Saturday April 13, 2024

Invisible workers

By Sher Ali Khalti
October 30, 2017

October 20     marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Kathmandu Declaration for the rights of South Asian home-based workers (HBWs). An HBW is a person who works within his/her home boundaries or in any other premises of his/her choice. This excludes the premises or workplaces of employers or contractors.

For long, there has been considerable ambiguity about the nature of work that HBWs have performed and whether they should be categorised as labour or not. It was only in 1996 that they received recognition as labour after the ILO Convention C177, which highlights the rights of HBWs, was passed.

In October 2000, representatives of home-based worker organisations, government officials and researchers from five South Asian countries met at a regional conference in Kathmandu and formulated the Kathmandu Declaration for the rights of South Asian home-based workers.

The declaration recommended that all the countries in South Asia should formulate national policies and plans of action for HBWs in consultation with organisations of home-based workers. It also suggested that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) should take measures to enable HBWs to deal with the risks and opportunities of globalisation.

Seventeen years after this declaration was adopted, the situation is far from satisfactory despite the efforts made by labour rights groups and civil society organisations – especially those working under the umbrella of Homenet South Asia that has country chapters as well.

The situation in Pakistan needs special mention as HBWs are still part of the informal economy and are not covered under the country’s labour laws. They are engaged by middlemen who pay them an insufficient amount and most of the time HBWs have no contact with the person paying for their work. HBWs are an integral part of the supply chain. They indulge in various activities, such as packing food products, putting sweets in wrappers, peeling the skin of dry fruit products and prawns and carrying out embroidery work. Since they work from home, they use their own electricity, water and premises. This places an additional burden on HBWs. Many of them are paid a fixed piece rate per unit produced or action performed. As a result, they engage their family members – especially female children – in their work to increase their output and earnings. This badly affects the health and education of these children.

However, we need to examine what the government is doing to improve the living and working conditions of HBWs. According to estimates by the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are around 12 million women HBWs. Unfortunately, there are no laws for them. The country has also not yet ratified the ILO Convention C177. The provincial governments, which are responsible for issues related to labour, are at different stages when it comes to formulating policies to safeguard the rights of HBWs.

While Balochistan, KP and Gilgit-Baltistan are at an initial stage, Punjab and Sindh have announced policies for HBWs. But these policies are still in the approval stages and the required legislation has yet to be introduced. In the absence of a legal framework and budgetary allocations to provide social protection to HBWs, these policies cannot be of much use. Another matter of concern is that the progress made in this respect might be halted as the elections are around the corner and the new governments might not prioritise this issue.

So, what the sitting governments should do without any further delay is to develop a legal framework in light of these policies and include HBWs within the existing labour force. As they are not visible to policymakers, the respective governments must also conduct a census of HBWs and map them according to the tasks they perform to earn a living and the geographical locations where they are based. This will help governments conduct evidence-based planning instead of relying on guesswork.

Why do HBWs need special attention? The answer is that they are invisible to policymakers and lawmakers, lack proper healthcare facilities, face workplace hazards, work long working hours, are not connected to markets, earn low wages and lose jobs often if they are involved in seasonal work. HBWs also lack bargaining power due to the absence of unions, depend on middlemen and find it difficult to secure better jobs owing to the lack of vocational and skills up-gradation facilities. Their mobility is a pressing issue because most of them cannot leave their houses easily. The middlemen capitalise on this weakness and make them work for far less than what they deserve.

The need of the hour is that HBWs should be entitled to social security, pensions, the right to unionise, old-age benefits, workplace safety, collective bargaining rights and all other benefits that registered labour receive under the existing labour laws.

Though there are some limitations, it is not impossible to achieve these objectives. For instance, it is quite difficult to identify the employers of HBWs because it’s the middlemen who mostly managing their affairs.

Under the labour laws, the employers have to make financial contributions to get their employees covered under social security schemes and a strong employer-employee relationship also has to be established. It is not difficult for the government to determine this if it follows the money trail and documents to trace where the wages paid to HBWs come from. Similarly, other hurdles must also be handled effectively.