A pathbreaking study on the status of women labourers in Pakistan’s manufacturing sector shows that they fare as badly as women in the rest of South Asia and perhaps worse.
The pundits of globalisation were perhaps trying to preempt a feminist critique of their macro policies when they devised – for their corporate clients – an elaborate employment structure that, on the face of it, appears gender- sensitive with its ‘equal opportunity’ and ‘women are strongly encouraged to apply’ slogans. This astute strategy may have worked for the handful of dynamic urban women in developing countries who have managed to break the proverbial glass ceiling and grace the boardrooms of multinational corporations. Indeed, leading women entrepreneurs and managers make regular headlines in the Pakistani press these days.
But those in the ivory towers of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Bank who care to look beyond the frosted glass of corporate culture will be confronted by the cheerless sight of women eking out a paltry living in the squalid outposts of the global production system. The Afghan refugee women toiling in the plastic ‘industry’ of Lahore’s garbage dumps or women packing spices for a living in the slums of Karachi are more visible to the passer-by than the little events of the haute monde that seem to grab the attention of the media and policy establishment. Yet they have for all practical purposes been disowned by the globalising intelligentsia, except as so much dressed up numbers to ‘prove’ that liberalisation has empowered and emancipated women in conservative societies. And so long as this attitude persists there is unlikely to be any reformulation of the current orthodoxies on ‘poverty management’.
The grim sociology of women’s work is more than adequately reflected in the grim statistics of the last decade. The trickle-down economy has regained respectability in the doctrine of globalisation. Yet, after a decade of economic liberalisation in Pakistan (introduced in the country in 1991), close to two-thirds of its women workers earn less than the official minimum wage, which in 1992 was set at PNR 2000 a month. After factoring in the inflation rate for the year 2000, the number of women in Pakistan who earn less than the stipulated minimum wage rises to 88 percent. Furthermore, in consonance with the pattern in other developing countries, incomes of women workers are lower than that of their male counterparts.
These and other findings of a similar nature have been unearthed by a recent study, ‘Women’s Work and Empowerment Issues in an Era of Economic Liberalisation’, undertaken by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research (PILER) on behalf of the Women’s Development Project of the Canadian International Development Agency. This is one of the first systematic studies on women employed in the Pakistani manufacturing sector and for that reason alone is a valuable addition to the corpus of research, particularly since official figures tend to be indifferent to such issues.
The study brings to light some startling new information and corroborates many conjectures that could reasonably have been made about women in manufacturing. The critical thrust of the study is to examine the validity of the common assumption that development and urbanisation improve women’s role in society and that higher levels of national per capita income correlate with more educated, trained women entering the labour force and commanding a premium for their work. However, as the PILER findings indicate, Pakistan’s experience of the last ten years does not suggest any robust correlation between liberalisation and social empowerment.
Given Pakistan’s uneven sociopolitical and economic environment, it comes as no surprise that the participation of its women in the labour force has remained exceptionally low. For those who do manage to secure employment outside the home, the returns are low and unsteady. The statistics are revealing. For instance, though multinational companies dominate the pharmaceutical industry, only 35 percent of the workforce is female, giving lie to the common belief that offshore capital is more ‘progressive’ than domestic capital, Another startling revelation is that of the total female workforce, the majority are aged between 14-24 years, suggesting clearly that women neither hold very senior positions nor command very high wages. And as an indication of the overall conditions of work, the study estimates that only 17 percent of women employed in the formal sector have appointment letters formalising their contractual status.
Using Pakistan’s manufacturing sector as its sample area, a pilot survey of 600-plus blue collar women workers was conducted in the informal sector (37 percent homebased and 31 percent small-scale) and in the formal sector, in Karachi (Sindh), Lahore (Punjab), Peshawar (North West Frontier Province) and Quetta (Balochistan). These are the major cities in which the country’s manufacturing sector is concentrated. The four industries selected for the survey were food, garments, pharmaceuticals and plastic. The survey also included a sample of male workers as well as managerial functionaries who were asked to respond to questions concerning perceptions of their female colleagues or employees. According to economist Asad Sayeed, who along with Saba Gul Khattak of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad, formed the core research team of the project, the manufacturing sector was selected for the survey because it provides the maximum existing industrial data and information base.
According to Khattak, the study is an “attempt to see the general setup of women workers in specific conditions in order to establish some guidelines. It reflects a desire for an egalitarian society”. The study is also informed by the belief that since women workers are the most vulnerable members of the workforce, they have to be considered first in any strategy for improving labour conditions. The emphasis, she says, has been on three central issues pertinent to women workers in Pakistan: 1) the prevailing nature and conditions of employment in the urban manufacturing sector, 2) the extent to which remunerative work empowers women, and 3) the level of organised activity and collective bargaining by working women to secure basic rights in the workplace.
Tracking female participation in the labour force in Pakistan is a difficult task considering the paucity, poor quality and archaic character of available data. According to the estimates projected by the study, while the share of urban women in the labour force was 3.0 percent in 1991, by 1997 it had dipped to a low of 2.7 percent. This exceptionally low ratio could be due to the under-reporting of women’s work, especially when it takes the form of home-based work. The reasons cited by the study to explain that these figures are an underestimation of female participation in the labour force include increased literacy, increased poverty, privatisation and downsizing. This last factor is crucial since more women are believed to have entered the workforce to protect household incomes from the effects of retrenchment in the public sector, which has predominantly affected male workers. On the whole, the contribution of women to household incomes has been estimated at an average of 42 percent, which is a significant contribution by any standard.
