Shamim Bano has been an invisible worker for 40 years. Working 12-hour days from home as a ‘cropper’ in the port city of Karachi, she cuts the loose threads off clothing and makes samosas to sell at schools.
Bano is paid about 25 Pakistani rupees a day. It’s a precarious existence for Pakistan’s home-based workers, without access to social security benefits or pensions. Most of these informal workers are women.
But now Bano has become visible – as the first person to register under new legislation that will finally recognise her work. Sindh province enacted a law to award employment rights to an estimated informal workforce of 3 million people.
In 2018, Sindh passed the Home-Based Workers Act, making Pakistan the only country in South Asia where home workers were recognised as official labourers. It is believed that 12 million people across Pakistan are home-based workers, making clothes, shoes and crafts from their living rooms.
About 80 per cent of them are women. Their contribution to the economy is sizeable – the informal sector accounts for 71 per cent of employment in Pakistan outside agriculture, according to the recent Labour Force Survey. In rural areas, 75 per cent of people are classed as informal workers.
At the dilapidated one-room office of the United Home-Based Garment Workers’ Union in Karachi, Bano became the first woman working from home in Sindh to register with the provincial government’s labour department. She will now be eligible for social, medical and maternity benefits, and will also qualify for government grants to help pay for weddings and funerals.
“I don’t know when I will actually be able to enjoy the gains, but I am satisfied I was in the forefront of the struggle,” told Bano, who lives with her husband, two daughters, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. “To even get to this point, and that I was able to help so many other women, including my daughters have a future, that is better than … [getting this myself].”
Shamim Bano was the first person to register under new laws that recognise her work from home in Sindh province.
It’s been a long journey to get to this point. The Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), has been fighting for its 3,500 members to be able to claim social security benefits and receive a living wage since 2009.
Zehra Khan, the federation’s general secretary, said, “The historic registration proved that when scattered workers, especially women, organise themselves, they can move mountains and fight against capitalist greed.”
Khan added that the registration process would also give a true picture of the number of home-based workers.
As she filled in her registration form, Saira Feroze, 36, the general secretary of a union that belongs to the federation, said she had never thought that they would be recognised as workers in their lifetime, and that this had seemed ‘like a distant dream’.
The registration process was due to begin, but Covid-19 restrictions delayed the rollout. Now Feroze’s union is trying to make up for lost time. “We are now taking it upon ourselves to start from our end, fill in the forms and hand them over to the labour department,” she elucidated.
The delay in registration meant that women working from home were not eligible for the government’s emergency cash payments programme during the Covid-19 lockdown, which had a huge impact on home-based workers.
Bano’s husband lost his livelihood selling street food from a kiosk during the lockdown.
“There was no work,” stated Bano’s daughter, Sumera Azeem. “We had to take out a loan to be able to buy groceries. We were not able to pay the monthly house rent of 7,000 rupees since April, or the electricity and gas bills.”
Zahida Perveen, president of the HBWWF, said, “Many home workers were already living hand-to-mouth when the city came to a standstill during Covid. “The second wave of Covid-19 was upon us and with food inflation at its height, I doubted if we could rely on the government to help us,” she described.
“If the registration process had not been delayed, many among us would have been able to avail ourselves of the government’s emergency cash payments,” she concluded.
This article was originally published in an issue of The Guardian.org.
Photographs: Zofeen Ebrahim