As per estimates, our informal economy is 74 per cent with majority of women working invisibly as home-based workers, domestic workers, contract workers in factories, farm workers etc. This huge informal economy of Pakistan engages workers who do not have employment-based social protection; and also comprises enterprises which are not incorporated or registered.
Without a formal status, these women workers are not recognised in formal labour under country's labour laws and are ineligible to avail social security benefits, old age benefits, job security and other benefits that formal sector workers are entitled to. Though legislation and policymaking for the rights of some categories of informal sector workers is at different stages, implementation remains a big issue. These informal workers are missing from the official records and therefore often missed in government's support and relief programmes when facing hardships.
The Home-Based Workers (HBWs), especially the women, are the ones in extremely disadvantaged situation as they have low wages and paid on piece rate basis, have to work long hours in hazardous working conditions and exploited to the maximum by middlemen working for buyers. In fact, they pay the price for availing the facility to work from their homes. Many of them do not have the option to travel distances and work away from their homes so they agree to the terms dictated to them.
The woes of HBWs have increased considerably during the pandemic and their condition has turned from bad to worse. Most of them do not have any work orders at all and very few of them have little work to do. The arrangement under which they mostly work is that middlemen provide them raw material and pay piece rate, meaning they will be paid according to the quantum of the work they do. Sometimes HBWs buy raw material themselves and deliver finished goods to many buyers. The work they do includes stitching, packing, needlework, shoemaking, bangle-making, embroidery etc.
Due to this ongoing pandemic, a large number of people asked their domestic help to discontinue work which has rendered them jobless. Sajida, a Lahore-based worker tells, “I have been denied access to households as they fear I would bring the deadly virus. The domestic work I did in the past is not possible for this reason.”
Rano is another HBW who stitches trousers out of the cloth delivered by middlemen and gets paid per piece this service. During the pandemic, she is not getting orders because demand for non-food items has come down drastically. If there is any order, she is given then lower per piece rate she would get in the past and cannot bargain. There are yet others who would stitch clothes in their homes and deliver these to the customers at their doorsteps. But now neither the customers come to them nor they go out to find orders. An HBW shared that people are so scared of the virus that they fear the clothes handled/stitched by them might carry it.
Ume Laila Azhar, Executive Director, HomeNet Pakistan, tells the scribe that many HBWs were unable to stockpile raw materials before lockdowns began. “I think they might not have had time, storage space or the available cash to do so which prevented them from using this time in isolation to amass products that they could sell once the lockdown is over.”
Home workers are involved in the domestic and global supply chains in industries like garment and textile, leather and footwear. Then there are HBWs whose wages and investments on raw material are stuck. They are paid by middlemen only when work is completed and returned. This time, due to lockdown, middlemen could not pick the completed work from many HBWs which has badly affected their cash flow. In many cases, HBWs are hand to mouth as male members of their families also have no work.
Keeping in view, the evolving situation and joblessness, the government of Pakistan started EHSAAS programme for the facilitation of ultra-poor but majority of women from the informal sector were not able to access the scheme. Due to the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) filters, the women who applied for the EHSAAS were not approved for accessibility to the scheme. Also, in absence of any social protection mechanism for women HBWs in Punjab and also in Sindh leaves them vulnerable.
There are reasons for this. For example, a large number of them do not have Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs), have not been cleared as per criteria to get assistance or were removed from the list of the beneficiaries of the BISP when lists were revised by the sitting government. “Women and other vulnerable groups need to be prioritised for relief and distribution of resources by the government in testing times like the one we are facing nowadays. The government must not miss women workers in the informal sector such as HBWs, domestic workers, factory workers etc,” suggests Ume Laila.
“HomeNet Pakistan (HNP) is distributing ration, face masks and raw material to the deserving HBWs with the support of Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). This campaign is a global network dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries. Since 1989, CCC has worked to ensure that the fundamental rights of workers are respected,” adds Ume Laila.
Nazli is an HBW in Lahore who has received ration and loose cloth as raw material from HomeNet Pakistan under their distribution campaign. “This has come as a blessing for me because I can save money to be spend on ration and stitch this cloth into garments and try to sell it to buyers,” she enthuses.
Ume Laila believes that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) can play a role in this situation but their efforts need to be scaled up. “The government is willing to help out the needy during the pandemic which is a good thing. HNP and its partners have come out with details of opportunities for collaboration that exist and recommendations on how to ensure the help reaches those who need it the most,” she informs. With respect to HBWs’ situation, Ume Laila explains, “When we couldn’t get any help from the state-related initiatives, our organisation started an appeal fund for cash transfers equal to the minimum wage prescribed to them. We were able to facilitate few before Eid. It’s not just the food they want, they need money for daily use.”
Informal sector workers lack economic opportunities under government plans. Production of their products has halted because of the decrease in the market demand. The social distancing has also impacted them adversely as they used to work together in groups for completion of products and orders. Since shops are closed due to lockdown, there is no means for workers to purchase raw materials. Only few workers had some raw materials available in stock and they utilised it to make masks. However, with limited resources they could only produce few of these. Given the dire situation, Ume Laila recommends some useful pointers.
Promising opportunity for HBWs is to get linked with production of physical protective equipment (PPE) via private companies which includes gowns, gloves and face masks. If these women workers are provided contract or bulk order to produce PPE, this will curtail the negative effect of pandemics on them.
Supervision of ration distribution ensuring inclusion of all is important in order to avoid any biasness. Women workers who earn a salary and are able to bear expenses should be supported in business related activities through provision of interest free loans.
The underprivileged workers who are unable to get the minimum wage, should be provided monthly/fortnightly ration or money schemes by government, such as EHSAAS programme, for a period of three months ensuring amount equal to minimum wage of the province. Provision of household ration cards should be introduced in order to limit social interaction and ensure provision of ration.
Lists of beneficiaries of the EHSAAS relief programme needs to be updated in order to include people who were slightly above the poverty line/Proxy Means Test (PMT) score but have now fallen under it. Women HBWs (micro level own account and piece rate workers) are a confirmed group to have fallen under the poverty line.
Community level socio-demographic and economic data collected by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) must be used. Based on this data, local CSOs can immediately reach out to community members who need assistance.
For women and members of other marginalised groups who do not have CNICs, temporary identification numbers based on household data should be issued for six months making them eligible to avail the existing and new coming up schemes.
The HBWs leaders should be provided master training sessions for creating awareness among the community groups preventing them from inflicting with virus.
The women home-based workers should be linked up with the private sector for generating economic livelihood activities at their doorsteps.
Interest free loans should be allocated for the women in garment and stitching sector so that they may purchase raw material.
The provincial frameworks need to revisited in order to include the Post-COVID rehabilitation sustainable designs and opportunities encompassing the needs of home workers livelihoods.