For Zehra Khan, 2019 is a year of great achievements. After eleven years of tirelessly struggling for the protection and rights of home-based workers, she will finally get to see the Sindh government implement the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act, 2018, promising legal rights to social security, employment and old-age benefits to thousands of labourers who work from home.
Khan, the serving secretary general of the Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), took the initiative to organise women labourers across the province, particularly urban areas, back in 2009. “It was almost impossible for me to organise thousands of unknown women workers, but a few brave home-based women workers and some of the revolutionary comrades came forward to form HBWWF,” she said in a recent interview.
According to her, the only purpose of the federation was to build a pressure group for the rights and recognition of home-based workers as labourers in the law. She maintained that the HBWWF is the first workers’ organisation being led by women working on daily wages in their homes.
“The federation has not only unveiled the dreadful exploitation in different sectors but also broken the isolation of home-based women workers and organised them to start their own struggles.”
Khan said that after years of struggle by such labourers and supporting groups, it is finally being accepted that women workers are the most exploited in the process of production and supply and are deprived of all basic human and labour rights.
The HBWWF, on the basis of International Labour Organization’s Convention 177, reminded the federal and provincial governments and the elected representatives to give legal recognition to millions of home-based workers taking an active part in Pakistan’s informal economy, she said.
Owing to the efforts of the federation, all four provincial assemblies have separately passed resolutions for taking steps for the welfare of home-based women workers. However, apart from the Sindh government, the remaining governments, including the federal government, have taken no tangible measures to make the relevant laws.
In November 2016, the Sindh government introduced a first-ever policy for labourers working at home – Sindh Home-Based Workers Policy. It aimed to recognise and accept the rights of the home-based workers through legislative and administrative actions, including accords of legal equality and fulfilling needs of workers through an institutional approach.
The policy also introduced guidelines based on the principles of gender equality, non-discrimination, elimination of exploitation, anti-abuse and harassment, empowerment of women, social and economic well-being and freedom of association. “After the approval of the policy, the HBWWF stimulated its struggle to force legislators for making laws that recognise the status of home-based workers,” said Khan.
The law when implemented would protect workers’ right to make their own trade unions, elect their collective bargaining agents and get benefits as per the law from social security, labour department, Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution and the Workers Welfare Board’s schemes.
The informal sector
According to a recent HBWWF report, more than 80 per cent of workers are employed in the informal sector.
Of these, a majority are women and their female children usually working as piece rate workers, based in sectors like garments, bangle making, sack stitching, carpet weaving, packing, hanger making, cotton filling, sorting, cutting, jewellery, shoe making, incense making, football stitching, among others.
The informal sector’s contribution in the country’s economy is huge, but this is also a fact that the government has neglected these workers’ welfare, she said.
Home-based workers are unprotected due to non-visible and unregulated work that is often performed in poor conditions such as repetitive and hazardous work, long shifts lasting from 14 to 16 hours and low wages for work done. Moreover, they lack access to and knowledge of the market, are lowest in the production chain and suffer exploitation by middlemen, who pay late for the work done or in some cases do not pay at all. Their bargaining power and organising abilities are also weak, so that women’s chances of empowering themselves also become low, Khan explained.
First-ever law in Pakistan
After many years of efforts by activists and workers, on May 29, 2018, the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act, 2018. “It is the first-ever law in Pakistan that protects the rights of home-based workers and also recognises their status,” Khan said.
She added that there are some clauses in the law which need to be reconsidered. To make suggestions and further rules, the provincial government has also constituted a 14-member committee comprising of a member from trade unions, representative of workers, employers, a member from civil society, government officials and others. “The HBWWF hopes that Sindh’s Home-Based Workers Act, 2018 would be implemented by the end of 2019.”
As per an ILO study on Pakistan’s informal economy published in 2017, “the relationships between workers and enterprises and employers are not straightforward. They are unable to negotiate for better wage rates. Also, they are chronically underpaid”.
The international body suggests that the Sindh government should make efforts to significantly increase the wage rates of home-based workers by using time-based wage data. Moreover, it should notify piece-rate minimum wage rates for home-based workers in the textile and garments sector for commonly performed work, such as cropping and stitching, which could have a significant impact in improving their working conditions. The government could also step in to help workers negotiate higher wages for their work, the study adds.