It is abundantly clear, if one analyses the serious issues that Pakistan is currently facing, that the problem of a lack of planning is present everywhere. The elite is busy fighting turf wars between authoritarian and civilian control, and time horizons are short as far as decision-making is concerned.
Whether it is the lack of ability to increase and diversify exports, manage circular debt in the power sector, and run state-owned enterprises; lack of effort to control population growth; low number of women workers; or low levels of technical and vocational training, there are few traces of long-term planning and implementation. It is mainly due to continued political instability in the country and institutional decay.
This article will focus on women’s participation in the workforce and issues of women workers. Women’s participation in the labour force is decreasing; it was 23.8 percent in 2016 and 22.2 percent in 2020. There is a big gender gap between men and women’s employment contrary to the world trends that show that the global gender gap is decreasing. In the recently published book ‘Womansplaining’, Zeenia Shaukat has written a chapter on women workers.
There are many historical moments when women campaigned for their right to work. Trade unions, which were an important feature of industrial relations in the pre-Zia era, provided a platform to women workers to mobilise and rise through the ranks. However, with the onset of neoliberal economic policies in Pakistan from the 1980s onwards and the gradual weakening of trade unions, the cause of women workers also suffered.
If there is one weakness of the women’s movement in the country, it is its lack of ability to focus on women workers’ issues. This is because status quo forces never allowed progressive politics and women’s activism to take roots, and women-centric mobilisation has focused on legislation and state-centric activism rather than economic rights-oriented lobbying. Still, the women’s movement supported some initiatives of economic empowerment.
Women’s participation in the labour force in urban areas remains low, but it has increased in the agricultural sector in rural areas. One feature that marks women’s existence in the labour force post-liberalisation is informal and contract work. Most of the women who work in urban areas are home-based workers where they enjoy no labour protection and social security and often work in exploitative conditions. Roughly, 72 percent of non-agricultural work for women is in the informal sector that is low-paid and without any due representation. Women also represent the majority of informal agricultural work in rural areas that is beyond the remit of labour laws. A lot of women’s work in agriculture remains unpaid.
Even in the formal sector, women face glass ceilings. Only half a percent of the total women employed become managers while close to three percent of the total men employed are promoted to managerial roles. Most of the women – almost 92 percent – who work in professional employment are teachers. A majority of them teach at the primary level. They earn less than the minimum wage (Rs20,000) as teachers. Women also work in the health sector in different roles; they work as midwives, polio workers, lady health workers, nurses, and helpers. In the industrial sector, women’s wages are 20 to 50 percent less than male workers according to the Labour Force Survey.
Despite the fact that the government has ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on non-discrimination, it has not led to any binding legislation to guarantee equal wages and equality of opportunity for women. So far there are only two laws that protect women’s rights in employment: one deals with maternity leaves and the second one relates to sexual harassment at workplaces. Sindh has also passed the Women Agriculture Workers Act. However, the implementation of pro-women laws remains ineffective and patchy.
Even in small and medium enterprises (SMEs), women’s representation is minimal. Women often do not have access to credit and even do not own a bank account. They face restrictions on public dealing and mobility. Women who set up their SMEs from their homes are often not eligible to use the services available as they often have to rely on middlemen or ‘rent-seeking collaborators’. This is why we see so few women entrepreneurs.
However, there is some glimmer of hope. While the state has largely failed women workers, they have come together to organise collectively. Recently, domestic and home-based workers formed unions. Also, the union of agricultural workers including women has been formed in Sindh. Lady health workers have also registered their union. Social movements such as the Fisherfolk Forum in Sindh and the Anjuman-e-Muzareen in Punjab amplify women’s voices. Women teachers and nurses have also started to organise. These initiatives have helped in promoting women’s work and economic empowerment.
A June 2021 World Bank blog states on the basis of its case study of Peshawar that women’s participation in the workforce is somewhat underestimated by the Labour Force Survey. A recent International Growth Centre blog highlights that women face hurdles in looking for jobs. Networks play a crucial role for those accessing livelihood opportunities, and women often lack effective networks that can play the role of a conduit for their employment. Other issues that beset women’s reach to work is often a lack of safe transportation to work. A 2019 study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation highlights the impact of automation and digitisation on women’s work.
What is really needed is a future-oriented long-term planning and a new socio-political and economic contract in the country that can address long-neglected issues such as women’s participation in the labour force that is critical for the country’s GDP growth and for women’s economic empowerment.
The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.
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