December 22, 2017

The factory in their home: why workers' rights are women's rights

For millions of women in Pakistan, the line between their home and their workplace is blurred. “Our homes are used as a factory,” Zehra Khan, the General Secretary of the Home Based Women Workers Federation says. “Many women are engaged with this – and their children also, their mothers, their elder sisters.”

Home is where they craft bangles, stitch beads on garments, assemble electronics and toys, and package and label products. Over half of these home-based workers are based in Southeast Asia, and 80% of them are women. They form the foundation of not only national but global economies, with the fruits of their labor often travelling all the way back up global supply chains to large corporations in Europe and North America.

Piece-rate pay

But because they are women, and doing  this work at home and out of public view, not only do their contributions go undervalued, but their rights as workers are denied – in fact, they are not even recognized as workers under the law in the first place.

And industries profit off of this lack of regulation – by paying workers per unit instead of a minimum wage per hour, for example. Workers earn up to as little as 4300 Pakistani rupees (35 euro) per month – which means that millions of home-based women workers earn less than half the minimum wage. And being underpaid leads workers to produce more, faster - they skip meals, work 12-hour shifts six days in a row, and recruit family members just to earn enough to get by. These strenuous working conditions often lead to health problems, which they don’t have the time or money to seek treatment for.

A groundbreaking move

As a student from a working-class background herself, Zehra began researching these conditions by speaking to home-based women workers in the Sindh region, where 5 million such home-based workers are located. Her research gave her a big-picture perspective on the injustices these women faced – and ideas about how to address and change them. Starting in 2005, Zehra and four home-based women workers began reaching out to women in their region and informing them of their rights through study circles: “We thought, we have to organise these women,” Zehra says.

"The society uses the traditions, patriarchal norms, values and religions to stop women [from organising]."

Finally, in 2009 the Home Based Women Workers Federation was founded. This was a ground-breaking move – the HBWWF became the first trade union of home-based workers in Pakistan – and not without risks: especially in the informal sector, unionising can cost you your job. And feminist activists get a bad rap: “When I started work with the home-based workers, it was initially very difficult,” Zehra says. The society uses the traditions, patriarchal norms, values and religions to stop women [from organising]. Their families told them we were lobbying for the Western agenda, and they restrict their women from talking with ‘outsiders'.”

But the risks paid off: last year, after over a decade of lobbying, the Sindh government approved legislation drafted and proposed by the HBWWF. This new policy will grant millions of home-based workers their right to collective bargaining, social security, pension, minimum wage and access to labour courts for conflict resolution. This legal move, the first of its kind not only in Pakistan but in Southeast Asia more broadly, will mean increased financial flexibility and autonomy for millions of women, giving them a greater degree of control over their lives as a whole. “I’m proud to say we’re the ones who raised the home-based issue as a labour issue,” Zehra says. It’s a huge victory, which will hopefully lead other districts to follow suit.

Next steps

While passing this bill was a major goal for HBWWF – which now represents 4500 women workers in the garment, shoe and glass bangle industries – they’re not slowing down any time soon. The group also wants to establish workers’ cooperatives to generate more income for members, offer trainings, and continue to strengthen unions for home-based women workers. And the new policy still needs to become reality: because the government has yet to begin implementation, the HBWWF held a rally on October 20th, South Asian Home-Based Workers’ Day, urging them to make good on their word.

And they surely will, because it’s clear that Zehra and the HBWWF are not the giving-up types. But they need support to continue doing that work. Support Mama Cash and support women’s rights: because feminist activism works.

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