In Pakistan, the situation of women is quite alarming as they have to deal with immense pressure and face a seemingly insurmountable array of obstacles, which are preventing them from becoming productive and empowered citizens within our society. No doubt, steps are being taken by the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for improving their condition. Same is the case with home-based workers who work from their homes and earn for survival and ensuring the financial stability of their households. But they face severe problems like inadequate education, lack of skills, physical mobility, health and safety and limited access to productive resources.
First of all, we need to know what the term ‘home-based workers’ actually means as it refers to the general category of workers within the informal or unorganised sector who carry out remunerative work within their homes or in the surrounding areas. These home-based workers usually belong to poor, lower or lower-middle income backgrounds, from various age groups, and possess very little or no education, at all. They have virtually no social protection.
It is estimated that there are over 100 million home-based workers in the world and more than half of them are in South Asia of whom around 80 percent are women. Pakistan is one of the Asian countries with the largest number of women engaged in home-based work and this sector has expanded at a fast pace in recent year. This expansion can be linked to the globalisation of industry and the search for efficient means of production through low-cost labour.
These working women contribute to the national economy and export earnings but sadly they are left on the sidelines by the government and no law or action is taken by authorities to protect or regularize them. They are denied any form of legal protection, including a minimum wage guarantee or social security benefits. According to a World Bank (WB) study, over 10 million women in Pakistan are engaged in home-based work in sectors like garments, bangles, shoes, embroidery and carpet weaving among other areas. In spite of their contributions to the economy, these women still do not have social and legal protection and are among the most unprivileged segment of society.
Unlike other types of workers, home-based workers do not have any access to social security benefits and have long working hours with no operational safety and health standards in their work area. Furthermore, Pakistan’s labour laws do not include home-based workers, who are now covered by the definition of worker all around the world. Article 3 of the Constitution of Pakistan says that the state must eradicate all kinds of exploitation and ensure appropriate compensation for workers. But, in reality, do these words have any importance? It appears they are just hollow words since no such measures have been taken so far. Who is responsible for implementing the laws which are mentioned in the Constitution of Pakistan?
For the past few years, women’s organisations have been preparing draft legislation called the â€œHome Based Women Workers Social Protection Billâ€. While this bill was tabled in the National Assembly in 2007 and has undergone several revisions since, sadly it has not yet been approved. Injustice to home-based workers can be confirmed from the fact that a home-based woman worker who makes bangles at home is paid Rs 3 for making 100 bangles, but the same bangles are sold by the contractor for Rs 50 or 70 in the market. Here a question arises for the government and lawmakers: you always claim to be providing justice to all, but it appears there is no law for the protection of the rights of workers as they are always in the hands of profit-crazy capitalists. What do you intend to do?
The successive governments have remained silent on such issues, or seemed to be least interested in introducing the necessary legislation. But, now is the time that they start it by having an immediate review of labour laws to find solutions to the issues of home-based workers through legislation. The government should endeavour to resolve issues of the home-based workers concerning their status as workers, the extension of social security benefits currently applicable only to workers in the formal organised sector of employment through the enactment of a laws, enjoyment of core labour standards with the rights and entitlements in addition to all rights and benefits available to other wage earners performing similar work, easy access to comparatively cheaper credit through several ongoing programmes, easy access to markets for their products, protection from malpractices of ‘intermediaries’ and ‘middlepersons’ and the promotion of non-industrial handicraft goods.
If Pakistan agrees to the C-177 law, which has already been ratified by seven countries, it will have to allow workers the right to establish or join organisations of their own choice and to participate in the activities of such organisations aimed at protection against discrimination in employment and occupation, and protection in the fields of occupational health and safety. It will be a huge achievement if this law gets approved by this government for civil society and for those who have worked hard for getting home-based workers their rights.
There is also a need to set up specialised entities or dedicated cells within the existing administrative structure to undertake registration of home-based workers and to subsequently ensure that they receive social protection benefits. Also a true and result-oriented tripartite consultation meeting should be organised in which government officials, labour department officials including ministers, civil society representatives and home-based workers sit and discuss a framework to achieve these protections for the workers. While taking these steps will indirectly increase the price of products made by home-based workers, competitiveness can be maintained by placing greater emphasis on quality of products home-based workers produce, in effect, encouraging improvement of their existing skill levels, while simultaneously ensuring that the households of these workers derive greater benefit from the fruits of their labour.