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Hidden labour

January 13, 2019

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The writer teaches law and works with human rights organisations.
The writer teaches law and works with human rights organisations.

HOME-BASED work is a euphemistic phrase. There are countless women workers engaged in industrial labour from their homes on an informal and piece-rate basis. The labour outsourced to women includes many of the intricate processes involved in producing bangles, garments, envelopes, plastic toys, food items, etc, as well as packaging and cleaning batteries. An almost decade-long struggle for their rights led the Sindh government to enact a law enabling their access to social security benefits. This is a step in the right direction — but the only way to ensure that the law is implemented effectively is if home-based workers are vigilant and politically active.

The women labouring in this profession burn out quickly, and the years it took for the government to recognise their labour through legislation is about the time it takes for their health to go from bad to virtually irremediable. Those who cut dates for supari packets or separate plastic toys using industrial scissors complain of chronic pain in their hands. Sitting in strained positions causes persistent back and neck aches. Exposure to chemicals used in multiple processes is harmful. As the work requires intense focus, women complain of vision problems. Many report reproductive ailments and hepatitis.

The economic rewards are few. Home-based workers earn far below the minimum wage for an unskilled worker. Take bangles, for example. There are roughly 60 processes involved in their manufacture. About 20 of these are performed by women at home. These include evening out the open mouth of a bangle and closing it over a flame. The rates for the latter are Rs6 for a bunch that is sold for Rs365. Even the most efficient workers, maintaining a crouched position with the fan off to keep the flame still, will simply reduce the time for one bunch from 20 minutes to 12. Through perseverance, they may increase their daily rate by Rs50, but it is still not enough to be a living wage.

Women working at home effectively subsidise the industrialists.

Although women are free to take or refuse work, and have the convenience of getting work delivered to their homes, they exercise limited agency. Work from home reduces their mobility and exposure to their peers, the market and government offices. Most women are unable to name the factory or investor they are working for. Middlemen who deliver materials can thus exploit their isolation and coerce them into accepting poor wages. Even when increments are won, they are minimal. Moreover, since there is no formal contract and industrial conditions remain volatile, there is never any guarantee of work.

Using one’s home for labour has an impact on living conditions. Home-based work necessitates turning one’s living quarters into an assembly line. Yet, their rates do not include rent and utilities. Instead, it’s the workers who subsidise the industrialists. Their children suffer as well, as they lose access to space in their houses, are drawn in to assist their elders, and are exposed to the same health and safety risks. The fact that home-based workers are predominantly women — unable to unionise effectively, poorly paid, and working in precarious and informal jobs — makes such labour a form of systemic gender discrimination. It contributes to women’s economic marginalisation. Women home-based workers who also bear household responsibilities struggle to make time for union meetings.

Since unions are weak, the gap in labour organising has been filled by NGOS. This ensures the issue gets visibility, and eventually pushes lawmakers to write a policy and then enact a law. But the hard work of making rights real requires organising and political mobilisation. Without that, the law itself is nothing but a set of aspirations.

There are multiple hurdles written into the law that render rights merely declaratory. As it stands, the new Sindh Home-Based Workers Act, 2018, will notify a council responsible for overseeing the mapping and registration of home-based workers and formulation of district-level committees. The act mandates a fund for the welfare of home-based workers to be administered by a governing body. An arbitration committee will resolve disputes, which can be appealed in the labour court. It will be months, if not years, before the four regulatory bodies prescribed in the act are functional and women workers start to get grants for sickness and education, and redressal for their grievances.

It would have been simpler to mobilise existing institutions (the EOBI, social welfare department, workers welfare board) to immediately release grants for home-based workers. It is time to challenge the long wait for laws and then the rules to implement them. With welfare benefits mired in layers of bureaucracy, it becomes challenging for women home-based workers to organise effectively. Yet strong unions, with diverse leadership, is exactly what is needed to push for the law’s implementation.

The writer teaches law and works with human rights organisations.
Twitter: @oilisopium

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2019