Oil tankers’ strike

The oil tankers' strike mercifully ended on July 26 after three days of disruption of supplies, which caused long queues of customers at filling stations. The panic buying caused some cities to almost exhaust their stocks, leading to many filling stations shutting down. In other cities, fear of shortages caused filling stations to impose limits on the amount of fuel that could be purchased. In Karachi on the morning of July 26, before the strike was called off, there were incidents of attacks on tankers, including at least one incident of firing in which a Pakistan State Oil tanker driver was wounded.

The calling off of the strike ended three days of anxiety, panic and disruption, pointing to the criticality of the fuel supply network for citizens' and commuters' normal life to continue and avoid economic hardship and disruption. Although at one point during the strike on July 25, the railways offered to step in and help move fuel around the country, which could have in turn burdened the normal functioning of the railways themselves, it never came to that. The Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (Ogra) had been pressing for new safety regulations for oil tankers after the devastating accident in Ahmedpur Sharqia on June 25, when an oil tanker overturned on a highway and people gathered to harvest leaking fuel from the tanker.

In the process, the leaking fuel exploded in a fireball, killing 216 people and injuring 61. In the wake of the tragic accident, Ogra suddenly woke up to the fact that many tankers plying our highways are not roadworthy. Safety rules have existed for years in this regard, but only on paper. The accident lit a fire under Ogra, which then attempted to overcome its neglect of the implementation of the existing safety rules over the years by insisting on the immediate implementation of new, more stringent safety regulations without bothering to take the stakeholders on board. This arbitrary and hasty style of problem solving and management can be considered the sole reason for a totally unnecessary provocation to strike, as the solution now arrived at shows.

The oil tankers association's demand that the new safety regulations be implemented at a slower pace (and hopefully by overcoming the lacunae in the existing safety and inspection regime) has now been accepted as rational and the only practicable way to move forward. Did this not occur to the high and mighty of Ogra earlier? Far from it, they derided the tankers' association as indulging in blackmail and even hinted they thought some oil marketing companies were behind the strike and would be 'exposed'. The other long standing complaint of the oil tankers association that extortion of bribes by the motorway, traffic and excise police placed a crippling burden on the sector appears to have been 'accepted' by the authorities without any indication how they intend to tackle this criminal enterprise.

The government's approach to handling issues appears more reactive than proactive. If the oil tankers' issue is not proof enough, consider the recent train drivers' short-lived strike. The train drivers had a case. They have been ignored amidst the welcome raise in most other railways employees' wages. Also, the train drivers demanded that their colleagues suspended after accidents and in limbo because of long running inquiries to apportion blame that never seem to reach a conclusion should be reinstated unless their culpability is proved in a timely fashion. Not unreasonable demands, but the railway authorities chose to ignore them until the train drivers threatened and then went on strike, leaving many trains stranded nowhere.

The authorities responded by arresting the train drivers' leaders, inducting retired drivers to rescue the stranded trains and passengers and taking a threatening attitude towards this category of railways employees. Whether train drivers or oil tankers, the handling of such issues by the government smacks of neglect until a crisis hits, and then taking arbitrary, harsh and unjust measures to break strikes or, as in the latter case, giving in to perfectly acceptable demands but only after the damage is done. Modern industrial relations handling and approach to critical sectors to avoid disruption is wisdom that appears to have escaped the authorities.

(Source: Business Recorder)