Rights activists shed light on women workers’ problems at the First Women Conference on Saturday.—White Star
Rights activists shed light on women workers’ problems at the First Women Conference on Saturday.—White Star

KARACHI: Like its inaugural day, there were several knowledgeable and interesting sessions at the First Women Conference at the Arts Council of Pakistan on Saturday of which the panel discussion ‘Yeh Haath Salamat Hein Jab Tak’ focussed on the issues of women workers.

Karamat Ali of Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) played a documentary that told the story of Sughra who stitches little hand towels from scrap towel material, of Hanifa and her six physically handicapped daughters who stitch rice sacks, of Paras and her daughter who make incense sticks at home that exposes them to harmful chemicals, of the fisherfolk women of Ibrahim Haideri who clean shrimp and have developed skin problems and the cotton picker women who don’t get even half of what the men are paid for the same work.

After the documentary, Mr Ali shared that he is himself the son of a home-based worker and that his mother with his five sisters used to work from home to generate a respectable income, which was more than his father could earn. “Still, as there was no concept of home-based workers at the time, we were embarrassed to admit that the women in our house worked,” he said.

Women’s rights activist Farhat Parween said that there are so many issues faced by women workers and yet they have been unable to resolve them. “This may be because the male members of a family are seen as more prominent and even as the head of the household,” she said.

‘Domestic and home-based workers are informal labour, so they don’t even show up in the statistics’

“It is akin to slavery as slaves also do not get any salaries or appreciation for their work. But any work which requires human energy is labour. Domestic and home-based workers are informal labour so they don’t even show up in the statistics. As it is our society doesn’t see women workers as professionals,” she said.

Haleema Leghari, a lady health worker, said that they still didn’t have a service structure even though women health workers had been regularised by the Supreme Court in 2012. “Still, we have formed an alliance all over Pakistan which is good. Our united voices have enabled us to draw a monthly salary of Rs28,000,” she said.

Fatima Majeed spoke about fisherfolk women who are affected by climate change too besides health issues and losing their male folk at sea to the Indian authorities if they mistakenly end up in Indian waters. “Earlier, our women used to stitch fishing nets but that work is now carried out by machines. Now you find us selling vegetables or pickles or working in factories,” she said. “The cutting of mangroves and sea pollution are also affecting our livelihoods.”

Zehra Khan of the Home-Based Women Workers said there is a need for credible data on informal labour. “Our economy is informal, our workers hired on contracts are also informal and we need data about our workers to be able to help them,” she said.

“Home-based workers need recognition but they are the ones who are taken for granted. Most of them are women and children who are paid very little in exchange for their work. They have no appointment letters, no medical facilities and their kind of work puts them at risk of many health problems, including tuberculosis, kidney problems, eyesight issues, etc. They don’t get free medical and they don’t even get enough earnings to seek medical help themselves,” she pointed out.

Saeeda Khatoon, who lost her son in the Baldia factory fire, said that it has been eight years now since the Ali Enterprise factory inferno and yet there are so many factories running without any safety measures. “I joined hands with the other victims’ families to form our own association to demand our rights. We have won cases here as well as internationally that helped us get pensions and social security but we did this not just for compensation. We also wanted to set precedents,” she said.

Feminist Urdu poet Kishwar Naheed said the labour department has been made aware of occupational hazards and health issues “But they don’t do anything about it.”

She added that sadly many goods produced in our country are exported and there they get fresh labels that say that they have been produced in that country. “It is a good idea for all our women workers to form linkages and join forces,” she said.

Human rights advocate I.A. Rehman said that peasants have been trampled in our country and their women are even worse off than the men. “Our trade unions, with a few exceptions now, earlier didn’t even focus on the women workers even though they do most of the work besides taking care of their homes,” he said.

“It is important to insist on business with human rights, just like it is done everywhere else in the world. Respect your labour force and give them their rights. It will help your country prosper,” he said.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2020