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Home-based workers demand recognition as labour, end to extortion and harassment 
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed Sajida Manzoor is a home-based worker (HBW) from Rawalpindi. She, along with her family members, stitches bed sheets, cushion and pillows and hands over the merchandise to commercial buyers. These buyers interact with them through middlemen and pay them a paltry amount for the work they do.

Just like many other women who cannot travel long distances away from their homes, she has chosen the workplace herself. The middleman delivers the raw material at her house or sometimes she herself collects it from him.Description:

Sajida gets remuneration through the same middleman which she knows is much lower than what he is getting from the final buyer but she has no choice. Though she is not satisfied with the rate she is offered, her real concern is that the middlemen who can also be called contractors try to exploit her and other HBWs.

“They ask us to come to their places at night to collect the amount. If we show reluctance, they say they may not get the amount next day,” she says with an expression of helplessness on her face.

Irfana Jabbar, a representative of bangle workers who work from home, complains they have never been recognized as labour. They still remain unregistered and uncovered under the labour laws and because of this not entitled to benefit from government’s social protection and welfare schemes.

Highlighting the miseries of bangle workers, she says thousands of them are exploited by contractors who make them work for up to 20 hours a day against nominal wages. Their ordeal does not end here; these workers are exposed to serious health hazards as dangerous chemicals are used in the bangle-making process.

Bangle-making is mostly done at home and the entire family becomes engaged in the production process. The diseases they are vulnerable to include cancer, tuberculosis, asthma, and those related to eye, bone and skin, she adds.

These two HBWs are just two of the above 1500 who gathered in Lahore last week at a national convention to express solidarity with each other and raise collective voice for their rights. Though most of the participants had come from Lahore districts around it, there was representation from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh as well.

Shahnaz Iqbal, Associate Director, Labour Education Foundation (LEF) — the organisation which had made arrangements for the convention — says it is the best time to raise this issue at as many forums as possible. With new governments in place, there is an urgent need for legislating on the rights of HBWs in all provinces.Description:

She tells TNS that the womenfolk comprise majority of the workforce in informal sector-an eye-opener for those who think women hardly do any work in Pakistan. But unfortunately, there is no implementation of minimum wages law in Pakistan especially when it comes to the HBWs and informal sector.

According to careful estimates, over 70 per cent of the rural women work in agriculture and livestock; over 60 per cent urban female labour force works in non-formal sectors and a large number of the working women are home-based.

Shahnaz is also concerned about the health and safety of HBWs and says that it is clearly mentioned in the Constitution of Pakistan that no such job should be entrusted to the women or children that can be harmful for their health. “But what is happening on ground is contrary to this. They are exposed to all kinds of harmful chemicals, poison, carcinogenic matter and what not, she says.

To realise the importance of HBWs, one has to find out the tasks they do. They make uppers of ladies shoes and stud them with decorative stones, paste ornamental stones on embroidered material, fill matchboxes with match sticks, put cotton in quilts, cover candies etc with wrappers, pack edibles like pulses, spices in small containers or plastic, peel garlic, make ice cream sticks and what not.

The remuneration paid to them is ridiculously low. The daily wage for sewing is as low as Rs 27 for an HBW, says Umme Laila, executive director of Home Net. “This is stark injustice. The big guns and business tycoons are making money in a very brutal way. The clothes these skillful women stitch are sold by industrialists as branded stuff at a very high cost. But there is no dividend for this lot which has to, she adds. The families of HBWs who remove the shell of pine nuts (chilghoza) for dry fruit merchants get around Rs 10 per kg whereas the product is sold for between Rs 2000 per kg or more.

Umme Laila says her organization is working hard to empower HBWs. It is even convincing them to participate in the local government elections, she adds.

Amid all this gloomy state of affairs, the silver lining is that the Punjab government has prepared a draft bill on the rights of HBWs. It will hopefully be taken up in the assembly. Salient features of the proposed Punjab Home-Based Workers Act, 2013 include payment of minimum wages, social security benefits, grant of right to associate and skill development of HBWs.

In the meanwhile, Sarsabz Foundation has made HBW unite and work in the form of cooperatives. Iftikhar Rasool, the organization’s representative says that they have helped HBWs form cooperatives in Faisalabad and do their work collectively. The middleman is out and the HBWs are negotiating directly with the end buyers, he adds.

Iftikhar says that Sarsabz Foundation has issued these HBWs identification cards and regularly submits social security contribution on their behalf. “The model is highly successful in Faisalabad and we are trying to replicate it in other cities.”

Individual and organizational efforts notwithstanding, labour rights groups believe the desired objectives cannot be achieved till the government follows the guidelines mentioned in International Labour Organization (ILO) convention C177. This convention offers protection to workers who are employed in their own homes.




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