LAHORE: Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a collective of several women’s rights based organisations, held an event on Sunday to commemorate International Women’s Day at Hamdard Hall on Lytton Road.

This year, WAF along with several other organisations, pay a special tribute to Pakistan’s women workers, including the millions of women working in factories, in brick kilns and agro-businesses as bonded labourers, those who work at home as piece rate workers, and in other people’s homes as domestic help, in fisheries and as peasants and those who contribute their labour as unpaid family helpers.

Well-known speakers in activist circles included Nighat Saeed Khan, Robina Saigol, Khawar Mumtaz, Samina Rehman and Samiya Mumtaz, but domestic labourers and home-based workers along with other women workers also spoke of their plight and grievances.

Speakers said they stood in complete solidarity with the women in their demands for recognition, minimum and equal wages, to be counted as workers, to be given maternity and health benefits, have access to schools for their children, be released from bondage, and a life free of harassment and violence at home and work.

They said it was commendable how these workers had successfully struggled in Sindh and Punjab to make the government adopt home-based workers policies. They had also successfully mobilised and organised other women workers and especially applauded those women who had the courage to raise their voices and break barriers to claim their space.

The forum marked the loss of many of their key members.

“Today we celebrate and remember key WAF members we lost this year,” said Khawar Mumtaz. “We salute Asma Jahangir, a fellow traveller, a champion of women’s and human rights, forever ready to stand up for persecuted and oppressed women. Her sudden departure from this world is a loss we all deeply feel.”

She also mentioned Lala Rukh, a staunch and principled member of WAF, who captured so much of activism with her camera, and Nigar Ahmed who dedicated her life to promoting women’s rights. WAF paid tribute to all of them as torchbearers of the cause. “Their spirit lives on; the torch they helped to light is alive in us. We rejoice in knowing this torch is being carried forward by younger feminists, activists and women workers here and everywhere.”

Home-based workers complained that they did not receive full payment for their exhausting work.

“We have the most back-breaking work, even within the confines of our home,” said one worker. “We are expected to produce even more than the capacity of what a human can produce, yet when it comes to being paid, the middle men especially delay our payments, give us less than what our minimum wages are decided, and often do not even pay us overtime.”

Another worker said they ended up getting health issues by sitting in one position all the time for the whole day. She said they had to more than often include other people in the household, including children, to help them make the products, but the others would not be paid for the work.

Umme Laila Azhar, executive director of Home Net Pakistan, said the home-based workers were not even included in the formal sector, and remaining in the informal sector did not add their hard work to Pakistan’s GDP. Neither did they receive any social security or access to benefits that a worker usually did.

“The home-based women workers must be included in the mainstream movement of working women’s rights,” she said.

“They are denied their basic rights. Even the home-based workers’ policy is toothless and the government is being inefficient and lazy in implementing it fully.”

She said the civil society had stood by the bill when it was drafted but when it was passed it had been watered down by the law department.

Later, WAF released an official statement saying that they pledged support to the uncounted millions of home-based workers and demanded they be acknowledged in national databases. They also demanded the elimination of the wage gap, ensuring minimum wages for all, appointment letters for factory workers, declaring farm and fisheries sector workers as “labourers” as in Sindh.

Apart from WAF, activists from All Pakistan Trade Union Federaion (APTUF), Awami Workers’ Party (AWP), Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), Homenet Pakistan, Labour Education Foundation (LEF), Tameer-e-Nau, Feminist Collective Lahore and Women In Struggle for Empowerment (WISE) were also present.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2018

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