No spring yet for Arab trade unions!

Syed Zafar Mehdi

On January 5, 2008, protests erupted in the southern region of Gafsa in Tunisia after the state-owned Phosphate Company announced the results of the recruitment competition, which was widely seen as fraudulent and rigged. The unlucky candidates who failed to secure employment at the factory as well as the representatives from the national labour union, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT) claimed that the firm’s selection process was opaque and nepotistic. The demonstrations rapidly spread to include local residents, who protested against unemployment, poverty, increased living costs and corruption, as well as the relatives of miners injured or killed while working at the company. As the protests continued, the government brutally cracked down, leading to the death of two protestors and the imprisonment and torture of 300 others. The families of activists reported harassment by the authorities.

Tunisia is one of the countries with abysmal record of labour rights, but the Gafsa protests are indicative of restrictions on labor organisations throughout the region. In fact some Middle Eastern countries do not even have formal labour rights such as the right to strike or form unions. While the Middle East is not unique in its suppression of workers’ rights, the region’s robust authoritarian regimes make restrictions on labor organization particularly severe by comparison to other regions.

Limitations on right to protest

The history of trade unions is a history of struggles for greater social justice and against dictatorship, both in societies and at the workplace. Often accused by their opponents of being unreasonable, unable to understand economics, and dinosaurs of the industrial past, there can
be no doubt in retrospect that in most battles trade unions have been on the right side of history. While business has unhesitatingly engaged with dictatorships around the world in its pursuit of profit, trade unions were and are at the forefront of bringing about democratic change in many countries. The right to strike, a minimum wage, the eight-hour working day, paid vacations, social security – all are milestones in the long struggle of trade unions for social justice.

Notwithstanding a spate of trade reforms initiated by International Labour Organisation (ILO) in recent years, the full realisation of union rights in Middle East countries still remains a far-fetched dream. This region has earned the dubious distinction of being a part of world where

exercising the trade union rights amounts to fiddling with danger. In certain sectors, like oil industry in Iraq and construction industry in Bahrain, workers regularly complain of harassment and mistreatment. There have been many instances where governments have attempted to interfere in the trade union affairs. In countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, the political tensions have severely hampered the trade activities.

A common phenomenon with all these countries has been the limitations on freedom of association and the disparity between practices and ratified ILO conventions. As a result, the freedom to bargain collectively and right to protest is both severely restricted.

One group of countries, the wealthy, oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf, has significantly improved de jure labor standards for citizens — although de facto standards remain low and foreign guest workers continue to face poor job insecurity and poor working conditions. The lower income countries in the region have also marginally improved de jure labour standards but have simultaneously increased flexibility by loosening restrictions on hiring and firing conditions.

Among the oil-poor countries, the non-oil monarchies are more tolerant of labor activism, and single-party authoritarian systems, which grant labor fewer rights. Thus, the Middle East encompasses three broad sub-regional groupings with different responses to labour standards and flexibility – the oil monarchies, non-oil monarchies and the single party regimes.

As the Gulf countries became wealthier in the 1970s and early 1980s, their citizens became inured to the benefits of oil rents and reluctant to engage in blue-collar labour. Instead, low-wage workers were imported first from the poorer Arab countries and then increasingly from South and Southeast Asia. These workers were generally denied the protection of the labour laws – if not officially, then by the use of temporary work contracts. In addition, their passports were often
confiscated by employers upon entry into the country and returned only if they were dismissed or when they had completed their contracts. Since the 1980s, human rights organizations around the world have routinely castigated the Gulf regimes for the widespread and systematic abuse of migrant labor.

Arab spring and its aftermath

The Arab spring that swept the region recently affected almost all the countries. Many regimes crumbled and many autocratic leaders were upstaged. The end of repressive dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt meant that the new dispensation recognised the freedom of association, providing more space for the trade union rights for first time in 2011. In Yemen and Libya, which also saw an end to authoritarian rule, now trade unions are becoming increasingly active. In countries like Jordon, Algeria, Morocoo, the rulers have taken the initiative of introducing the reforms to allow workers to exercise the trade union rights.

Although Arab spring has given much needed fillip to the trade unionism, but challenges still persist. For example, in Egypt, the Military Council has reneged on the promises of passing a law on trade union rights. In Tunisia, the new ruling dispensation cracked down on the workers demanding legitimate rights, accusing them of ‘undermining the national economy and conspiring against the government’.

