ISLAMABAD: Pointing out that women’s participation in the workforce is greatly constrained, a World Bank study says at 20 per cent, Pakistan’s workforce participation rate for women is one of the lowest both in South Asia and globally.

Low education levels, mobility challenges and gender norms limit women from entering and being retained in the formal workforce, and consequently, a significant proportion of women workers are represented in the informal sector as home-based workers (HBWs), according to details of the study made available to Dawn on Monday.

Pakistan has 4.4 million HBWs, of whom 3.6m are women. These workers perform work for remuneration from their home or other premises of their choice, and they mainly operate as piece-rate or own-account workers involved in production and manufacturing chains to make products like textile articles, leather goods or raising livestock for agriculture and bi-products.

Because of gaps in available data, study says, estimates likely under-represent the true extent of home-based work. Women HBWs are especially vulnerable to exploitation from contractors or middlemen and typically belong to poorer households, having little to no formal education. They have limited access to markets, training, and most public services and work amenities. HBWs lack rights and social protection, face greater work and safety hazards, and are given little to no consideration in economic and labour policies, according to the study.

In addition, only 10 per cent of non-agricultural workers in the private formal sector are women. Studies indicate that provision of specific facilities, such as transport by the employer, separate toilets for women, and childcare facilities, are a major factor in encouraging women’s labour force participation.

The need for enhanced legal protection for women workers to improve their access to basic facilities in the formal sector was identified as a critical challenge during consultations with experts on gender and social inclusion in Pakistan.

The World Bank’s ‘Securing Human Investments to Foster Transformation’ (SHIFT) programme sought to improve the rights and conditions of home-based workers (HBWs) and other vulnerable women working in Pakistan’s private sector resulted in the adoption of 10 laws by the provincial assemblies. The new laws are intended to extend informal HBWs’ access to social security, fair wages, and improve formal women workers’ access to childcare, separate toilets, transportation, to achieve equal pay, and to end sex discrimination, it says.

The laws are expected to impact a sizable proportion of at least 4.4 million vulnerable HBWs in Pakistan. The data collection activities will be critical in developing a deeper understanding of the impact of the legal reforms.

Further, amendments in labour laws (Shops and Esta­bli­shments, and Factories Acts) achieved through the SHIFT reforms will ensure better working conditions and facilities for 3.7m women workers in the formal private sector, reduce restrictions on work hours, and encourage more women to enter and stay in the workforce, the study says.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2022

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