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Plight of the women workers in informal sector

Publishing Date: April 26th 2011

Why home-based women workers need social protection on urgent basis?

By Bushra Khaliq

Women’s labor rights particularly in the informal sector have long been neglected and almost remained invisible having no access to labor rights or other social security schemes while private investors are only interested in doubling profits at the cost of these workers. Looking at the reasons of increase in home-based work, we come to know that process of liberalization in late 1980s has resulted in increasing informalization and casualisation in the labor market and spawned a huge growth in the informal sector and home-based work with enhanced female participation therein.

Majority of women workers of informal sector are engaged in home based work. These workers are semi-skilled, belonging to working class sections of the society. Home based business is conducted usually by verbal transactions or through personal contacts and family members. Macro economic conditions are inducing women to work informally to meet day to day expenditures, irrespective of their wish to work. They are working in their homes or in other premises of their choice, but not in the workplace of the employer, for remuneration which results in a product or services as specified by the employer.

Home based workers are the poorest and unprotected segment of society due to unregulated wok and are being exploited at every stage of their economic and social struggle. Repetitive & hazardous work, long working hours and low wages, limited access and knowledge of market and exploitation by middle man are the serious concerns affecting their lives. Cultural, norms and unfavorable conditions have also made them more vulnerable.

The working conditions of home-based women workers are highly deplorable. They are not counted as workers. They are invisible and have least contact with mainstream workers, movements or trade unions. They are illiterate, unorganized and ignored. They use their own tools; like adda, needles, scissors, colors and sometimes thread and chemicals, use their work place; pay utility bills for the end product, picked up by the employer to sell in the market.

Pakistan is one of those developing countries where a large number of women are engaged in home-based work due to poverty and to supplement family income. According various estimates over 20 million women in Pakistan are engaged in home-based work in sectors like garment, embellishment, bangle making, shoe stitching, embroidery, carpet weaving, dry fruit picking, jewelry, leather products, steel scissors, mobile covers and prawn shelling etc. Through embroidery they create master pieces. 

 Though their contribution to economy is about 60 percent still they are the most unprivileged part of the society, but have no right to claim themselves as workers. Their daily incomes range between Rs 10 to Rs 50 (less than one dollar) despite the fact that they worked between 12 to 16 hours a day. They have no social and legal recognition of their work. Working in isolation, they have no rights as workers by law. This teeming labor force is at the mercy of contractors, sub-contractors and middle men.

Pertinent to mention is that during the last one decade, Pakistan's informal sector has grown about 20 percent, prompting alarm bells in the government that views it as a means for businessmen to evade taxes. "The issue has become a matter of great concern, with the government considering a proposal to bring the informal sector in the mainstream through its 'decent work country program.  "According to a conservative estimate, out of the $160 billion size of country's economy, $32 billion plus is in the informal sector, providing a huge opportunity to its businessmen to evade taxes every year. Agriculture and related activities, including fishing, engage 48.4 percent of the Pakistani workforce of some 40 million. Of the remaining, 72.9 percent is employed in the informal sector.

The informal sector consists of small units producing goods or services and its activities are characterized by low levels of capital, skills, and access to organized markets and technologies; low and unstable incomes; and poor and unpredictable working conditions. This sector is often outside the scope and purview of the official statistical machinery and government regulations, also the formal system of social protection. The units operating in the informal sector are highly labor intensive but employment is mostly casual.

The government of Pakistan has not developed any policy or program for social protection of these home based workers. According to the constitution of Pakistan women have been guaranteed rights to enter into any business but home based women worker’s contribution to national economy has remained invisible and unrecognized. If we review Labor laws of Pakistan, there is not even a single law applicable to the home-based worker. These workers are not covered by the definition of worker in the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, West Pakistan Shops and Establishment Act, 1969, Industrial Relations Ordinance, 1969 and the Maternity Benefits Ordinance, 1958 and Employees Old Age Benefit act.

The Home Based Work Convention 1996 (C-177), was adopted by ILO in June 1996. This Convention recognized the importance of home-based workers, their contribution to the global economy and the need to protect their rights as workers, but the convention has not yet been ratified by Pakistan.

This is highly deplorable that government of Pakistan is not ready to pay heed to this important and popular demand of millions of women workers.  A number of civil society organizations have been doing good job to highlight the issues of these women workers. They are helping these workers to organize into associations and unions. Also efforts are being taken to lobby with the government to provide much needed social protection to home-based women workers, but little development has been done so far. With the devolution of labor ministry to provinces, things are getting late. Now it is responsibility of the provincial government to take up the issue of social protection for home-based women workers on priority basis.

Every year on May Day and International Women Day, these women workers take to roads across the country to tell the decision-makers that they are workers, count them and give them their rights. They are in no mood to disappear and fade away. They will keep on their struggle till their demands are met.  These women do not want charity like the one being doled out under Benazir Income Support Program. They want to be recognized as workers under labor laws. Recognize them.

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