Pakistan Steel: White elephant for the govt, messiah for its employees

By Kazim Alam, The Express Tribune

KARACHI: A reference to Pakistan Steel often evokes the image of an overstaffed, money-guzzling white elephant that needs a government bailout every few years.

However, many people, who grew up in the 1980-90s with one or both parents employed by Pakistan Steel, are likely to attribute their upward social mobility to the USSR-built industrial giant.

One such person is Muhammad Shamraiz. Standing behind the counter of his busy grocery store, Shamraiz shared how his family was able to make a transition from the working class to the middle class. His father, Abdul Wahid, retired from Pakistan Steel last month after working for 32 years as a bus and driver.

But unlike an ordinary retired blue-collar worker, Wahid is not going to have much free time on his hands. Today, Wahid runs a successful retail business, owns pricey residential property, rents out shops to different businesses and manages a mobile phone repair centre: investments he made while working full-time as a driver for Pakistan Steel.

Shamraiz said he was in college in the mid-‘90s when his father decided to open a small shop in the guestroom of the 120-squareyard house he had bought in Gulshan-e-Hadeed for a pittance through Pakistan Steel. “The shop was supposed to be a side-business initially, something to augment the salary of my father,” Shamraiz said.

He said his father used to work from 2 pm to 9 pm every day at the time. “I’d attend college in the morning and sit behind the counter in the afternoon.” He said his brothers took turns and the business kept expanding over the years.

Talking about his business, Wahid said he barely invested money in the initial stages, yet it generated Rs0.5 million in the first year. “You don’t need much money to start a business. You just have to be smart with whatever money you have,” Wahid said.

He said he owed everything he had to Pakistan Steel. “All my kids went to schools funded by Pakistan Steel. My daughters now hold master’s degrees in botany and political science. My sons have done MA in economics and public administration,” Wahid said, adding that he had barely passed primary school.

“Pakistan Steel would cut Rs50-60 from my salary as my children’s tuition fees. It gave me property at a subsidised rate, which became the basis of my business. I can’t thank Pakistan Steel enough,” he said.

Wahid is not an exception. Another Pakistan Steel driver with an impressive entrepreneurial approach, Altaf Hussain, established the first photo studio in the area in the ‘80s. While his sons expanded Bambino Studio into a modern digital lab with Kodak’s sponsorship over the following decades, Hussain served as a school bus driver until his retirement from Pakistan Steel in the 2000s.

Recently, Hussain moved to his hometown in Punjab after selling his business to Test cricketer Younis Khan. Word has it that Khan acquired the state-of-the-art digital lab for about Rs15 million.

According to Dr Javaid Manzar, who retired as in-charge of the Pakistan Steel insurance department a few years ago, public education, cheap housing and almost free utilities are the main reasons why children of most blue-collar workers of Pakistan Steel have now become part of the middle class.

Manzar said Pakistan Steel employees used to pay Rs18,000, Rs72,000 and Rs105,000 for housing units of 120, 240 and 500 square-yards respectively, in the early ‘80s by easy instalments.

“I had a typist, Muhammad Khalid, in my office. Two of his daughters did MBBS and his son became a computer hardware engineer. I had another driver by the name of Sultan. His son did chartered accountancy from England.” Manzar said. “Pakistan Steel has elevated the socio-economic status of an entire generation,” he added.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 9, 2011.


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