|Image: Rachel in Wonderland|
Chiragh Bibi lives in a small house in Shadra, one of the poorest areas of Lahore. She bends low over a piece of cloth, her eyes dimmed by age, squinting through thick-framed glasses held together with a piece of white masking tape, and tries to locate a thread. With much difficulty she finally finds it and, eventually, bites the extra piece off. ‘If I am as slow as I am today, we won’t be getting more than 100 rupees,’ she says, wagging a finger at her daughter, who is helping her. Her daughter does not reply, instead continuing to concentrate on the intricate embroidery she is doing on a shirt. Both are working as quickly as they can, but even so this 70-year-old woman has to work for 18 to 20 hours a day in order to complete the order. Her posture has become permanently stooped, while her frail figure and dark skin tell of years of malnourishment.
In Korangi, one of Karachi’s industrial areas, Shakeela, 38, makes about PKR 50 rupees a day for embroidering a thousand pieces of cloth. She works from home while taking care of her four young children. Her neighbour, Shabana, is worse off, with a workload that is ridiculously high. By packing 2500 to 3000 bags of dry fruit every day, she makes only about PKR 150 – a paltry sum with which to support her three young girls. Her husband has left her for another woman, so she has to deal with her situation all alone.
There are an estimated 50 million home-based workers in all of Southasia, of whom around 80 percent are women. The situation is roughly the same in Pakistan; according to the 2009 Pakistan Economic Survey, at least 70 percent of home-based workers are women, numbering around 8.5 million. Not only does the informal sector (both men and women) account for more than 73 percent of total employment in Pakistan, but according to Umme Laila Azhar, coordinator of a rights group called HomeNet, in the last two years this figure has grown by some 28 percent. These women are given neither protection by law, nor proper wages by their clients. There is no official rate schedule for their work, nor can they do much about the middlemen who can refuse to pay due wage for work already done. At the lowest rung of society, these women are some of the most vulnerable in the social economy – and for now, there is no sign of them receiving much support, especially from the government.
In Lahore alone, there are nearly 500,000 women engaged in such work. From making kites (now banned in Punjab) and paper bags, many ‘upgrade’ to produce shoe soles, jewellery, bangles or even small parts for vehicles. Like Chiragh Bibi, Shakeela and Shabana, many also engage in stitching and embroidery. Other such ‘cottage industry’ products include incense and women’s and children’s apparel, while less-paying tasks include making carpets, cleaning fruit, peeling and packing prawns, making pottery or stitching jute bags.
Admittedly, these jobs are major sources of income for a huge section of Pakistan’s poor. But having these jobs does not seem to be getting these women anywhere. Most are forced to scrape through the entire month due to the miniscule ‘salaries’ they receive. Circumventing the state entirely, large-scale businessmen contract this work out to middlemen, who in turn get it done, typically under piecemeal arrangements, through these informal labourers. ‘They have no health facilities, or transportation facilities,’ says Aima Mahmood, president of the Working Women Organisation (WWO) based in Punjab. ‘They must buy and bring home their own material and, in some cases, they even have to pay for damaged goods – for example, in the case of food items. If some dry fruits turn out to be bad, it comes out of their pockets.’
One of the sectors where women workers are most exploited is the bangle industry – quite the opposite of the traditional associations of bangles with joy and happiness. These workers live in poor, unhealthy environments. Most families have some five to ten members iving in single rented rooms, with crowded common laundry and toilets. An estimated 95 percent are unskilled workers, while the rest have had some insignificant training. In Hyderabad (Sindh), an incredible 80 percent of the workforce is thought to be engaged in making bangles. The simple fact is that they have no other choice, thanks to a lack of skills training. According to a HomeNet report, more than half of the women bangle-makers are illiterate, while only 13 percent have completed their primary education.
For bangle-makers, there are no fixed wages, and no set rules or regulations followed by the factory owners. For a tora of bangles – the basic unit of counting making up 300 pieces – workers receive a minimum of PKR 50 and a maximum of PKR 100. Wages are inflexible and can quickly lose their worth due to fast inflation and increasing prices of commodities. Neither do these women have access to medical facilities, despite the fact that making bangles requires them to sit in a single position for hours on end. This causes severe backbone, knee and joint pain for many and also gynaecological problems.
