The unseen forces behind glittering garb

March 13, 2022

Home-based workers in Karachi, paid less than the legal minimum wage, find it hard for them to make ends meet

The unseen forces behind glittering garb

“I have been working with my mother as a seamstress since I was a child. Together, we make 280 rupees a day,” says Urooj, 21, a home-based worker residing in New Karachi. She tells The News on Sunday that she works with contractors who hire her services for stitching casual as well as fancy clothing.

“I have prepared 180 fancy shirts for children in the last three days alone. Two of my sisters and my mother helped me. I was paid Rs 2,700 rupees for the work,” says Urooj. She says the money was split four ways bringing her daily income to Rs 225.

“Karachi is a major financial hub in Pakistan. A large number of women are working from their homes for meagre wages to make ends meet,” she says. She says that the industries and offices in Karachi provide her with a steady amount of work. “A large number of hosiery manufacturers are located in New Karachi. These industries need quality craftsmanship but they are reluctant to pay reasonable wages, let alone the official minimum wage fixed by the provincial government,” Urooj laments.

March 8 celebrates the struggle of American women workers who started a movement to improve their working and living conditions in 1820. Even today, working women suffer from the worst economic and social discrimination and are forced to work as wage slaves in fields, factories and other workplaces. Over 12 million women working as home-based and domestic workers are denied basic rights in Pakistan. Women are employed at a large scale but their work is not fully recognised.

“We are paid five rupees for cropping a dozen shirts, shalwars and skirts. We receive the clothes from different clients. It is our only source of income,” says Saira, 37, a home-based worker from New Karachi’s industrial area.

“I stitch 15 to 20 simple and fancy shirts with help from other members of my household. Our total earnings a day vary between Rs 200 and Rs 350. Little to no facilities are provided to home-based workers by the government-owned textile operators,” she says.

The Labour Department has recently started registering home-based workers. Five hundred female workers have registered from the New Karachi area alone.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, the Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) organised a rally titled Peace, Bread and Equality from Fawara Chowk in Saddar to Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi. Thousands of home-based workers, farmhands, industrial workers, social activists, labour leaders and trade union leaders participated in the rally and showed solidarity with working women.

“I have been working in the bangles industry for more than 25 years. There are two main procedures - sadhai (alignment) and jurai (joining). The rates decided by the Sindh Minimum Wages Board for these processes are 20 and 40 rupees per bunch, respectively. I receive 5 to 8 rupees for sadhai and 15 to 18 rupees for jurai.

The leaders of the rally stated that despite oppression, women were rising. “She is not only fighting for her own freedom but also for economic and political freedom of the oppressed classes of society,” they chanted.

Zehra Khan, general secretary of the HBWWF says that gender sensitisation across the board is essential to breaking a patriarchal mind set. “We have to talk about the root cause of women’s exploitation and the concept of private property, which is the need of the day,” she says.

“The state has to change its attitude towards women. It must stop perpetuating a narrative of animosity,” says Zehra. She says that homes, workplaces and offices should be made safer for women. “If a woman is demanding gender equality and economic freedom, she is in fact demanding a free society,” she says.

According to Zehra, the federation is also fighting against unbridled price hike. She worries that the prices of necessities like flour, rice, pulses, oil and vegetables continue to rise.

“We have registered nearly 5,000 home based women workers with the Labour Department in Sindh,” says Zehra, adding that 2,000 registration requests are still pending. “The Labour Department officials are dragging their feet with 2,000 pending applications,” she says.

Nasir Mansoor, general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation (NUFT) says that the women in Pakistan’s workforce play a pivotal role. “Unfortunately, they are deprived of their very basic social, economic and political rights,” he laments.

“Women’s resilience becomes apparent through their struggle against reactionary bigots, military dictators and inequality,” says Mansoor.

“I have been working in the bangles industry for more than 25 years. There are two main procedures - sadhai (alignment) and jurai (joining). The rates set by the Sindh Minimum Wages Board for these processes are 20 and 40 rupees per bunch, respectively. I receive 5 to 8 rupees for sadhai and 15 to 18 rupees for jurai,” says Shakeela, a home-based bangle maker.

Shakeela says that usually two to five family members, including children, work as a team. “Delays in payment and deductions are routine issues for home-based workers,” she says.

For the first time in the history of Pakistan, home-based workers have been brought under the ambit of minimum wages. The process of establishing a minimum wage for the glass bangle industry started in 2015. After the Home-Based Women Workers’ Federation submitted its recommendations, it took three years for approval.

The notification for fixed wages for glass bangle workers was first issued in 2016. After many reminders the Sindh Minimum Wages Board (SMWB) has revised the rates in accordance with the minimum wage schedule. Finally, the notification of the glass bangle workers’ wage was issued on July 30, 2019.

The governing body of the Sindh Minimum Wages Board has 10 members, four of which belong to the government, three represent home-based workers and the remaining members are from the Employers’ Federation of Pakistan.

The secretary of the Labour and Human Resources Department is its chairperson. There is a representative each from Finance Department, Social Welfare Department, Director of Labour. The workers’ representatives are: Ms Zehra Bano Akber Khan, general secretary of the Home Based Women Workers’ Federation; Ms Jameela Abdul Latif, the general secretary of the Home Based Women Bangles Workers’ Union and Ms Kausar Parveen, a home based worker. Syed Hasnain Mazher from Hasnain Tanweer Associate Pvt Ltd; Irfan Asil Pari from Federal B Area Association of Trade and Industry (FBATI) and Syed Nazar Ali from Skill Development Council of Karachi are the members from Employers’ Federation of Pakistan.

The first meeting of the board was held on February 23. It was chaired by Labour Secretary Laeeq Ahmed. It discussed the issues of home-based workers and how to register their contributions with the Labour Department.

Thousands of home-based women workers in Karachi are still working without social security and basic health facilities. The Labour Department needs to show more initiative to register these workers and provide them with a social security net.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5

The unseen forces behind glittering garb