In a report in February 2003, the World Bank itself pointed to the positive impact of trade unions on economic development and, in turn, on political stability. “The countries where the institutional participation of trade unions is greatest are also those where the level of conflict is the lowest,” he continued, defending the right to strike as a basic principle for workers and of democracy,” says Jose Olivio Oliveira, Asstt Gen Secretary, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, ICFTU.


State of affairs in various States

In Jordon, Union activity is tightly controlled and union activists face discrimination and, in the case of migrants, deportation. A single trade union system is in place, and it is prohibitively difficult to cal a lawful strike. Despite this, work stoppages and protests take place regularly. The provisional amended labour law that was endorsed by the former Prime Minister was approved and adopted in 2011.

Around 607 labour-related protests were registered in the first nine months of 2011. The reports about strikes also came from Kuwait where 80 per cent of the 360, 000 strong workforce is
employed by public sector. In Oman, thousands of workers stormed streets to push their demands for jobs and all an end to rampant corruption in the country. In Syria, all the trade unions have been disbanded. In Iran, government heavily relies on stringent laws to suppress union activities. Prominent trade union leader Mansoor Osanloo was released from jail in 2011 after six long

In Syria, 2010 Labour Code recognizes the right to collective bargaining, but the government continues to have over-riding powers to nullify it. In Kuwait, workers from the public sector are not allowed to form or join the unions. In Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, the right to form trade unions is denied. In Iraq, workers from public sector cannot form associations or unions unless approved by the government. In Lebanon, the collective agreements have to be ratified by two-thirds of the union members at a general assembly.

In Egypt, Schlumberger, the world’s largest oil services company, has been scrambling to defend actions of local management who sacked the entire leadership of a nascent trade union. Pressure has been exerted by the ICEM and its affiliated Norwegian and Canadian unions, IndustriEnergi (IE) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP/SCEP), on senior management to intervene and remedy this unacceptable violation of rights in Egypt. Schlumberger employs around 2,500 workers in Egypt, 40% of whom are workers of subcontractors at 10 different worksites. The company is continuing to resist attempts by a genuine independent trade union in Egypt to organise workers at its operations.

In April 2011, the process to establish an independent company-level trade union at Schlumberger Egypt was begun, as part of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), the trade union centre established during the final days of the Mubarak regime. In May 2011, signatures and required documents were collected to complete the legal process of establishing the union.

On 11 May, local management was informed of the new union structure, at which time management responded with threats leading to the dismissal of General Secretary Mohamed Abd Elrahman. On 3 July, the day of the union’s general congress, local management dismissed the union’s President, Brother Essam. On 5 July, local management summoned union members to the head office and threatened them with dismissal if they did not leave the union. And then on 7
July, local management followed through on an earlier threat and dismissed the union’s Assistant General Secretary, Ayman Abd Elmonem.

No reason or dismissal letter was given to Abd Elmonem, he was simply blocked from entering the workplace. On 12 July, another union member was dismissed in similar circumstances, Mr. Hossam Al-deed Mostafa, and again no written dismissal notice was produced.

Under Egyptian law, workers can only be dismissed from their employment following a due legal process and a court ruling. The court procedure cannot even be initiated without justifiably serious reasons. Arbitrary unilateral decisions such as these cannot stand. Four sacked workers have been without income for several months now.

Egyptian Labour Law is presently uncertain and largely unusable. In theory, the old Mubarak era law, remains in force while there are at least three new proposed labour laws, drafted by different political groups, circulating in Parliament. The last trade union elections of 2007 in the former unitary government controlled trade unions, all part of ETUF, have been invalidated for corruption and the former governing structures of these unions dissolved with appointed
oversight committees put in place to run the organizations until new elections take place – under a new law in the future.

The situation allows companies such as Schlumberger to take advantage of the situation to prevent genuine trade representation of their workforces.

The construction sector in the GCC countries, especially in Dubai, has been hit hard by the crisis. The decline in the construction in Bahrain, while less dramatic, has already affected the livelihood of thousands of migrant workers.  projects falter and contractors are paid late, those who suffer the full impact are the construction workers who have experiences the long delays in
wage payments. In response, thousands of workers have engaged in strikes with the support of trade unions. Problems in the construction sector are compounded by the sponsorship system of employment, a key area in which Bahraini employers have argued against a more open system.

