Kanwal started working at a garment’s factory when she was 13. Twelve years later, she was paid Rs4,000, which is Rs3,000 less than the minimum wage.
“Before I was employed, I was told that I will get Rs6,000, but was only paid Rs1,800 per month,” she says. She was employed by a middleman and never met the factory’s owner.
At the same factory works Yasmeen Ashraf. At 33, she suffers from domestic violence at the hands of her husband, a heroin addict, and is a heart patient herself. She works a 12-hour shift of cutting extra threads from export-quality pants and stitches buttons.
Yasmeen spends those 12 hours standing and is never able to take a break and step out of the factory’s storeroom. She says she was promised Rs6,000 by the ‘thaikaydar’ (contractor), but would only receive Rs700 to Rs900 every 15 days. “Medical insurance worth Rs150 was deducted regularly, but we never even got a painkiller.”
Home-based workers have the same story. Nasira bibi, 36, says she is losing her eyesight after sewing beads on dresses for 22 years. However, she is now jobless after her employer refused to increase her salary: Rs20 for 12 sweaters and Rs10 for one shirt.
According to non-profit organisation Homenet, women home-based workers make up more than 1.2 million of the total urban female workforce in Punjab and 6.5 million of the rural women workforce. However, neither NGOs nor the Punjab labour department has data on the total number of women employed.
Homenet has worked with the Punjab government on drafting a policy on home-based workers, which will initiate the process of recognising these workers as a part of the labour force. But Umm-e-Laila of Homenet doubts this will happen. “Organising domestic workers is an extreme challenge. Identifying these workers needs grassroots administration.” Labour Party Pakistan spokesperson Farooq Tariq says: “Home-based workers are treated like leftovers of the labour force…The government should force investors into opening registered industrial units and then facilitate labourers there.”
The Punjab labour department has no statistics on labourers, let alone gender specific data. The labour department registers factories and social security registers workers. However, workers can only be registered if they have an employment letter, which in the existing ‘thaikaydar’ culture is often not given to people.
Unionisation could help workers in fighting for their rights, but the Punjab Industrial Relations Act 2010 does not permit unionisation if less than 50 employees are working. Also, only workers with employment letters can form unions. Without the right to form a united front, women across the province continue to suffer.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2012.