May 1: everyday tales from next-door neighbours

ISLAMABAD: May 1 is another important date in Pakistan’s long list of national holidays. The government servants, students and private sector employees stay home in solidarity with the Labour Day.The day is marked globally in remembrance of May 4, 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. The American labourers were holding a general strike for an eight-hour workday. The police fired and killed at least four demonstrators. The event changed the course of history and became a watershed in workers’ rights movement. Over 80 countries traditionally respect the blood spilled against anti-labour practices.Though Pakistan’s public and private sectors observed a holiday, the unregulated and the most vulnerable working community enjoyed little relief. “I hear that today is a holiday to raise awareness about our rights but I am not allowed to stay at home like so many others. I have a 12-hour shift with no weekly off,” says Shahid Abbasi, a security guard outside a mall in a posh Islamabad market. Abbasi served for over two decades in the army before retiring. His family lives in Kotli as he cannot afford their lodging and children’s education in the capital. “Three of us have been sharing a small room in a shanty town near Bari Imam for the last seven years,” Abbasi explains. He cannot save more than Rs 4,000 a month from his salary. “If I did not have pension and free medical benefit from the army, we might have been starving.” Abbasi has long suffered from hypertension and cardiac problems. Survivor of at least two suicide blasts over the course of seven years, he fears that his luck may run out someday.“The pictures of two of my daughters and a 10-grader son are always in front of my eyes. I feel guilty of giving little to my beloved and hardworking wife,” Abbasi sounds paranoid as he recalls the near-misses which took two dozen lives right in front of his eyes. Talking about his children’s education, he hopes that the Allama Iqbal Open University would allow the girls to take BA examinations this year. “That’s another question that the degree won’t take them much farther, besides their confidence level is not very high.” Abbassi is not too off-the-mark about future of his offsprings. In the godforsaken Pir Widhai fruit and vegetable marker, Ghulam Qasim, 38, is a daily wager. Hailing from Muzaffargarh district, he fell in love with Islamabad with a hope to find a fortune, a decade ago. Qasim was very much at his work on May 1, offloading crates of vegetable from a truck. His sunburnt skin and deep-set eyes tell the story of the fortune his love for Islamabad has bestowed upon him. Father of three sons, he lives in a one room mud-house in the Afghan Basti. “Since the petrol prices have soared so much in the last three years, I visit my home twice a year unless a free ride on an empty truck comes my way.” Qasim won’t stop for more than five minutes to talk about his life as he rushes to help his colleagues or the next arriving truck. Suddenly, he points in one direction with wet eyes and sombre voice. “You see that spot near the big fruit shop! I lost my best friend and favourite cousin there in the recent blast. Honestly, I could not recognise his body from the pieces of flesh handed to me. I accepted those to satisfy his family,” he murmurs while weeping bitterly and wiping his eyes with slimy palms. The deceased left behind six offsprings, a wife and parents. “Neither was there any compensation from his employer nor by the government,” says Qasim. Unlike Shahid Abbasi, Ghulam Qasim gets no health cover or pension. His cousin’s widow could stay indoors for her mandatory three-month iddat, thanks to collective family tradition and donation from well-off neighbours. Saqeena, a house-maid in her 30s who won’t give her full name for privacy, commutes all the way to Khanna Pul to her work in F6/3. The recently divorced woman had no option but to wash dishes after the private school she was teaching in fired her without reason and salary. “My two-month salary is due with the private school. I was never given an appointment letter. There is no legal basis to claim my dues except social pressure,” she explains. Her employer, wife of a BPS-21 officer, allegedly shouted at her request for demanding a holiday on May 1. “You have to choose between salary and rights. I’ll hire someone else if you don’t show up tomorrow for work. We have invited some guests as it’s a holiday,” she quotes her boss as saying. Meanwhile, the rest of Pakistan’s public servants, personnel working in private offices and self-employed businessmen observed the universal Labour Day with fervour and resolve for workers’ rights. The rallies, the seminars and the resolutions were in plenty to make the media headlines. 

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