In Bahrain, the government is yet to ratify Convention 87 on Freedom of Association, resulting which workers are discouraged to take part in trade union activities and union leaders aresubjected to undue harassment. In July 2007, some prominent trade union activists were sacked after a protest march by around 500 workers of the Batelco Company over pay and retirement plan . Almost 50 workers of Al-Marai Dairy Company were sacked in November 2007 after
they took part in a month-long strike. They were re-instated a year later. In June 2008, Batelco sacked 44 workers in contravention of the Voluntary Early Retirement Package agreement between management and union. In July 2008, 17 migrant workers of Indian origin working for Classified Construction Company were arrested and threatened with deportation, after they were accused of setting ablaze a company vehicle.


In May 2009, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) sponsored an international conference on the crisis and its impact on Bahrain and the region. The trade unions in Bahrain, led by the GFBTU, called for damage control measures to reduce the impact on workers and their families, and demanded a place at the economic decision-making. The GFBTU called for a changed economic paradigm, one focused on providing employment security and social justice, regulating financial market, redressing economic inequality, creating environmentally friendly jobs, an promoting global economic reform.

In Iran, the 1990 Labour Code paved way for the constitution of Islamic Labour Council at any workplace. However it doesn’t allow any other form of representation at workplace where such a council has been established. Iranian labor enjoyed a brief period of freedom during the revolutionary period and the months following the revolutionary uprising. That period, however, corresponded with general chaos and widespread disruptions in economic activities. By
1981, all of the independent unions and councils as well as the secular Worker’s House (which were all set-up by workers and labor activists during and after the revolution), were forcibly taken over by pro-government Islamist workers and organized mobs. These organizations were officially liquidated and banned.

The early 2000s witnessed a surge in the confidence of labor activists and intellectuals, leading to the widespread translation of books on labor movements from other countries and the publication of books and journal articles on trade unionism, social movements, civil society, politics, and philosophy. Meanwhile, the number of workers’ strikes for economic demands and work conditions increased.39 Workers in public and private industries and services have
protested, demanding payment of their unpaid wages (a chronic problem in Iranian enterprises), opposing the widespread use of “blank signed” contracts and temporary contracts, and demanding that government and employers respect the application of current labor law. Some of the most confrontational labor protests have been in cases of laid-off workers demanding their jobs back. Nevertheless, these defensive demands and peaceful strikes are not tolerated
by the government’s security forces. In many instances, the Islamic reformists of Khatami’s administration were either unable or unwilling to curb the violent attacks of security forces on peaceful strikes and sit-ins of workers.

Some of the most tragic examples of these years demonstrate the brutality of the security forces against the peaceful workers’ movement. In July 2001, the workers from Jamco clothing and Shadanpoor shoe factories were seriously beaten by security forces in front of the Majles as they demonstrated for the payment of their delayed wages. Also in 2004, construction workers
participated in a strike and sit-in in the Copper Smelting Plant near the village of Khatounabad, in the Kirman province. This plant belongs to the National Copper Industries of Iran and was operated by a Chinese contractor. The construction workers’ complaint concerned the unfulfilled promise of being hired by the firm upon the completion of the plant. The workers’ families had joined the sit-in at the plant. On January 24th, the eighth day of the sit-in, on, security forces attacked the strikers and their families. Four workers were shot dead, 300 wounded, and many were arrested. The tragic event of Khatounabad was a catalyst that escalated the workers’ protest movement.

Also, with the economic sanctions imposed by West and the falling oil prices, Iranian economy has been affected badly. Many factories have closed down and unpaid wages have become common across the country. In January 2008, workers at Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Plantation and Industry Complex, Iran’s only sugar refinery, collected 1900 signatures to replace the Islamic Labour Council with an independent trade union. In April same year, workers at Kian Tyre Factory went on strike because of long-standing wage arrears. In police retaliation, 100 workers were hit by electric batons and incarcerated.

In 2011, as in previous years the authorities detained, questioned, harassed, threatened and imprisoned scores of people for their labour rights activities. For example, on 8 January, Pedram Nasrollahi, a labour movement and women’s movement activist, was released on payment of 40 million tomans (29,300 Euros) bail. In early January, according to reports published by the Free Union of Workers in Iran, jailed labour activist Behnam (Asad) Ebrahimzadeh was
sentenced to 20 years in prison. Behnam is a member of the workers’ group Pursuit Committee for the Formation of Labour Organisations. In August, a Tabriz court sentenced labour activists Shahrokh Zamani to 11 years, Nima Pouryaghob to 6 years, Mohammad Jarahi to 5 years and Sasan Vahebivash to 6 months in prison on charges of organising opposition groups, acting against national security and propaganda against the regime.

