The dark side of being a female home-based worker | Pakistan Today

The dark side of being a female home-based worker

LAHORE – Sajida, 43, suffers from a heart disease, but does not have enough money for treatment. Not with pending financial expenditures that have to be done – expenditures that in her opinion have more priority – such as getting her daughters married. Sajida is a widow and along with her daughters works from home, making embroidery on clothes to sell them off through a middleman.
Unfortunately even after ten years of long hours of labour, she has not been able to save much. “I get only about Rs 200 a day for my work,” she says. “This can vary, on bad days it may even go down a bit, while on better days, I can get up to three hundred too,” Sajida says. Receiving only a meager amount of money despite the unpredictable hours and sometimes under the worst working conditions, Sajida is still not given the proper respect of being a worker, since she goes unrecognised and does not have any law provisions to protect her.
The issue of home-based workers is not something that is new. This goes as far back in Pakistan as has its history. Women workers are the ones who suffer the most, because they are told to stay at home and work, since domestic matters need their attention, they are willing to work alongside these issues. But as a return, these workers receive only low wages, without any fixed working hours. So a worker can start work early morning and may have to go on until late at night, depending upon the consignment that is needed by the business client.
“Sometimes the businessman who employs us indirectly needs more clothes to be done in a small time frame and then the middleman comes to tell this to us,” says Sajida. “But neither are we paid overtime, nor are we paid slightly more when we manage to complete the order in time,” she laments. The fact that these women are not recognised workers means that they will never be given protection under law or constitution.
They are not registered therefore under the EOBI (Employees Old age Benefits Institution) and are not given pensions for the time when they must physically retire from work. For this reason, many of the workers in the informal sector must go on despite their ages, because they are integral to be one of the earning members in the family thanks to poverty. Age is not given a thought. Instead, it is money that matters which can only be earned bit by bit by taking on more work load at home.
For this reason, some organisations have attempted to work on this issue trying to create a bridge between the government, legal authorities and home-based workers, in order to help protect them. Initially started with the Aurat Foundation, the work has been spread to others too. One of these is called Home Net, an organisation solely dedicated to the aid of home-based workers.
Maria Kokab from Home Net tells Pakistan Today that though they are trying to help implement a resolution with regard to protection of workers, one of the problems they are facing is that there are no official statistics of these women in the informal sector. “We have tried to collect data, but have not entirely succeeded in doing so,” she says.
“There was no authentic data available as a proper countrywide survey to count home-based workers has never been conducted. However an estimated figure through small-scale surveys reveals at least 10.9 million workers in the country. We want the government to help us develop official figures,” Kokab says.
Kokab says that workers in Lahore are present in clusters, more concentrated in lower socio-economic areas. Since they are scattered this makes them even more vulnerable to labour laws. However Home Net has handed in a draft of national policy for these workers, but yet nothing of any substance from the labour ministry has come up to help implement this into a law.
In context to this, Dr Qais Aslam, an economics expert at the University of Central Punjab, says that the real problem in Pakistan are the two parallel systems of economy, one being the traditional and feudal system, under which the informal sector falls, since most are concentrated in rural areas, and the other being the modern and capitalistic system, with which there are less problems in comparison.
“We have a basic problem of paying less to workers who do more difficult work, and life threatening and physical labour rather than those who are not,” says Dr Qais. “Human life should be given a price within economics, which is a rather cruel thing to suggest, however it would solve a myriad of problems. Rather than a miner be asked how much he would charge for a life threatening job, we are instead sidelining his will and importance, and deciding ourselves how much he should be given, which is a very small amount,” the veteran economist says.
He says that once price of life is included in economics, it automatically becomes a matter of demand and supply. Self sustaining workers automatically pull down their own worth by asking for the minimum, under the feudal economic system. This is what has given rise to bonded labour and other forms of labour exploitation. “Labour Laws should give protection to these workers, because it is giving protection to those working under the formal sector,” says Dr Qais. “The workers should have their own unions and forums, their working hours and pay should be decided, and there should be a monitoring system that should ensure that they are not being exploited,” the UCP professor says.
“We must protect those who cannot protect themselves,” he says. Most of these women home-based workers, who represent 60 percent of women workforce in the country, are piece rate workers involved in manufacturing and post-manufacturing tasks such as embroidery, carpet weaving and handlooms, wood work and other handicrafts, bangle making, dates cleaning and packing prawn peeling and packing and many other similar tasks.
Coming back to Sajida, she hopes that her future does not end up in bleak lonely death without a penny to help her. “My daughters will leave one day, and I have no sons to stay with me,” she says. “With such little money, I have no idea how I will continue in old age and survive in peace,” she laments.

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