THE GOVERNMENT of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) has declared a national health workers' strike as illegal and now threatens to use the anti-worker Special Powers Act.
Thousands of health workers across POK went on an indefinite national strike from 14 February for the implementation of their pay service structure, the regularisation of 369 contract workers, health entitlements and other demands.
All health facilities across the area have been affected, as the strike gains momentum. Other public sector workers' organisations have shown solidarity with the strike.
The present coalition government in POK comprises the Muslim Conference (Forward Block), Pakistan People's Party (PPP), People's Muslim League (PML) and the MQM. It was installed with the backing of the PPP government in Pakistan last month, when the Muslim Conference government, led by Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan, was defeated by a vote of no confidence and Sardar Yakoub became prime minister.
Health workers, who make up the second largest public sector workers' organisation - the Paramedical Staff Association (PSA) - decided to take indefinite strike action, after a token strike and protest demonstrations last month.
Health workers have historically had no representation, but in June 2007, the TURC-K (Trade Unions Rights Campaign Kashmir) supported the 'democratic group', which contested elections for the first time in the PSA under the slogan of "workers of the world unite!", and won central and district seats.
PSA has been campaigning for better pay, working conditions and service structures for their membership.
While nearly 700 workers have been upgraded, the struggle for regularisation of contract workers, the implementation of a minimum wage of RS 6,000 and payment of outstanding salaries to some workers, who have not been paid for last six months, continues.
The current leadership of PSA, along with TURC-K has been to the forefront in campaigning for basic democratic rights for the working class in POK, where basic labour laws and trade union rights are non-existent.
According to reports, all major hospitals, including the largest medical facility, the Abbas Institute of Medical Sciences in the POK capital, Muzaffarabad, DHQ Hospitals, Rural Health Centres and Basic Health Units across the area have come to a halt, except for emergency services during the strike. Health workers have also held marches and demonstrations.
In Muzaffarabad, hundreds of health workers led by the central president of PSA, Mohammed Yousaf, and other leaders, including Waqar Jaffari and Sardar Khalid, were joined by other public sector workers' organisations (teachers and clerical workers). While marching towards the offices of the Finance Secretary, they were stopped by the police and not allowed to go further.
Workers held a public rally and condemned the government of Pakistan for not accepting their demands. Reports of similar actions came in from other districts, including Neelum, Bagh, Rawalakot, Sudnoithe, Kotli, Mirpur and Bhimber.
Members and supporters of TURC-K in various places helped to organise solidarity for the ongoing campaign for health workers.
There has been widespread media coverage in the main Urdu papers. Private TV channels including AAJ and GEO carried reports of the striking health workers.