In Saudia Arabia, the labour rights are least protected. A new report from the International Trade Union Confederation on workers’ rights in the country has uncovered alarming levels of child labour, discrimination and forced labour. Employees are only allowed to organise so-called “workers’ committees” that must include the participation of the government and the employer. Unions, collective bargaining, strikes, even public demonstrations are banned.
According to the report, thousands of migrant workers are the victims of torture, work long hours, live in confined conditions and, in general, are deprived of their basic freedoms. The Saudi authorities have repeatedly failed to address the issue and redress extreme abuses which
remain unpunished.

In Iraq, the current labour laws governing trade union rights are in dire need of reform. A draft Labour Code was made public in 2007, and although it does recognise trade unions, it contains many areas of concern. It prohibits companies in the oil sector from cooperating with unions does not adequately protect workers against anti-union discrimination, and also establishes too high thresholds for union recognition.

Until the Labour Code is adopted, labour laws dating back to the era of Saddam Hussein remain in force. Resolution 150 of 1987 prohibits public sector workers from organising, and also bars all public sector workers from going on strike. Furthermore, a Ministerial order issued on 20 July 2010 prohibits all trade union activities at the Ministry of Electricity and its departments and sites. Decree 8750, which was introduced by the new regime in August 2005, also severely limits trade union activities by prohibiting unions from holding funds, collecting dues and maintaining

In Yemen, there is only one official trade union organization and law is not seen conducive to trade union activities. Many excessive restrictions apply despite some trade union rights being recognised. While freedom of association is guaranteed in the Constitution, all unions must belong to the General Federation of Workers Trade Unions of Yemen (GFWTUY), the country’s only umbrella union organization. A proposed Labour Code would allow foreign workers to join trade unions although they would still not have the right to be elected to trade union office.

While the right to collective bargaining is secured, the Ministry of Labour has the power to veto any collective bargaining agreement. Agreements that are “likely to cause a breach of security or damage the economic interests of the country” can be annulled. Furthermore, the right to strike is very limited. Permission to protest must be obtained from the GFWTUY and all strikes must concern more than two thirds of the workplace of the employer.

In April 2011, more than 5,000 foreign workers from several Asian countries working in six garment factories in Al Tajamouat Industrial City went on strike over pay and poor working conditions, Workers had reportedly paid huge sums of money to obtain the initial work contracts in Jordon. However, the employers refused pay rises saying that this would drive them out of business and render them incapable of competing in the international garment industry. A
Taiwanese factory, Maintrend International, employing over 600, mainly Bangladeshi workers, shut down in September 2011 alleging that worker strikes were to blame for the closure. Most of the workers had been recruited just months earlier.

In Turkey, from 1908 onwards, political opportunity structures stimulated unionization efforts among Turkish workers. This is one of the defining traits of the Turkish organized labor movement. Workplace activists have always tried to benefit from opportune situations and established local hubs of activity at the grassroots level. The first wave of strikes, for instance, took place immediately after the reinstitution of the constitutional rights of Ottoman citizens in
1908, and the first labor unions were established immediately after the removal of the ban on class-based societies in 1946.

From early 1987 onwards, the strikes gradually normalized, especially in the industrialized area of greater Istanbul, and took the shape of a minor and localized strike wave. The first strikes took place in private businesses situated around Istanbul, big metal or chemical factories with a history of labor militancy. These strikes were organized by independent labor unions heir to the militant labor unions of the seventies. The spring actions marked the first of two climaxes in the cycle of protest that began at the end of 1986 and continued until the last months of 1991.

The sheer number of workers involved in the spontaneous movement can only be compared to such historical incidents in Turkish labor history as the strike wave of 1908, the unionization thrust in 1946, and the uprising on 15-16 June 1970. Thanks to the spread of the state economic enterprises throughout Anatolia, almost every important city witnessed some form of action. The 1987 strike wave is also important because of its pioneering nature. Despite the authoritarian
measures still in force and the general mood of submissiveness inherited from three years of military rule, especially among the ranks of the organized labor movement, these bold attempts by independent labor unions and Türk-İş affiliates broke the silence. The 1989 spring, on the other hand, revealed the anger of the public enterprise workers at being cast out of the political sphere. The Petrol-İş strike involved approximately 20,000 workers, half of whom, the
employees of strategic state economic enterprises, did not legally have the right to strike.


