Kaala Teeshun

By Hassan Habib Gondal

I knew so many moments like that it is like standing in the dead end or getting stuck in snow storm. You cannot go forward & do not want to turn back.

Baba was only 19 when he started working as an apprentice at a cement plant just set up in Salt Range region of Punjab, Pakistan. The region is known for mining of Himalayan Pink Salt from second largest salt mines of the world, commonly known as Khewra.

Three years into his employment, he joined a labor union made up of factory workers. It wasn’t long before he began working towards organizing workers across different industrial units in the area. At that time, the military dictatorship of General Zia was at the peak of its power. This was a particularly precarious time to be involved in such activism. Most of the industrial units in the area were still state-owned and attempts at organizing labor and dissent often drew an iron fisted response from the government.

In contrast to the current state of trade union politics in the country, that was perhaps the last time when labor unions still enjoyed some influence in the country. At present, only one percent of the total workforce in Pakistan is organized. This means that 99 percent of the workers in the country are neither protected by any labor laws nor can avail any benefits from public sector organizations such as Workers Welfare Fund or Employee Old Age Benefits Institution.

Despite our limited means, my parents ensured that their children attended the top universities in the country, an unimaginable outcome for most working-class families. This was made possible because of Workers Welfare Fund that committed coverage of education expenses for children of registered workers enrolled in any university across the country. This is just one example of various benefits available to regulated workforce.

During my undergrad degree at a business school and then professional career, I would often sense a negative connotation whenever the idea labor union was discussed in social interactions. With the majority consensus holding labor politics responsible for decline of public sector enterprises in the country, most often I would find myself alone in arguing the cause of labor unions.

I believe that without working class organizations in the form of labor unions a large proportion of the society will remain stuck in generational poverty, even more so because they cannot fall back on the bare minimum due to their unregulated status.

Baba’s lifelong struggle for the rights of working-class labor – and the downright rejection of his ideas I witnessed in my interactions with middle- and upper-class circles – often forces me to wonder which one is on the right side of history. It makes me wonder:

  • If labor unions are truly beneficial, what led to decline of labor politics in Pakistan and how it relates to our foreign policy overtures?
  • What are the legal lacunae which allow generational exploitation of working class?
  • How developed economies benefited from vibrant labor politics and whether a country can transform into a mature democracy without functional worker organizations?
  • Role of institutions such as IMF and World Bank in propagating the capitalist world order and how they directly/indirectly dictate policies across developing countries to suffocate progressive politics?
  • Do constitutional safeguards provided to working class hinder economic progress of societies?


The cement plant Baba used to work at is currently shut down due to conflict between management and employee union on workers’ retirement benefits. With their life savings denied, many workers have already passed away due to stress-related ailments and it feels as if factory owners – with their influence on the weak judicial system of the country – employ delaying tactics to let nature take its course in getting rid of the remaining resistant factors.

Kaala Teeashun (Dark Station)


Kaala Teeashun (Dark Station) the name is a reference to the first railway station which was set up in the area by British to extract coal and gypsum in early 1930’s. Around this time Dalmia-Jain Group (now Dalmia-Bharat) also set its sight on this barren land. Due to abundance of gypsum, the prime raw material in cement production, this was a prime location to set up a cement plant. Thus began influx workers and their families to the area. This included both skilled and unskilled workers; the former mostly worked at the cement plant whereas the later were associated with numerous small scale businesses, coal mines and gypsum quarries around the factory.

In 1979, Govt. of Pakistan decided to extend the production capacity of this plant by setting up another more efficient plant besides the old factory. The idea was to have both plants running concurrently under State Cement Corporation. However this was short lived and the privatization drive of 1991 led to both plants being sold separately to private sector.

Baba (my father) was among the earliest employed workers at the new plant which later came to be known as Dandot Cement. Three years into his employment, Baba joined the first ever labor union at the new cement establishment and soon began working towards organizing workers across different industrial units in the area. With the military dictatorship of general Zia at its prime, this was a particularly precarious time to be involved in such activism. Most of the industrial units in the area were still state owned and dissent often drew an iron fisted response from the Govt. Reflecting back at that time and considering the current state of trade union politics in our country, this was perhaps the last era when new labor unions were registered.