The method of bangle-making, using flame and glass in closed surroundings make the bangle-makers’ job especially dangerous. Electric fans or coolers cannot be used as the bangle burners are kept ablaze, causing significant heat problems for the workers in often-unventilated rooms. Bangle-makers are also exposed to electric shock, chemical burns on the hands and face, and multiple cuts due to the sharp glass used to carve designs on the bangles. Long-term inhalation of the chemicals can lead to asthma and increased susceptibility to tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases; staring into flames for long hours without eye protection, coupled with small slivers of glass flying about, also inevitably leads to eye problems.
Incredibly, informal labourers are completely unrecognised by the Labour Department or by Pakistan’s labour laws. They do not even register in the country’s labour statistics. ‘In the labour laws, the definition of the term worker defines them, but legally they do not fall under their protection,’ says Aima Mahmood. ‘They do not benefit from the Payment of Wages Act, the Maternity Benefits Ordinance or the Employees Old Age Benefit Act, just to name a few.’
Manzoor Khaliq, with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), says that international agreements on protecting workers in the informal sector, specifically Convention 177, agreed upon in 1989, are yet to be implemented in Pakistan. ‘Since then, the government has been lobbied strenuously by various NGOs and the ILO too, but this convention still has not been ratified,’ he says. ‘Laws cannot be made unless it has been ratified.’
Initiatives have been taken by NGOs that have tried to develop a national policy for home-based workers in collaboration with the federal government. In 2010, for instance, a consultation took place involving the Labour Department and several groups, though the matter was eventually deferred until other meetings. ‘This is an ongoing process and we have to have a second consultation soon,’ Khaliq says. Meanwhile, the 18th Amendment – passed in April 2010, under which all bodies that fell under the federal government are to be devolved to the provincial level – is silent regarding rules and regulations for the informal sector.
Programmes for worker welfare have been started but have also not really taken off. Projects initiated by the federal government and the provincial governments have been left incomplete due to lack of finances, with some dogged by allegations of corruption. There is also a problem of continuity – when a new government comes to power, it does not continue work on programmes introduced by earlier authorities. The high level of antagonism between the various political parties thus affects even the few programmes that are there to sere informal sector workers.
It is significant that the 64 years of independent Pakistan saw military rule for over three decades, during which the military governments were not sensitive enough to initiate programmes in these areas. Indeed, the military establishments have usually suppressed workers, preventing them from forming unions that could speak, they feared, against the establishment. And if organised labour itself faced such challenges, informal labour is a whole different question.
Civilian governments, meanwhile, have generally been unstable, and hence more concerned with their own longevity rather than issues such as worker rights. Also, civilian governments have tended to ally themselves with the feudal landlords, who typically lack any broader agenda other than to increase their own control over workers in their fiefdom. Most home-based workers are based in rural areas controlled by such feudal forces.
Although legal recommendations to deal with this issue have been put forward (by, for instance the WWO and others), these seem to be in a perennial state of postponement. These recommendations include the registration of informal workers for social security; providing training to women workers, especially to enable them to switch to safer occupations; formulating unions of informal workers and ensuring minimum wages; and formally addressing home-based women workers in the labour policy. In addition, many groups have recommended that investors, industrialists and other large-scale actors be actively involved in this process, and for those who do not follow the new rules to face stiff penalties. The role of the contractor, for instance, should be eliminated outright, thus forcing companies to deal directly with the people who are doing the work. Apart from this, health, education and other issues, including violence against women, should be monitored closely by government councils.
So far, however, these recommendations remain mere words on paper. In the meantime, women such as Shakeela, Shabana and Chiragh Bibi continue from day to day, trying to simply survive. Their eyes are dimmed by their work, but their future seems even dimmer.
~ Xari Jalil is a freelance journalist in Karachi.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
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