Techno-driven education is the future


Anil K. Gupta (Michael Dingman Chair in Strategy – The University of Maryland) in a conversation with Syed Zafar Mehdi talks about what needs to be done to invert what happens at home and what happens in the classroom. The structural changes like giving parents the vouchers and letting private schools compete is the way forward, he says.


Q1. Enrollment in government run schools has decreased in last decade. There is a trend in
both urban and rural areas to opt for private education. How can this gap be bridged?

Ans: By and large, in a lot of countries, it is true generally of the US and UK, the quality of
education in government schools tends on average to lag behind the quality of education in
private schools. That’s on average and it’s also true of China. Of course there is huge variance
around the average. There are some fantastic government schools and not so good private
schools. Looking at India, the reason why parents send their children to private schools is
because the quality of teachers in government schools is not good and particularly if you talk
about plural India then not just the quality of teachers but even the number of days teachers
actually come to the school is a big problem.

In terms of what could be done about it, I would tend to think along two lines. Government
pumping more money to build schools and hire teachers as government employees is not really
going to be a viable solution. It is going to cost a lot and will take a long time and again it will
have all kinds of implementation problems. But a solution around it that is actually beginning to
do really well in US and UK is for government to give vouchers to parents, where the vouchers
can be used by parents to send children to private schools. The parents are still particularly
lower-income parents and you can always have an equal distribution of vouchers, so that
education is subsidised and children from poor families are not deprived of education.

The private schools then compete to attract the children and that obviously goes a long way
towards improving the quality and efficiency of the schools. That will be one solution provided
the distribution of these kinds of vouchers is made fairly effective and efficient in India. Of
course it requires a big policy-level re-thinking but it is an implementable approach and an
approach that is working in a big way in US and UK.

Q2. Many of the government initiatives and schemes to improve the internal efficiency and quality of secondary education have not really clicked. What reasons do you attribute to it?

I haven’t followed that closely but basically to improve the internal efficiency and effectiveness of existing government schools is an extremely challenging task everywhere in the world. Basically because you cannot bring about any reform unless the teachers want to change and how do you get teachers to change. Teachers tend to have their own historically set ways of behaving and if they don’t change it doesn’t make much of a difference. In that case bringing about change is not impossible but it becomes challenging. But the structural change like giving parents the vouchers and letting private schools compete to get children has worked and it has a lot of promise.

Q3. India boasts of having third largest number of graduates after US and China, with over 350 universities and 17000 colleges. But we still lag behind on the education front. Why so?

Firstly I wouldn’t necessarily say that we are behind China because overall the quality of
education in China is also not so impressive but clearly on an average India lags behind US
and Europe for sure. What has happened in India is exactly what has happened in China. If
you look at the last ten years, in terms of the colleges and universities, the number of students
graduating has multiplied several folds. In India it has multiplied about four times and in China
it has multiplied about six times in last ten years. You can easily build new buildings, increase
admissions, increase the class size, but you cannot increase the availability of qualified faculty
at the same rate. Therefore the class size shoots up and the quality of faculty goes down, so you
have larger number of graduates coming out but the level of education would obviously fall.
That’s what has happened in India and that’s also very much what has happened in China.

Q4. As per the National Knowledge Commission report, India will need 1500 colleges to
raise the GER (Gross enrollment rate) in higher education to 15% by 2020. Do you think
government will be able to meet the challenge?

I think they might be able to come close to that mark because in India there is a massive amount
of privatization happening. Private individuals and organisations are very active in opening new
colleges of engineering and other disciplines so that goal could be achievable but what I would
add is that the goal can never be just a quantity, it also has to be quality. On the quality front, at
the school level, I talked about how the voucher system and letting private schools compete can
help. There is another big thing, almost a revolution in the early stages taking place in the US
about improving the quality of education while at the same time reducing the cost of education
through the use of technology.