It’s often assumed that the labor struggle in Pakistan flourished after Bhutto’s nationalization. From an outsiders’ perspective it does make a lot of sense considering how most industrial units – during 80’s and 90’s – had a labor union affiliated with relevant federations and major political parties at provincial/national level. And post privatization, the labor union politics has gradually receded. However Baba, who has been a labor leader for the last 4 decades, feels that the Bhutto era policies in fact damaged labor struggle in the long run. He believes the labor movement which was organically developing in the country at that time was hijacked by national level labor federations which were funded directly or indirectly by the government. Labor leaders at the helm of these federations never had the motivation to do grass root level work to organize the movement and develop a succession plan. At the time of privatization, naturally the government withdrew its support for these federations and with it came the collapse of labor struggle across the country.

Initially state owned, Dandot Cement was privatized during Nawaz’s first government as part of the massive privatization drive carried out during that time. During state control the factory was being operated under the umbrella of State Cement Corporation, the workforce here like all state enterprises was permanent and the labor union was affiliated with cement and other worker federations operating in the country. Baba had the opportunity to observe the entire process of privatization; both as an office bearer of the local labor union and as a member of All Pakistan State Enterprises Privatization Action Committee.

One interesting anecdote, as narrated by Baba, happened when the then chairman of privatization commission while chairing a meeting of state cement corporation mentioned that the purchase bid for Dandot Cement has been already accepted by the Govt. and the same has been communicated to the then prime minister. At this, the labor representative protested on how the government can finalize this bid without concurrence with the relevant labor union. The government backtracked to avoid backlash and allowed workers to bid under the employee buy-out policy. In a historic first, the employees won the bid and arranged funding for the privatization transaction. Thus, putting themselves in the driving seat when it came to negotiating finer points of the deal with the new management. In the renegotiated terms of employment, the labor union managed to include rights like child/widow employment in case of death of a worker and presence of a labor representative in all future disciplinary proceedings against any worker. Thus ensuring protection of employment for all the permanently employed workers of the factory. The agreement dated 19-05-1992 with the new management also included additional benefits for the workers like bonuses which were tied to factory surpassing its production goals.

With the new management in place the factory flourished during the first 2-3 years. This was a time when labor movement across the country had started losing steam and workers were being harassed by the private sector. The relationship between management and workers at Dandot Cement also soured at the formers’ insistence to renegotiate terms of employment. Eventually, management and labor union took each other to court and the case which started in labor court ended up in Lahore High Court. The agreement of 1992 thus got endorsed by High Court and the court appointed a lawyer as Co-Chief Executive of the Company to ensure implementation of the agreement. However, the tension kept simmering until the closure of factory for the first time in 1997 for a period of almost 3 years.

This started a cycle of closures and revivals which kept repeating itself up until recently. The plant was sold and resold multiple times during this period. Each new management tried to press workers into conceding the terms of the 1992 agreement. The workers led by their union remained steadfast.

The most recent spat between the management and workers started when management unilaterally and with no legal grounds wrote off liabilities owed to workers amounting to Rs. 367.22 million. These include gratuity/retirement benefits and death grants for families of deceased workers. Additionally management also terminated 277 workers in violation of the 1992 agreement and court orders.

Naturally workers went on strike which led to closure of plant and start of another legal battle. For the past 3 years the case is languishing in labor court with the management, led by families of the current law minister and governor Punjab, employing delaying tactics.

The employee colony of the factory where I grew up now appears deserted. With most of the 250 families choosing to relocate due to absence of work opportunities and harsh living conditions in the colony. The families living here were forced to vacate these homes as a result of vindictive actions; first the wages stopped, then the electricity and gas got disconnected and eventually the water supply line was also disrupted. Those who remain aren’t here by choice but are stuck due to circumstances. They still talk about the retirement benefits they will receive one day and how they will finally build their own homes.

For the first time I can see hopelessness engulfing the place.

If this was a site of an environmental disaster or plague much would have been said or written about it. But this is about a community being suffocated due to corporate greed and systemic corruption, this is about a judicial system which is helpless, and this is also about institutional decay.

I wonder how many more such Kala Teeashuns’ exist in Pakistan.

Suspended in Time


Baba asked me to accompany him to visit room number 13 in workers’ hostel of the factory. It’s where he first moved in when he joined the factory and shared the space with his three colleagues. Who naturally, became dear friends later. Even after he got married and was allotted a quarter, he continued paying rent for this room, till the day he retired.

When the factory was shutdown in 2019 the workers simply assumed that this would be yet another short lived strike, and the work would inevitably start again soon. Differences between labor union and management were a routine matter, and almost always resolve immediately. This time round, however, the shutdown still continues. 

Follow Us on Social Media

Scroll to Top