Like retrenchment, poverty too has been a factor in forcing women to take up sub-optimal employment options. The report observes that “the most striking statistic in Pakistan’s contemporary socio-economic landscape is the steep increase in absolute poverty witnessed over the last decade”. Estimates put the mark at 45 million individuals below the poverty line. The study points to the link between the macro-economic policies pursued in the 1990s and the accentuation of poverty in the country. In 1990, the poverty ratio was 18 percent. By 2001 the figure had jumped dramatically and alarmingly to 40 percent. And at the time when the survey was conducted, 38 percent of the households to which women workers belonged were below the poverty line.
It seems reasonable to postulate some kind of a connection between the policies of the last decade and the deteriorating conditions of women’s work. Quite apart from the possibility that in a significant number of cases women’s employment is distress-driven, as poverty statistics seem to suggest, liberalisation has also, perhaps obliquely, affected women in their capacities as workers as well as home managers. “Structural adjustment is not the only factor in our analysis”, says Sayeed. “We are not establishing a direct causality between it and the impact on women workers”. But he also adds that structural adjustment policies nevertheless do seem to have a visible impact and therefore cannot be ignored. This impact has been by and large negative, particularly for those on the production side.
Owing to the sharp decline in manufacturing sector growth rates, combined with rising material and production costs, producers have minimised outlays on labour. As a direct result of this there has been a phenomenal decrease in regular, permanent employment and an increase in part-time and sub-contracted work. In consequence, employment in this sector now entails very harsh working conditions and the almost complete absence of normal employment benefits. The more than 100 percent increase in poverty levels over the last decade has created a labour surplus, which in turn has exerted a downward pressure on wages.
This general economic slowdown has affected women both directly and indirectly. Blue-collar women workers in private manufacturing enterprises are more vulnerable to job losses or are more likely to be employed as casual or part time labour. The reduction in employment opportunities in this sector also has an adverse impact on women from households affected by general retrenchment. Women who are not in the workforce are much more affected on the domestic front as other members of the family lose their jobs or have their wages cut. “On the home front”, states the report, “increasing inflation, the resulting decline in real wages and a heavy dose of inequitable, indirect taxation has adversely affected household consumption patterns, especially in the low income quartile”.
The study has also been instrumental in furnishing data that can be used to construct a broad and general profile of women workers in the manufacturing sector. For example, the fact that women aged between 14- 24 years form the bulk of the female labour force is a reflection of certain larger trends. There seems to be a preference for employing young workers, which is matched by the necessity and hence willingness of females to enter the labour force at an early age. Predictably, since a large number of workers are less than 24 years old, 54 percent were found to be unmarried. This may perhaps explain why they are so prominent in the female work force, since employers may prefer single women who can work longer hours without the compulsion of having to run the home and manage the family. Besides, there is the perennial employers’ fear of older, married women workers taking maternity leave. Whatever be the reason, this data also raises interesting sociological questions: is there an emerging trend of women from blue-collar households getting married at an older age than before? And, if this is indeed so, has this been prompted by the compulsion of women from blue-collar households to take up employment? On the other aspect of this profile, the study, using primary school education as the criterion of literacy, found that 67 percent of working women were literate. The pharmaceutical sector, which, unlike many other sectors, requires workers to have formal education, has a large concentration of literate women workers.
With regard to health issues, it was found that 36 percent of the women working in factories (both large- and small-scale) complained of lethargy and listlessness due to work, while 26 percent of those doing home-based work had the same complaint. The report also looks at other important parameters, such as household size, number of children, number of earning members and dependents. In addition, besides sampling male worker profiles, it records men’s perceptions about working with women workers. According to the report, 93 percent of male respondents said that they had no inhibitions about working with female workers. They did not believe that the work could have been performed better had their been only male workers in the department.
So what, if anything, has employment done for Pakistan’s women in terms of empowerment? “Women do not automatically get empowered by doing wage work”, says Khattak. “The number of women going out to seek work has increased, but for most of them work is oppressive, rather than a source of empowerment”. Khattak believes that the reasons why women enter the workforce have more to do with the need to supplement household earnings and less to do with aspirations of financial independence. “The important fact is that these women still buy the traditional gender ideology”, she says. “Much more is tied to empowerment and independence than earnings alone. Age, marital status and class directly impact a woman’s level of assertiveness and autonomy”, says the report.
Besides, the ‘care economy’ is an important aspect of the lives of women workers in Pakistan. Not only are women forced to enter the market on terms that are not set by them, they also often have to take on an additional burden of the care economy in order to mitigate pressures on the family’s capacity to survive as a unit. This largely involves extending psychological as well as material support to the family and the head of the household. “The double burden phenomenon”, notes the report, “has become deeply entrenched due to a combination of changes in the economic landscape of the country”. The decline in state expenditure on public services, which is part of the structural adjustment package, has meant that the poor are condemned to access the market at costs that are unaffordable for them. The ability of the poor to meet even basic needs is low. This has a direct and adverse effect on the woman worker of a household.
The study explores possibilities of women workers organising to protect and even extract labour rights from employers. In large-scale industries, where work conditions are regulated by law, statute and monitoring mechanisms, women are paid better and on-time. Women in such workplaces are more assertive and knowledgeable about their rights than home-based workers or those who work in small-scale factories. The report’s prognosis is that increasing poverty will lead to increasing misery among the marginalised and hence it is imperative for women workers to devise strategies to organise themselves in order to protect their rights and acquire a better bargaining position vis-à-vis their employers. But this is unlikely to be easily achieved.
As the report points out, “women workers are reluctant to take the initiative to organise due to a variety of reasons” and therefore it is incumbent upon “civil society and the state… to step in and take responsibility”. In such circumstances a great many assumptions and assertions made about women, work and emancipation are untenable in Pakistan’s case and the real data, as opposed to convenient statistics, need to be given due consideration if women in the labour force and women from labouring households are to get some respite from the onerous burdens that are gradually being piled on them.