You may have heard about the Khan academy in US. It started out basically when he (founder of
academy) did something for his niece and that was to prepare a short videotape lecture. He put
it on youtube for her to learn some math. Gradually it grew and now it has become almost like
a revolution with Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation and a lot of the big-time Silicon Valley
VCs backing this non-profit operation. What is happening is that many school systems in the
US are transforming how they teach children. Historically, what would happen was that in the
classroom teacher would give lectures and then students would be given home-work, they would
solve problems at home and bring it to the school. Now, several school systems are inverting the

process so what they do at home is to watch the Khan Academy lectures on youtube and read
books and what they do in the classroom is not lectures but actually problem-solving. So what
is happening is, if I think of the single biggest revolution in educational reforms taking place in
the US, with some extremely credible names behind it like MIT, Stanford, Havard, is to reverse
what happens in class and what happens at home. The same approach now has been picked up by
MIT, Stanford and Harvard. If they start to do something, it catches on because they have such
massive credibility. At MIT now, all lectures by professors in every course are video-taped and
put online to be accessed free by anybody in the world including by MIT students. The idea is
if you are a student of MIT, you don’t need to come to the class, you can listen to the lectures

Q5. Can innovative public-private partnership models aided by latest technology help improve
the education standards in India, which aspires to become a knowledge economy?

Ans. In a big way, India is almost like a setup to make a lot of progress. We know the cellphone
penetration in India is enormous with over 900 million people using cellphones. But, in the
next five years, the future of it will be shifted to 3G, 4G, WiMAX and vast chunk of Indian
population will have cheap tablets and access to the internet. And then master teachers in India
will prepare courses on the lines of pre-existing content like Khan videotapes that will be
available for free. So, essentially, instead of child relying on brick and mortar building and a
good teacher to learn, the child would have access through the tablet and the internet to the best
learning content. It’s hard to imagine what will get in the way of that. Through that process you
cannot create rocket scientists, for that you still need master teachers and you need to be working
on projects and dealing with professors and researchers. But in terms of the basic education,
technology by itself will solve the chunk of problem.

Q6. According to a recent research report, the education spending in India has touched $600
billion mark, surpassing that of the US. Also many foreign institutions are foraying into
India. Do you think it will change the scene in India?

Ans. I don’t think education spending in itself is going to make much of a difference. If you look at
the education spending, bulk of that money goes into brick and mortar and teacher salaries. But I
think bulk of the solution will come not from brick and mortar schools and teachers but from the
technology-based learning. So my thinking is that a huge chunk of the government thinking must
be around how the emerging technologies (mobile data, 3G, cheap tablets) could be put into the
service of essentially self-learning processes. If you have the tools of self-learning available, then
imagine a class, a teacher can have 60 children in the class and the class could still be effective.
But if it is not self-learning and not technology facilitated, and the child has to depend on the
teacher to teach, you can’t expect great results. So I think technology has to be a major part f the

Q7. The lack of autonomy for universities in India has led to falling standards within the higher
education sector. Do you agree?

Ans. It’s very hard to say that more autonomy or lack of it is going to either improve or decrease the
quality of education. An argument can be made that more autonomy will actually lead to weaker
education but then argument can also be made that less autonomy will lead to weaker education.
For example, if you give more autonomy, then one could imagine that private entrepreneurs will
focus more on the number of graduates and not on the quality of education. In US, and also in
India, the business schools are completely autonomous. There are no government guidelines
about what business schools should be. There are no guidelines about what engineering schools
should be. But there are rankings of MBA programmes and there are rankings of engineering
programmes, so different schools and universities are competing in the market to be ranked
higher. Both, colleges and universities, which do not keep up the quality of their education end
up lower on ranking charts. That works as a very good mechanism as compared to reducing the
autonomy and creating a command and control system.

Q8. In India, teachers emphasise on score high marks in the examinations in an anti-learning
system that was originally implemented by Macaulay to produce clerks for the East India

Ans. Personally I would say it should be a combination of both – high marks that also focus on
creativity and application of theory. But it should not be creativity and application of theory
without the focus on marks. For example, my son went to Stanford. When he was finishing high
schools, he was applying for colleges. We went to MIT, Harvard and Stanford etc. One question
that parents typically had for the admission officers was what matters more: the child has taken
tough courses and interesting creative projects or that child has got A+ grade. The answer was
that the best approach is to take the tough courses to do creative projects. Just the focus on marks
by itself doesn’t mean you are learning creativity.

Q9. What are the steps that should be taken to reform the education system?

Ans. Firstly, I would focus on a greater reliance on private providers of education rather than state
providers of education. But, at the same time, I would focus on the system by which the
government through a voucher system subsidises education for lower-income families. Therefore
it is fair that at the same time, it relies on market forces.

