Kumail Haider Jafri
In April 2019 a protest was organized at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) where workers demanded salaries to be handed over to them before the Easter holiday. Students soon joined the protest and workers were able to get their salaries before day’s end. Having been successful, the protest laid essential ground for a previously absent bond between the students and the workers. This solidarity soon turned into a fight against the system of subcontracting. The workers demanded that they be directly hired by the university, instead of having to work for a subcontractor and the students stood alongside their fellow workers in this demand. A year on, the struggle continues.
In this one year, some workers have been terminated without notice, some have been sexually assaulted and some have been pressurised to remain silent. At the same time, in this one year, the same workers have demanded an end to illegal firing, have spoken out against sexual assault and have resisted the silence imposed on them by the system. This story of one year is a story that has been repeated many times before on campus for over a decade. While it is a story of chronological events that mark important junctures in the struggle, it is also a story of reclamation.
The most initial act of oppression that subcontracting carries out is to exclude these workers from the rest of the community on campus. The sub-contracting system is clear about the fact that LUMS is not supposed to be a place for workers; they are outsiders and that is what they shall always be considered. However, if they are outsiders, one might ask, where have they come from then?
I met workers who have been at LUMS since before I was born, for more than 20-odd years. They have grown up on campus, fallen in love with the campus, seen the campus change, have gotten married while associated with the campus and now even have children. Or as one worker friend said to me: “LUMS has been my girlfriend of 20 years.”
I can name very few people who have been with LUMS for that long- faculty, students and administration included. If anyone is an outsider, it is the rest of us. This space, in terms of long term presence, is the place of these workers; others merely come and go.
Even newly-employed workers have assimilated themselves into this tradition of belonging to LUMS. Hence, when these workers demand to be made permanent, they are also demanding the right to reclaim a space that is theirs to begin with. They are demanding the reclamation of their past, their adolescence and their love for a space. This is not to say that the struggle is not about improving working conditions and ensuring a financially stable future for the workers. Those remain legitimate concerns which when seen in the light of reclamation make them all the more dire.
When we students started to connect with different workers and heard of their connection with the space, we were told that we are tarnishing the image of the institution by siding with them, talking to them, and writing about them. This is the second act of oppression the system of subcontracting exacts. It deems the voices of the workers and those with them not merely irreverence but an insult to its dignity. However, we soon came to the conclusion that our voices are not contemptible; they are merely human. Hence, these voices are not just limited to always having a serious conversation. Whenever we talk to the workers, we don’t always talk of The Revolution, but rather sometimes we share a joke, a laugh, some banter and tea. Thus, this story became that of the reclamation of our voices that not only entail the demand to escape from violence but also the demand to be considered equally human.
This ongoing story is also about reclamation of a legacy. A few months back, we called fired workers and alumni who had been involved in the fight against subcontracting to a panel discussion on campus. They shared their stories with us and made us realize that our journey is not an ahistorical one existing uniquely in time and space. In fact, where we stand today and what we are able to do is because of the work put in by those who were here before us. The system is such that it diminishes the legacies of all predecessors so that no contemporary should ever find it in the annals of history. The workers and students at LUMS organized this talk so that we could reclaim that legacy and hand it over to those after us. Unless, students and workers consistently keep reminding each other that they are products of the work of many communities like themselves, we will lose our own bearings as well.
I am in no position to dish out advice as to how students can work with the workers and other oppressed groups. All anyone of us can do is share our experiences, our stories, our retrospection and our introspection with all those who are willing to have a conversation. None of us knows when (or whether) subcontracting will end. However, collectively the workers, the students and those in the faculty who have been contributing to the cause at LUMS know that the work ought to continue. The stories ought to be narrated and our space, voices and legacies ought to be reclaimed.