Perhaps the worst-hit during the lockdown are workers in the informal sector. Among them, the women have taken a harder financial blow even than the men
For Farhana Naz, the biggest worry right now is that monsoon rains will start in July, and the roof of her house drips, but she has no money to buy her medicines, leave alone get her roof repaired. “I am a widow with one daughter, the sole bread-winner of my family. Apart from some philanthropists who gave us ration, I have no one to look towards for help,” says Naz, a home-based worker (HBW) from a shanty neighbourhood in Orangi Town, Karachi. Women in her area, she says, are not just unemployed but also too scared to step out of the house even to go to the doctor or a hospital if they are sick. “Coronavirus is a disaster; it has spread in my area. We have no food, no money and no work is coming our way,” she says. “We are waiting for all this to be over”.
In wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan’s economy has suffered badly. The lockdown has disproportionately affected Pakistan’s small-wage earners. Out of them, workers in the informal sector are perhaps the worst hit. Among them, the women have taken a harder financial blow even than the men.
According to Iftikhar Ahmad, a comparative labour law expert and founder of the Centre for Labour Research, the total employed labour force in Pakistan is 62 million of which 24 million are in agriculture while 38 million are working in the non-agriculture sector. “The informal sector includes those enterprises which do not fall under the jurisdiction of labour law. Combine the informal sector (27 million) with the agriculture sector (24 million) and you get the ‘unprotected sector’ (51 million),” he says. The unprotected sector consists of all workers who do not enjoy the protection of labour law and where workers are not registered with the social protection institutions,” says Ahmed, adding that data regarding HBWs is based on International Labour Organization (ILO) reports which mention the number of HBW in Pakistan to be around 12 million.
“Pakistan’s informal economy comprises 74 percent of it, with a majority of women working invisibly as home workers, domestic workers, contract workers in factories, and labour in rural economy,” says Ume Laila Azhar, executive director of Homenet Pakistan, a network of organizations formed to raise awareness about the working conditions of female HBWs. Azhar adds that HBWs who are subcontracted by national and international supply chains report that they have not received orders for work or regular orders have not been renewed for months since the onset of Covid-19.
Four months ago, Fozia Bibi and the 80 other women from her neighbourhood she is a community leader for, were working and supporting their families. Post-Covid-19 and lockdown, there is no work, and no earning for the 80 households from Baldia Town, Saeedabad, in Karachi. From earning Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 ($90- $120) a month, Bibi, a single mother supporting her three children, is now earning nothing. “I had a routine. I had a life. The lockdown and coronavirus changed everything,” says Bibi who made a living by doing miscellaneous work for garment factories.
With the wages of HBWs having dwindled, their dependents too are suffering. “In my area, almost all women are working to support their families. Some are widowed or divorced. Others have husbands who cannot work because of illnesses. Many have husbands who are drug addicts. All these families are affected in a way we could not have imagined,” she says.
“Developing countries may not have the budget or the resources to afford balloon payment to workers of the informal economy. The workers themselves don’t have enough money to prepare for crisis either.”
“While male workers could still make it to the limited work opportunities, it was impossible for female workers to leave home because of closure of transport. During the lock down, some employers were operating secretly. Male workers were preferred on account of better mobility. There is also pressure on female workers from their families to not go out in situations of crisis,” says Zulfiqar Shah, the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) joint director, adding that because of disruptions in supply chains, work opportunities of HBWs have declined.
“Even when females are working with formal sector enterprises, they are working mostly without appointment letters or formal employment contractors. Hence, they were the first victims,” says Ahmad.
Azhar says that female workers from all sectors in the informal economy have been affected. Giving the example of the garment and textile sector in Karachi, she says that the industry and local markets are closed, the consumers are opting for just basic utilities instead of purchasing clothes, and the international market demand has declined. “In Pakistan where millions of women do piecework for national and international brands, work began to fall off in February as fears of the virus spread. Since many of the raw materials these workers rely on come from other countries, they were unable to get supplies early on in the global crisis or had to pay more for inputs. This affected those who produced garments as well as those who assembled electronics, games and other products,” says Azhar. Many HBWs were unable to stock raw materials before lockdowns began. “They might not have had time, storage space, or available cash to do so. This prevented them from using this time in isolation to amass products that they might sell once the lockdown was over.”
Relying mostly on philanthropists for rations that would help them get by these very lean months, some of them tried their hand at self-help. As a community leader, Fozia Bibi had introduced the idea of putting in some spare money in what can be called a collective community fund, for rainy days. Even if very small amounts were added, the savings helped this group of women buy rations for those in dire need for the initial weeks of the lockdown. But now all petty savings have run dry.
“The informal economy is particularly strong in developing countries,” Ndaya Beltchika, Lead Technical Specialist, Gender and Social Inclusion for IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), said recently while addressing journalists from various countries. “Developing countries may not have the budget or the resources to afford balloon payment to workers of the informal economy. The workers themselves don’t have enough money to prepare for crisis either.” Beltchika suggested that the governments could repurpose some investments in order to come up with plans that can at least provide basic necessities to these vulnerable citizens.
“There should be an unemployment fund for women who have lost jobs. They should be paid from this fund till normalcy returns,” suggests Shah.
The solution, according to Ahmad, is making social protection a fundamental right. “The state can initiate contributory social protection schemes for all workers, irrespective of their employment status or type of sector they are engaged in (formal or informal),” he says, adding that provision of social protection, especially when it is financed by contributions by the beneficiaries in the form of premiums, is not that costly since not everyone is accessing benefits at the same moment. “Covid-19 is an extraordinary situation and drained resources from even the best-funded social protection systems. Therefore, it depends more on the will of the state rather than on financial resources.”
The writer is a freelance journalist and editor with a focus on human rights, education, health, and literature. She also works as a Communications Practitioner and Media Trainer.