Secondly, markets cannot be left unregulated. Create a highly publicized system of accessing
the quality of education in different schools and colleges and make it publicly available so that
parents and students know which school and course to opt for.

Thirdly, I would say, focus on how all the new developments in technology particularly tablets
and applications and internet can be leveraged to create the climate of self learning.

Q10. What steps can be taken to transform the state of academia today? How can the teaching
resources be developed to meet the growing challenges?

Ans. Look at what is going on in places like MIT, Harvard and Stanford. Those efforts are for
academia to see how essentially you can reverse or invert what happens at home and what
happens in the classroom. In MA course, there is an element of structured learning where
someone can learn relatively easily on his own. Then there is unstructured learning, which
is about doing project works and applications. Historically, a classroom has been used for
structured learning and unstructured learning has been left for the student. Instead of that,
the structured learning should be left to student to do on his own through technology and the
classroom should be used for unstructured learning. That’s where academia has to take the
leadership. That’s exactly what academia in MIT, Harvard, Stanford is doing, and that’s what
academia in India needs to do.

Attack on Iran means Israel’s annihilation

Syed Zafar Mehdi

A ghastly joke that became viral in West in the run up to US invasion of Iraq in 2002 goes like this:

President Bush and his deputy Dick Cheney break into a Texas bar, packed with the crowd of uber-cool drinkers. Over a few cartons of country-made whiskey, they plan the invasion of Iraq, execution of Saddam Husain and seizing Iraq’s enormous oil reserves. To tap the mood of people, they cajole a young American boy sipping beer in the corner to join them for a drink.

“What do you think if we invade Iraq and grab their oil fields, considering that 30,000 Iraqi people and one odd American bicycle mechanic would pay the price of life?”, asks Bush.

The boy clasps the beer bottle tightly, takes a sip, and looks perturbed. After few moments he asks, “Why should an American bicycle mechanic have to die?”

Cheney thumps the table and smirks gleefully at Bush. “I told you no one would give a damn about the 30,000 Iraqis!

Ten years down the line, as the war-mongering and brinkmanship intensifies, coercive crippling sanctions continue, and the military confrontation in the Persian Gulf looks imminent, no one seems to give damn about 74 million Iranian lives either, half of whom are under the age of 30.

While Iran has been trying to engage the Western powers diplomatically, inviting international watchdogs to inspect the nuclear sites, the response from the other side has been utterly appalling. The peace overtures have been met with belligerent threats of unilateral preemptive military strike, harsh economic sanctions, and an oil embargo.

The ongoing saber-rattling is not exclusively Iran-Israel affair. Israel’s western allies are frantically working out the logistics to isolate Iran economically and politically. Both Obama and Natenyaho during their recent White House talks agreed that the military action is likely if the present sanctions fail to curb Tehran’s atomic ambitions. Tehran has always maintained that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, and being a signatory of Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has an unalienable right to enrich uranium to meet the energy needs.

As the drums of war beat louder, US Air Force chief has revealed that the war machinery is in place, but experts say the strike may be delayed until November elections in US. Israel however seems too keen to go for the kill with ‘surgical air strikes’ against ‘suspected Iranian nuclear facilities’ with GBU-28 ‘bunker-buster’ bombs.

Israel continues to view Iran as an existential threat, out to wipe them off the map. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has gradually become the most dreaded enemy of Israel, kind of a monster fed by Ayatullahs. The phenomenon of Iranophobia is furiously raging in Israel, primarily because, as one Israeli scholar notes, “Israel needs an existential threat”. The geo-political rivalry for regional dominance has also brought Israel and Iran at loggerheads. As Gary Sick, Professor at Columbia University and Iran-expert said in an interview recently, “Iran is a very strong rival to Israel in the Middle East.”

But why the grotesque double standards while dealing with both of countries? Why does Israel need to be the only nuclear-armed nation in the Middle East? Why no outrage over the breach of International laws by Israel? Why no action against it for making the mockery of United Nations resolutions? How is it allowed to occupy territories and oppress its population and deny them the most fundamental rights? Of course, with the blessings of Uncle Sam.

