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The Home Based Women Workers Federation: the work begins at home

Author Mama Cash

‘Start small’. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint.’ Despite these well-known wisdoms, activism can sometimes seem like the realm of well-seasoned professionals – but the fact is that they all started somewhere. Activism doesn’t require a degree or 5+ years of experience: it’s about doing what you can. So while patience and perseverance are important, the most crucial step is the first one. Start small. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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Mama Cash grantee-partner the Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) started locally and informally: right in the home, where they were performing labor without the same rights as other workers. Women’s work, despite how much our economies and societies rely on it, often goes unrecognized or undervalued. Such has been the case for the 5 million home-based workers, 80  percent of which are women, in Sindh, Pakistan. They were not recognized as laborers under Pakistani law – until now. Late last January, the Sindh government finally approved a policy that has been nearly a decade in the making, giving home-based workers access to the same rights and entitlements as other laborers.

This huge success been a long time in the making. In 2001, Zehra Khan, now secretary general of HBWWF, began informally organizing a group of female home-based workers. In 2005 they became a federation, developing their lobbying capacity, and in 2009 the Home Based Women Workers Federation was established. In 2013, HBWWF – in collaboration with other organizations – prepared and submitted a draft of the policy that will now become law. This hard-earned victory marks the first time in the country and in South Asia that such a measure has been adopted, and it could have consequences for the 12 million home-based workers of Pakistan if other providences follow suit.

While home-based work has some advantages, particularly for women with children, the competitive and unregulated conditions exploit labor. While the industries that rely heavily on home-based workers  (some of which have ties to multinational corporations)  profit from the prevalence of ‘piece-rate work’ – which means workers get paid per unit produced, not per hour – it means workers could earn as little as $1 for up to a 12 hour shift. Home-based workers may work even longer shifts to take advantage of the light, sometimes skipping meals or enlisting family members in the production.

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The benefits of this legislation – such as right to collective bargaining, social security, pension, minimum wage and access to labor courts for conflict resolution – will affect all home-based workers, but are particularly important for women in the long run: increased financial resources and flexibility give women a greater degree of control over others aspects of their lives as well.

But the battle isn’t over for HBWWF. While this bill has been a major goal, it isn’t their only one: the organization also aims to enhance home-based workers’ capacities and skills through vocational trainings and workshops; develop and execute income generation activities principally through the establishment of worker’s cooperatives; and continue to build and strengthen unions (and a federation) of home-based women workers.

HBWWF still needs our support, as do many other groups – and with our grantmaking window now open, we hope to begin funding 15 new women’s, girls and trans groups.

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