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Hidden workers

March 13, 2018


IT is an undeniable truth that women account for a large portion of our massive informal economy and, in an already unregulated sector prone to labour violations, are among its most vulnerable workers. Yet women workers — on our farms, in our factories and fisheries, as domestic workers in our homes or as bonded labour at brick kilns — are routinely taken for granted, and perhaps none more so than the millions of unseen, uncounted home-based workers. It is these women in particular who were highlighted by the Women’s Action Forum and other women’s and labour rights organisations recently in Lahore. Within the fragmented informal value chain, home-based workers are generally paid per piece for low-value work, with no guaranteed minimum wage, monthly income, social security or benefits that workers are entitled to.

In a report published last year on home-based workers in Karachi, ILO found that those surveyed were paid a small fraction of the minimum wage. Even though home-based workers are predominately women, research revealed that here, too, the gender wage gap is evident — with some contractors explicitly favouring male workers for higher valued work. With almost all workers dependent on single sources of work, and given their lack of access to collective bargaining, attempts to negotiate better rates almost always fail. Despite this, home-based workers have successfully managed to make the Sindh and Punjab governments adopt home-based workers’ policies in recent years. Yet these have yet to be effectively implemented. To tackle deficiencies, the government must ramp up its efforts to strengthen minimum wage processes and mechanisms, include home-based workers in minimum wage and social security protections, and enhance their ability to negotiate for higher wages. Women’s labour, without which any society and economy would fall apart, is the quotidian heart of the struggle of all Pakistani women. It is those who labour unseen — out of sight, out of mind — that we must stand in solidarity with, and do more for.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2018