‘Moving mountains’: How Pakistan’s ‘invisible’ women won workers’ rights | Employment

Shamim Bano has been an invisible worker for 40 years. Working 12-hour days from home as a “cropper” in the port city of Karachi, she cuts the loose threads off clothing and makes samosas to sell at schools.

Bano is paid about 25 Pakistani rupees (£0.10) a day. It’s a precarious existence for Pakistan’s home-based workers, without access to social security benefits or pensions. Most of these informal workers are women.

But now Bano has become visible – as the first person to register under new legislation that will finally recognise her work. Sindh province is about to enact a law to award employment rights to an estimated informal workforce of 3 million people.

In 2018 Sindh passed the Home-Based Workers Act, making Pakistan the only country in south Asia where home workers were recognised as official labourers. Although the country’s three other provinces have not yet followed suit, it is believed that 12 million people across Pakistan are home-based workers, making clothes, shoes and crafts from their living rooms.

About 80% of them are women. Their contribution to the economy is sizeable – the informal sector accounts for 71% of employment in Pakistan outside agriculture, according to the Labour Force Survey for 2017–18. In rural areas 75% of people are classed as informal workers.

At the dilapidated one-room office of the United Home-Based Garment Workers’ Union in Karachi last week, Bano became the first woman working from home in Sindh to register with the provincial government’s labour department. She will now be eligible for social, medical and maternity benefits, and will also qualify for government grants to help pay for weddings and funerals.

“I don’t know when I will actually be able to enjoy the gains, but I am satisfied I was in the forefront of the struggle, says Bano, who lives with her husband, two daughters, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. “To even get to this point, and that I was able to help so many other women, including my daughters have a future, that is better than … [getting this myself].”

Shamim Bano was the first person to register under new laws that recognise her work from home in Sindh province.
Shamim Bano was the first person to register under new laws that recognise her work from home in Sindh province. Photograph: Zofeen Ebrahim

It’s been a long journey to get to this point. The Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), has been fighting for its 3,500 members to be able to claim social security benefits and receive a living wage since 2009.

Zehra Khan, the federation’s general secretary, said the “historic” registration proved that “when scattered workers, especially women, organise themselves, they can move mountains and fight against capitalist greed”.

Khan added that the registration process would also give a true picture of the number of home-based workers.

As she filled in her registration form, Saira Feroze, 36, the general secretary of a union that belongs to the federation, said she had never thought “we would be recognised as workers in our lifetime”, and that this had seemed “like a distant dream”.

The registration process was due to begin in August, but Covid-19 restrictions delayed the rollout. Now Feroze’s union is trying to make up for lost time. “We are now taking it upon ourselves to start from our end, fill in the forms and hand them over to the labour department,” she says.

The delay in registration meant that women working from home were not eligible for the government’s emergency cash payments programme during the Covid-19 lockdown, which has had a huge impact on home-based workers.

Bano’s husband lost his livelihood selling street food from a kiosk during the lockdown.

“There is no work,” says Bano’s daughter, Sumera Azeem. “We had to take out a loan to be able to buy groceries. We have not paid the monthly house rent of 7,000 rupees since April, or the electricity and gas bills.”

Zahida Perveen, president of the HBWWF, said many home workers were already living hand-to-mouth when the city came to a standstill in March. “The second wave of Covid-19 is upon us and with food inflation at its height, I doubt if we can rely on this government to help us,” she says.

“If the registration process had not been delayed, many among us would have been able to avail ourselves of the government’s emergency cash payments.”

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