As the nation celebrates its Independence Day today with exemplary zeal and fervour, it's also time to look through its six and a half decades' history. It's time to recount what independence has meant for the people of Pakistan and how much they have benefited from this hard-earned freedom which they had won from the colonial masters.
Born as a fragile and economically unstable state, with most industries and financial resources of the region falling in post-partition India's control, life for its citizens has never been easy. They have struggled hard throughout the turbulent history of the country to strengthen it economically, militarily and politically, against all odds, and have made it a better place to live in.
No doubt, the wars of today have moved away from the battlefields and are fought at economic fronts. Nations need resources to educate their people, give them jobs and livelihood, take care of their health and even secure their borders. Those unable to generate resources themselves have to depend on foreign assistance and in such cases there are always strings attached.
Pakistan's economy, ruined by crises after crises, is struggling hard to make a comeback and depends heavily on the relentless efforts of its populace - regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age or any other factor.
Here one is reminded of the criticism coming from the sceptics. They believe an economic turnaround or even sustainability of the existing growth rate is impossible without exploiting the full potential of the total available workforce in the country. Leaving around 51 per cent female population out of the race in such testing times makes no sense to them. Bearing and rearing children and looking after their houses and families are no less noble tasks but there is much more that is desired from them.
An encouraging fact in this scenario is that our women seem well aware of their responsibilities and the role they have to play for the country's progress. The disturbing thing, however, is that despite their significant contribution to the economy their services are hardly recognised and acknowledged.
Comprising major component of agricultural workforce and the labour in the informal sector, women workers are taken for granted and made to work in the worst possible conditions. According to careful estimates, over 70 per cent of the rural women work in agriculture and livestock; over 60 per cent urban female labour force works in non-formal sectors and a large number of the working women are home-based.
You! takes a look at the issues that these home-based workers have to face and their significance in the overall supply chain. Despite putting in long hours of work, their earnings are insignificant and calculated on the basis of the quantity/volume of the work they produce; their working conditions are highly unfavourable. There is no minimum wage, no social security, no job security, no on-site medical help in case of injuries, no spacious, airy or well-lit workplace provided by the employer and above all no acknowledgement to their quality contributions.
Kaneez Bibi's story is just a case in point, cited here to show the real picture. Oblivious to the festivity linked to the Independence Day and its significance for an ordinary Pakistan, this 53-year-old mother of four does not know what an off-day is. In a badly-lit dingy room of a two-marla house in the suburbs of Lahore, Kaneez occupies a corner and stoops over again and again to look out for something which she seems to have misplaced.
On her right side lies a bucket full of peanuts, with their shells and soft skin peeled off, and on her left a container where she places small plastic bags after filling them with the extracted nuts. A digital weighing scale and a small pile of poly bags lie in front of her. Her task seems to be simple and a bit mechanical. She picks a handful of peanuts and places them on the weighing scale, ensures the portion is as per weight requirements and fills the pouch which she holds in her other hand.
Doing the same for years, Kaneez has become a sort of expert and she does not have to even look at the floor to pick a plastic bag and open it. Just as a car driver presses different pedals with his feet while driving and his hands control the gear lever while steering the wheel, Kaneez's limbs move in a synchronised manner performing the task like a robot. Once all the packets are filled, the next stage will be to place the shopkeepers' tag on the top and staple each and every bag.
Kaneez gets Rs 25 to Rs 30 to fill every 1,000 bags depending on the size and the kind of contents involved. The material is provided to her by a contractor on behalf of the owner, whom she has never met.
She is just one of the hundreds of thousands of home-based women workers in Pakistan who perform unending tedious tasks for negligible remuneration though they form an integral part of the overall supply chain.
The working hours of home-based workers are too long and they have to often work as family units to supplement their incomes. Or they are fully dependant on it in the absence of any other regular source of income. Unfortunately, in many cases, the rates are so low that 12 to 16 hours of long work hardly translates into daily family income of Rs 100 to Rs 150.
