Invisible workers

December 29, 2019

The year ends with Pakistan at 151 out of 153 countries in the gender gap index but bridging the income and participation gap in Pakistan isn’t limited to increasing the number of women in role-model jobs. It also has to do with recognising and compensating the ever-present, always-working woman, at home

As the year draws to a close, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published the Global Gender Gap Index report 2020 and Pakistan is ranked at 151 out of 153. We only fared better than the war-torn nations of Iraq and Yemen. This is a moment of reckoning for us. Ranking last in South Asia and further behind most Muslim countries, the lack of attention paid to female empowerment and participation is also visible in the overall dire economic conditions of Pakistan.

According to the WEF report out of 212.2 million registered Pakistani citizens, approximately 103 million are women, with the overall population growing by 2 percent per annum. Yet only approximately 13 million women are part of the formal workforce in comparison to 47 million men. Another 4.5 million women are unemployed, compared to 4 million unemployed men.

These figure do not completely represent the status of employed women. While reports such as these are significant moments for introspection, they also come with their limitations, which need to be critiqued. The categories of ‘work’ and ‘workforce’ are stringently designed not to recognise or take into account the contributions of working-class and uneducated women. Work, as defined by the report above and prevalent capitalistic systems; is limited to that which earns a wage in exchange for the contribution and the production. In modern-day Pakistan, we consider ‘working women’ as those who have entered into a contract with an organisation, are seemingly educated and pay taxes. The battles for participation, equal pays and fair wages are mostly centred around such women, who step into the economic arena to do the same work as men, often competing for their positions and salaries. The image of a ‘working woman’ is increasingly built upon the idea of young, bright professionals rising through the ranks in their industries and breaking glass ceilings.

While it is important for women to be an equal part of the workforce; focus on professions in the tertiary, government and security forces has further marginalised women working as domestic workers, agricultural labour and growing sectors such as the beauty salon and sales.

The image of a ‘working woman’ is increasingly built upon the idea of young, bright professionals rising through the ranks in their industries.

“I think I started working when I was six, my mother used to clean houses and I helped her with them” Zuleka, a 60-year old domestic worker tells The News on Sunday. “We were a mother-daughter duo just as now my two daughters help me with the three houses we clean near Ghazi Road.” Zuleka washes bathrooms, kitchens, and driveways; and points out the irony that she sees on a daily basis: In the summer, she sees more sweat and filth on herself compared to the homes she keeps pristine, and in the winters she shivers as polishes bathrooms before her mistresses take their hot baths.

“I know how to make all sorts of western dishes, burgers, lasagna and elaborate roasts,” she says. At home, however, she can eat meat once a week. Her husband is a rickshaw driver and his income is neither predictable, nor sustainable.

“My wages and those of my daughters keep a roof over our heads. They help pay tuition fees so my sons can be educated. I wanted my daughters to also go to school, but they’re good workers. I know it’s unfair, like it was unfair to me. But if they don’t work, we would be on the streets. Just as I can’t stop working at my age.”

Despite being the breadwinners in their families, Zuleka and her daughters do not keep even a portion of their income for themselves.

“My father runs the house, I owe him my salary”, Neha, Zuleka’s daughter chimes in. “If he’s in a good mood and the month has been bearable, sometimes he gives me Rs 200 out of the Rs 8,000 I make per month”.

The gender gap report too confirms that women do not get to keep much from their own earnings for themselves. The report reveals that only 18 percent of income earned by women in labour goes towards their own use.

Saleha is a 29-year-old mother of four and lives in a lower-middle class joint family setup. Her story underlines a different reality that is not captured in reports – domestic, unpaid labour. She cooks three meals a day for a joint family of ten people . Her sisters-in-law and the maid who comes in every three days help with chores.

“My husband is prone to throwing the food I make against the wall if the taste is not to his liking ,” she says.

“I am an FA pass. Initially, I wanted to be a nurse. My husband expressed his reservations, and I gave in. He promised me that if I took care of his family, he would take care of me. But sometimes, I feel as though I am not worth more than the girl who cleans or the one who brings him tea at the office. He hasn’t given me the monthly allowance I was promised in over three years, sometimes I think that if I were a waitress or restaurant manager or chef, at least I would get paid for the work I do?” she says.

While domestic workers need laws, contracts and explicit terms of service to recognise and protect the vulnerable, social attitudes also need to change in terms of recognising women as active participants and workers, and not disregarding their contributions as duty and subsidiary work. Across classes and social strata, Pakistan is in desperate need of a rethink. Domestic work is more than just working-women that are employed in every lower or middle-class home in Pakistan; the domestic work put into homes by mothers, daughters and sisters also goes unnoticed and unpaid. The work of these women, rendered invisible in inquiries made into the situation of labour participation, ensures that the men in their families show up for work. 

Feminist thinkers like Kamla Bhasin have pointed out that for men to show up for work, women have to create favourable conditions in which men can work. The issue with bridging the income and participation gap in Pakistan is not just limited to increasing the number of women in role-model jobs or booming industries. It also has to do with recognising and compensating the ever-present, always-working woman, at home.

“Most of our problems are administrative in nature”

Farida Shaheed, women’s rights activist

We have numerous laws and policies but their effective implementation is the real challenge. This is why we need post-legislative scrutiny; the practice of monitoring and evaluating the implementation of legislation to ensure that laws benefit constituents in the way originally intended by lawmakers.

Most of our problems are administrative in nature. Some are legal and some attitudinal. For instance, the Punjab Commission for the Status of Women (PCSW) had a training session with nikah registrars recently and discovered that many of them did not believe in preventing child marriages. We need to put some, if not all of our money where our mouth is. This should materialise in the form of a straight, strong, visible narrative. We need third-party assessments and civil society voices to help ensure this. Academic research should be recognized and disseminated widely. We need much, much stronger data collection and dissemination methods.

Pakistan’s ranking in the Global Gender Gap Index is appalling. We are just above two war-torn nations. It could have been the lowest if we didn’t have reserved seats for women in the parliament. Our situation speaks of a lack of political will. The condition of domestic workers is appalling. People in the private sphere are paid below minimum wages. Who will ensure that these people, ranging from graphic designers to artists, will at least get the minimum wage? We used to have inspectors, but, of course, they did not go into homes. Labour laws only apply if you have 10 or more people working for you. What happens when that is not the case?

As far as quantifying the work of women in non-remunerated fields is concerned, it is not a distant dream. Other countries have started this process. In Iran, for instance, if a woman gets divorced, she can ask for compensation for the years in marriage. In Malaysia, there is an equal division of property in case of divorce. So, there are models that we can learn from.

The author is a staff member

Gender gap and woes of working women in Pakistan