Labour Day: Working from home for a pittance

Rights activists demand better conditions for home-based workers.

Saleha Rauf May 01, 2011


Samina Rafiq decorates bangles with laces and beads at home. She says she makes some 50 sets of bangles every day, which gets her about Rs200, even though the bangle sets sell for between Rs80 and Rs200.

“I have no means to market the bangles so I can’t open my own business,” she said. “But I get work throughout the year, especially in Ramazan, so it’s a steady if low income.”

Rafiq’s situation illustrates the dilemma faced by millions of home-based women workers in Pakistan. They are skilled labourers but get very low wages, largely due to a lack of education and in the absence of help from the government, say labour rights activists.

“No law protects informal labourers from exploitation. The minimum wage law has failed in the formal sector because of the poor monitoring bodies and weak public sector. What can we expect from the informal sector?” said Working Women Organisation director Aima Mehmood.

Low wages are the rule. Ahmada, 22, lives in Shahdara Town and has been working as a dyer for a clothing business for the last three years. “I get Rs15 for dying one piece,” she said. “All the materials I use I make or buy myself. I find it to be really hectic work but I am used to it now.”

Iqbal from Faisalabad prepares yarn. She said she gets Rs3 for preparing 12 packets of yarn, each of which contains 12 threads. “It used to take me a lot of time putting the label inside the plastic cover, but I’m a master at it now,” she said.

The Ministry for Women’s Development drew up a National Policy on Home-based Workers in 2007 under which such labourers were promised the right of association, collective bargaining, health care coverage and registration. But the policy has not been implemented, say activists.

“There are no unions even in the formal sector so I don’t expect one in the informal sector,” said labour rights activist Dr Rubina Saigol. “One thing that can be implemented is that every union council should bring the home-based labourers, especially women, together so they can interact with each other.

That way they can see what kinds of wages other workers are getting, so the women can know if they are being exploited.”

According to Saigol, the informal sector contributes $32 billion to the national economy each year. She said home-based women labourers account for $12 billion of this.

Umme Laila, director of Homenet Pakistan, a group of organisations working for labour rights, said women workers were easily exploited because they were unaware of how the market works.

“The other major problem for women workers besides wages is health,” she said. “For example, in some places women produce incense sticks at home. The preparation involves a hazardous chemical. And they get only seven to nine rupees for 1,000 sticks.”

Umme Laila suggested that the government draw up legislation for home-based workers using research conducted by various NGOs. She said there should not be a huge emphasis on registration of the informal sector, because in some cases this was not helpful.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2011.

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