Other home-based works include preparing uppers of ladies shoes and studding them with decorative stones, pasting motis on embroidered material, doing needle work on uppers of leather shoes, bangle-making, preparing chips, filling matchboxes with match sticks, filling cotton in quilts, making artificial jewellery, covering candies etc with wrappers, packing of edibles like pulses, spices in small containers, extracting garlic cloves and peas from their coverings and so on. Though the tasks are different, there is one thing in common; the rates offered are ridiculously low and exploitative.[image]
For instance, the families that are involved in removing the shell of pine nuts (chilghoza) for dry fruit merchants and dealers are paid Rs 6 per kg whereas the product costs between Rs 2500 to Rs 3000 per kg. And if the nuts get broken these workers are not paid for it.
Moreover, home-based female workers have to face health hazards too. According to Maria Kokab, the project in-charge at HomeNet Pakistan, a civil society organization working for the rights of the workers, chemicals, dyes and sprays used in small and non-ventilated rooms harm the health of these workers. "Due to overstretching for long hours they usually suffer from muscular pains. Also stress is caused by sleepless nights, eyesight issues caused by working in dim light and respiratory issues due to dealing with heated plastics, moulds and sprays releasing fumes," she shares.
The number of home based workers is not small. According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates, about 12 million women including under-age girls all over Pakistan are home-based workers, contributing an estimated share of $32 billion in the country's economy of $160 billion.
Such a worker can be defined as one "who works within the home boundaries, or in any other premises of his/her choice but excluding the premises of the employer's or contractor's workplace; who works at home for remuneration or monetary returns; who is self-employed or does piece-rate, own-account or contract work, which results in a product or services as specified by the employer/contractor."
By definition there are of two types: 'piece-rate workers' and 'own-account workers'. The former receive work from subcontractors or intermediaries, an employer, a trader or a firm and are paid per piece, according to the items produced. These workers do not have any direct contact with the markets for the goods they produce. Whereas, own-account workers are generally in direct contact with the market and buy their own raw materials. They have to get loans at exorbitant rates to buy materials for this purpose and sell their products in the market to recover costs and earn profits which are often low.
"Women tend to work within their homes, partly for cultural reasons and partly because they can combine work and family responsibilities. Their interests are compromised as they are unorganised, overwhelmingly dependent on the middlemen, too needy to accept whatever price they are offered and not covered by social security and labour laws that may protect them. Sometimes contractors make the needy women workers victims of sexual harassment as well," tells Maria. "Also employers are not willing to own them, and save a lot on additional office space rents, electricity bills, salaries etc. In case these workers were formally employed with them they would have to spend a hefty amount of money. However, a lot more is needed to be done at the state level to bring about a positive change in the situation."
Regarding the efforts to help women home-based workers Maria shares, "Our organization is working with many other women rights organizations to sensitise different stakeholders including the workers, employers, civil servants, NGOs and legislators on these issues. We are trying hard to improve their working conditions and the remunerations."
A Lahore-based lawyer, Intazar Mahdi Advocate, is of the view that the issues faced by home-based workers fall under the purview of the Article 11 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Pakistan, being a signatory to this convention, should ensure it is implemented here in true spirit. It says: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, the same rights, in particular and ensures their right to equal remuneration, including benefits, and to equal treatment in respect of work of equal value, as well as equality of treatment in the evaluation of the quality of work.
The convention also entitles them to benefit from social security, particularly in cases of retirement, unemployment, sickness, invalidity and old age and other incapacity to work, as well as the right to paid leave. The right to protection of health and safety in working conditions, granted by the convention, is highly significant as these workers sometimes work in highly hazardous conditions. Besides, the ILO Convention C-177 on home-based workers dwells at length on their issues and prescribes solutions to them.
According to Shaukat Niazi, focal person at Punjab Labour Department, they have gone through exhaustive consultation process on this issue to pave way for required legislation. Earlier falling in the federal domain, after the 18th amendment was passed labour is now purely a provincial matter. It is quite likely that Punjab will be the first province to soon come up with a law to categorise and recognise home-based workers as a special category of labour. Hopefully, the legislation will result in granting myriad labour rights, monetary and attached benefits, social safety cover and favourable working conditions to them. Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.