International Women’s Day: Pakistan’s ‘invisible’ female workers celebrate new legal status
Zehra Khan has much to celebrate on International Women’s Day. It is exactly four months since members of the Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) in Sindh province, Pakistan – of which Khan is secretary general – finally received legal recognition.
The province’s chief minister, Syed Murad Ali Shah, signed a policy that means the region’s estimated 5 million home-based workers – the majority of whom are women – can register as workers and access benefits.
“It was an important day not only for the history of the labour movement in Sindh and Pakistan, but also for south Asia,” says Khan, whose federation has more than 4,500 members.
“Once they are legally accepted as workers, they can be registered with the government-run social security institution, [and] be part of [the] workers’ welfare board to enjoy benefits like health, education and housing, as well as those offered after retirement,” she adds.
Almost 80% of an estimated 12 million Pakistani home-based workers are women. As well as unpaid domestic work, the women often spend up to 10 hours a day making garments, footwear, sports goods, and arts and crafts behind closed doors. Their work is often invisible to the rest of the world, despite having propped up the country’s informal economy for so long.
“They are left to negotiate with the middlemen. Many often get deprived of payment or chastised if they demand better wages,” says Khan.
The new government policy, however, brings hope that this kind of exploitation will soon come to an end. Once registered as workers, the women will be able to demand a basic level of pay as set out in the Minimum Wages Act of 2015.
Khan and the federation have been lobbying to improve the rights of female workers for years.
The HBWWF, part-funded by the international women’s fund Mama Cash, was born out of informal meetings with female home-based workers organised by Khan back in 2001. By 2005, the small group had grown into the federation, empowering women to recognise their valuable contribution to society and the importance of collective bargaining.
The women put pressure on the local government to improve local services, such as fixing the sewage system and having the rubbish collected from their narrow alleys. They asked the water board for a water supply, and demanded that domestic violence be addressed.
Eventually, they began to focus on their own rights as workers and lobbying for the new nationwide policy began.
“We carried out extensive consultations with other labour and trade unions within Pakistan,” recalls Khan.
Most of the time was spent sitting in the offices of the parliamentarians and politicians, cajoling them to give a few minutes of their time to read through their policy and understand what they were saying.
“We would wait with bated breath and a sinking feeling as our file got buried under the hundreds of others that needed the chief minister’s immediate attention,” says Khan.
After the passage of the 18th constitutional amendment in 2010, when provinces were given greater autonomy, Sindh formed a provincial taskforce in 2013 to tweak the national policy and make it more province-specific, and sent it to the chief executive for approval.
“It’s neither gender- nor women-focused – our focus is class, and should be seen through the lens of a labour movement,” says Khan.
The government of Sindh has indeed taken a historic first step among the four provinces of Pakistan, bringing home-based workers into the legal net.