Working people struggle to survive as lockdown brings economic activity to a halt

Published May 1, 2020
Daily wagers wait for work in the Water Pump area on Thursday.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Daily wagers wait for work in the Water Pump area on Thursday.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: They come with their tools and instruments even during the current coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Many of them are seen under the Gizri flyover where they can find some shade during these scorching days. The painter, the mason, the plumber, the electrician, they are all there. Their eyes follow every vehicle that passes by and every person walking past them.

They represent the informal labour sector where if they can find some work in a day, it will fetch them some money. If not then they will have to head home with hung heads to face their hungry families.

“I found a painting job three days ago,” Faqeer Hussain, a painter, told Dawn on the eve of Labour Day, or May Day as it is known. “It took me the entire day to paint one room of a house and I was paid Rs1,500 for it. But every day is not as good. Life has become slow in this lockdown, earning is by chance. But my family needs food every day. We are mostly surviving on charity and people’s zakat,” he said.

Shazia Bibi used to get embroidery work at home. “The last time the person who gives me work left all the material with me was over a month ago. Now, when I call to tell that the work is done, I get a reply to keep it with me as they have no money to pay me with business being down these days,” she said. “Without my payment, it has become difficult to make ends meet,” she said, adding that an NGO was providing her rations, for which she is grateful.

‘Life has become slow in this lockdown, earning is by chance. But my family needs food every day’

Abida Bibi is one of the 50 employees who work for a towel factory in Gabol Town. “We were given food rations which lasted us 15 days by the factory owners, but they are neither giving us work nor any money, and we were daily wagers getting paid for the amount of work we used to do. We have called the factory many times but no one takes our calls,” she said.

Shahida Bibi used to take in work for a bangles manufacturer in Hyderabad. “But I have got no work since March”, she says, adding that she also gets food rations from an NGO working for home-based workers’ rights to get her through this difficult time. “They have also helped me find new work of selling suit and shirt pieces which I buy in the wholesale market to resell from home,” she said.

Waseem Khan worked at an oil paints company from where he was laid off during the lockdown. “We were paid one month’s salary and told not to show our faces again because we had been asking for our rightful dues. They fired eight people, myself and seven others. The company owners are annoyed with us. They said we should understand their problems in this lockdown. But have they taken even a second to consider the difficulties we are facing with hungry families?” he asked.

Saleem, who worked with a garments factory which takes orders from international brands, said that he was also fired from his job without being paid as the employers informed him they had stopped getting orders from abroad. “I have now moved with my wife and three children to my village near Shikarpur. I work in the wheat and tomato fields. Sometimes I earn Rs150 a day, sometimes Rs200 or Rs250,” he said.

Abdul Basit, who also worked with a garments factory, said that he was paid only 23 days’ salary by his employers. “I was told that was because I only worked till March 23 after which everything came to a standstill,” he said.

“My salary was Rs18,000 a month, but for March I was handed Rs16,000. Now my family and I are surviving on the food rations given to us as charity. I am a proud man, I would have never accepted this but I am forced to do so and grateful for whatever I am getting because I have a family to feed,” he said.

Meanwhile, trade unions and human rights organisations have raised their voice for these poor workers. They have reminded the provincial government about its promises of not letting the poor workers suffer during the lockdown, but nothing seems to have come of it.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2020

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