulting in the closure of government offices.
Constitution Avenue turned into a battlefield when the police used force to disperse protesters who were on the streets asking for a better payment. The police resorted to baton charge and threw hundreds of teargas shells and tens of protesters were arrested and sent to lockups of different police stations. “At least 30 protesting employees were taken into custody under Section 16 of the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance (MPO). The teargas shelling in the radius of three to five kilometre around Constitution Avenue was so heavy that the people felt suffocation. All incoming roads including the Islamabad Expressway and Motorway remained closed for hours. (Aasim Hussain, Protesters, Police Clashes Paralyse Red Zone The News, 11 February 2021). The battle in the street lasted for hours as the agitators confronted police with stone-pelting. The PTI government came in the bad light again for waiting for the employees to come on the streets for a matter of talks would have resolved. Opposition including Maryam Nawaz, Bilawal Bhutto and Asif Zardari attacked Imran Khan for perpetrating violence against peaceful protesters. The federal government negotiated with the protesters on the next day as a move to save the face.
Ministerial committee decisions included a 25 per cent increase in the salaries of federal government employees from grades 1 to 19 has been approved on an "ad-hoc" basis, which will be added to the pay scale in the budget this June. The salary increase of Garde 20 to 22 employees will be made after the budget. The government agreed to release all the arrested employees and to take off FIR registered against them. The decision on the promotion of employees based on timescale will be taken after the budget in June. Committee also mentioned the financial burden of this decision to the federal government in this time of inflation. The Interior minister hinted at the opposition’s hands in this in wake of PDM’s supporting statements for employees, intentionally forgetting premier Imran Khan’s statements regarding the rights of citizens to protest.
The mixed public response to the pay hike questions the government’s financial capacity for that. Inadequacy of the raised amount is also under criticism. “While the pay raise that was agreed for all employees may seem high, we must remember that inflation alone this year has been rising at breakneck speed, and the raise really only amounts to a cost-of-living increase. While it is heartening to know that government employees will be getting some economic relief, we must also ask what will become of millions of private employees who are stuck in the same boat, and whose employers are in no position to offer them better wages when their own bottom lines have been murdered by inflation, economic stagnation, and devaluation (Govt Employees’ Protest, The Express Tribune,12 February 2021)
A violent confrontation with the peaceful protesters has brought more attention to the issue of pay hike demands. There is a great chance of more protests from other groups of employees at federal and provincial levels. The government will get in trouble as the underlying issue in the D-chowk incident is not merely about confrontation. “Inflation is PTI government’s greatest vulnerability, its Achilles’ heel, so to speak. It was this very issue that the opposition’s PDM movement was banking on in its campaign against the government because it is this issue that resonates the most across the country.” (Fahd Husain, RED ZONE FILES: Karma on D-Chowk, Dawn 11 February 2021). Whether the Karma of pre-2018 Imran Khan or not, the worsened economic conditions in Pakistan is bulging out in the forms of protests. The opposition and Pakistan Democratic Movement may carry out these issues on another level. In fact, the people of Pakistan truly enjoying the right to protest under the Premier who himself was a man of Jalsas.
About the author
Muhmina Mumthaz Jahan is a PhD Scholar at Pakistan Studies Program, MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.