Women and the informal economy

Women home-based workers are the most neglected in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic

Workers in the informal economy do not have employment-based social protection as the businesses employing them are not incorporated or registered. They make up 74 percent of the labour force nationwide. Most of the women workers fall in this category. They are employed as home workers, domestic workers, contract workers in factories and in rural economy.

Home-based workers subcontracted by national and international supply chains report that following the onset of Covid-19 in the country they have not received fresh orders for weeks.

Many daily wage earners have been laid off and have no money. For the millions of women who do piecework for national and international brands, the pinch started in February. Many of the raw materials these workers used came from other countries, including China. Soon they were unable to get the supplies or had to pay more for the inputs.

As governments around the world impose lockdowns, home based workers can no longer meet with customers or clients. Most of them were also unable to stock raw materials before the lockdowns began.

In many cities, some of the self-employed home-based workers have formed cooperatives that rely on orders from brands and social enterprises.

As the Covid-19 situation aggravates, the conditions for the women in the informal industry are growing worse due to the non-availability of work and reduced household incomes.

In many cases, the impact on informal workers’ livelihoods amounts to a permanent loss of income. Once the lockdown was imposed, most of the domestic workers in cities like Lahore, Karachi, Multan and Faisalabad were told by their employers to stay at home. Some were paid a month’s salary, others were simply laid off.

Workers in the informal economy also face challenges due to the government-prescribed SOPs for safety. They have limited access to information on the virus and how it spreads. Some of them have been the target of misinformation campaigns.

Meanwhile, social distancing is impossible in crowded urban neighbourhoods and informal settlements, especially in urban slums where adequate arrangements for sanitation, water supply, drains and garbage disposal are lacking. Workers with large families living in small houses are facing problems keeping themselves and their children safe.

Women in the informal sector are also finding it more difficult to work as schools are closed and there are no childcare centres in their areas.

Having meager incomes, most home-based workers could not stock food and other essentials ahead of the lockdown. Many were unable to purchase the material needed for their work and have unfinished work at their hands. In some cases this is taking up space in their small houses.

Lockdowns are also increasing the threat of domestic violence. Domestic workers are being told by their employers not to visit their homes during the lockdown. Workers staying at home are subject to more frequent psychological and physical violence.

There have been reports of harassment of domestic workers by police. Housing authority managements too are not cooperating with domestic workers. In some cases police are reported to have humiliated them, confiscated whatever they happened to carry, imposed fines or beaten them despite carrying identification cards issued by the relevant housing authorities.

The impact on informal workers’ livelihoods, in many cases, amounts to a permanent loss of income. During the lockdown most domestic workers in Lahore, Karachi, Multan and Faisalabad were told by their employers to stay at home.

Restrictions on public transport are also causing serious problems for domestic workers. Many urban migrants, previously employed as domestic help, are returning to their villages after losing their incomes and housing.

Absence of a comprehensive healthcare system and mobile testing units for coronavirus is also causing stress within the communities.

Since most workers do not have bank accounts and/or access to money transfer by mobile phones, restrictions on mobility make it difficult for them to collect income support. A majority of women from the informal sector are unable to access the Ehsass programme.

A large number of women do not have computerised national identity cards (CNICs) and hence cannot avail relief being offered by the government. Also, home-based workers do not fall in the category of daily wagers. Many women previously beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) have been excluded from the Ehsaas programme.

Home based workers organized in cooperatives say there is no work. Women working for the garments and textile sectors have been seriously affected by the pandemic. Traditionally spring and summer are the earning period for them.

The pandemic has taken a toll on all workers but some have suffered more than others. In the garments industry, the middle man makes the payment only when work is completed and returned. This time, due to the lockdown, middlemen couldn’t pick the completed work, thus, whole groups of workers have gone unpaid.

In some areas, the SOPs prescribed by the government do not allow workers to sit together. Since shops are also closed, many workers are unable to purchase the required materials. The vocational centres in Karachi and are also closed so that girls and women who were learning marketable skills there are staying at home. There are no online teaching and learning facilities for them.

No social protection scheme has been announced for home-based workers despite the fact that Sindh enacted a law in 2018 to regulate their employment. Likewise, domestic workers in the Punjab are not covered by the social security institutes despite the fact that the Punjab government has a domestic workers law and has registered around 30,000 workers in four districts of the province.

The government of Sindh has taken many steps to help daily wagers; however, home workers are not covered by the social services. Ehsaas programme has not reached out to the needy home workers, partly because of lack of data.

Women receiving messages for verification from the Ehsaas office have to wait for hours at the centres thereby risking infection.

In Punjab, there is no daily income for home workers either because markets are closed. There are no new orders and no payment for commissioned work.

Some local organisations are providing support. A few home workers are also registered with the Ehsaas programme and received cash support but a majority did not receive any assistance as their status makes them ineligible.

The cash support provided under government’s relief plan is not sufficient. Some groups of workers are holding safety and awareness sessions in the community. But they are doing it on their own.

Food distribution by civil society is not enough. Fazeelat, a group leader from Kasur, says her group provided data of the deserving home workers to the Punjab government but the government provided no relief for a month.

The writer is executive director of HomeNet Pakistan. She can be reached at lailazharali@gmail.com

Women and informal economy: Home-based workers most neglected in dealing with coronavirus pandemic