Iran has never attacked another country in its 200-year history. It did defend itself in the war against Iraq, which was supported by US, in 1980s. US intelligence officials and Middle East observers maintain that any sort of military adventurism against Iran will prove self-destructive for Israel. In every respect and analysis based on facts, Iran is not Iraq. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr in an unclassified statement recently admitted that Iran will retaliate strongly if attacked. “Iran’s willingness to sponsor future attacks in the United States or against our interests abroad probably will be shaped by Tehran’s evaluation of the costs it bears for the plot…as well as Iranian leader’s perception of U.S. threats against the regime,” said Cooper. Forbes magazine warned that Iran attack would push US back into recession. “Be it war with Israel or a preemptive strike by U.S. air forces, the reality is that a sustained conflict with Iran would tip the U.S., and possibly much of the developed world, back into recession.” (Forbes, 24/2/2012)

Even as efforts are on to isolate Iran, support for them has been pouring in from many quarters. Russia has already warned against any adventurism that might set Mid-east on fire. China and Japan are also opposed to the idea of launching military attack on Iran. Pakistan has assured its support to Iran, in case the war breaks out. Many South American and African countries are also supporting Iran, so are the Arab countries like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. In this situation, as a senior Iranian government official said recently, attack on Iran will only lead to annihilation of Israel.

In this election year, Obama administration wants to play it safe, as the horrors of Iraq war are still haunting them. Meanwhile the public opinion polls are clearly not in favour of military strike. A February 2012 CNN poll finds that only 17% of Americans favor a U.S. attack now, while 60% favor sanctions with no military attack now.  22% favor taking no action at all.  In a February Pew survey, 64% of Americans said that sanctions will not work. 58% said they would favor military action if it was the only way to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. 30% said they opposed a strike even if meant Iran got a nuclear weapon. “There is no question that Bush/Cheney/Obama have trashed the US Constitution, US statutory law, and international law. But Washington, having overthrown justice, has established that might is right,” wrote Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy, in Foreign Policy Journal, (January 25, 2012).

To prepare the ground for the unilateral preventive strike against Iran, Israel has been playing its cards well. Some interesting developments happened recently. The recent attack on Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi is still shrouded in mystery. While Israeli media, for lack of choice, blamed Iran, the whole operation seemed to be consistent with Israel’s “false flag” car bombing that does not injure the occupant but serves the broader strategic interests. Similar attacks were reported from Bangkok and Tbilisi, and all evidence points to the involvement of Israeli intelligence agencies.

As the scare-mongering, saber-rattling, and war rhetoric assumes terrifying proportions, Iran looks fully prepared to face any eventuality. Iran may have nothing to win but Israel has everything to lose.

(First published in The Daily Times, Pakistan)

Changing dynamics at workplace!


Syed Zafar Mehdi

The changing dynamics at workplace has considerably changed the employer-employee relationship, for good. It is no more a puritanical leader-follower relationship but an alliance built on the fundamentals of trust and collective vision. Times have gone when this relationship was merely looked at in economic terms. Now, the mutual respect and emotional dependency also plays a catalytic role in ensuring that it is a win-win situation for both the parties.

An important way to characterize the exchange between employers and employee is a series of promises, says leadership consultant Stephen A. Miles. Employers promise meaty compensation and benefits and in turn an employee promises to put in the best performance job with diligence and dedication.

Just as employers have a moral responsibility to ensure that employees are charged up to perform their tasks, employees also have moral obligations and duties to the organization, to customers and fellow workers. Employees need to be treated with dignity and it is the duty of employers to see that duty managers don’t abuse their power or ill-treat their workers. This relationship should be based on respect, inter-dependability and trustworthiness.

As Tammy Erickson writes in Harvard Business Review, this relationship is expected to grow further and equations will be more on adult-to-adult lines in future. “I believe the new equation will be an adult-to-adult relationship between organizations and those who perform work. Organizations should expect that everyone who shows up to work will be fully present, engaged, and have the relevant skills to do the job at hand. Individuals should expect the opportunity to choose interesting, challenging work, suited to their skill set, and to be compensated through fair, transparent arrangements.”

The way employees are treated when the chips are down tells a great deal about the employers. For instance, in times of recession, this relationship is prone to become fragile, as insecurity creeps in the employees and bosses become more demanding and ferocious. The employee feels the pressure to perform and to keep his job as the specter of financial crisis looms large over him. In such times, as Authors Stephen A. Miles and Nathan Bennett state in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article, “employers find themselves more frequently asking employees to trust the company — assuring employees that better days are ahead and their efforts today will not be forgotten tomorrow.”

The need of hour for employers is to find ways to stay credible and reliable in an environment where uncertainty prevails. Employees, on their part, must also continue to raise the standards and make this relationship more strong and solvent.