KARACHI: Rs4,000 per month. That is the worth of Firdous who works at a local garment factory for 12 hours every day.
As she looked at the panelists with worn out eyes and spoke about her plight, they assured her that there were a lot of others like her who could speak up together, make a union and get the rights they deserved. Firdous was attending the Women Workers’ Convention, along with 60 other women from her area. She had been promised she would be educated about her constitutional rights and civil liberties as a female member of the workforce. The other eight participants included female workers from Hyderabad.
The minimum wage was set at Rs11,000 for the fiscal year, 2014-15 by the Government of Sindh. Most of the workers at the convention were not even getting half the amount.
A female labourer, who works for a private contractor of a spices manufacturer, told The Express Tribune that she gets paid Rs10 to peel every kilo of ginger, taking home Rs4000 per month. Yet another worker claimed she had worked in a garment factory for the last 10 years for Rs3000 to Rs4,500 per month.
Ama Raaji, 65, who had come from Hyderabad with other glass cleaners who work for a bangle-making factory, got kicked out of the factory for attending a similar convention four months ago. She is still unemployed. Raaji held up her hands to show the deep scars that ran across her arms from her work in the factory. “Imagine how much blood must have spilt when it happened,” she said. Two other women from the same factory came forward and pointed towards their eyes that were a mixture of red and yellow instead of white. The glass had hit their eyes while they were cleaning it.
“We get paid Rs280 per day and are replaced if we take leaves”, they said. Mehwish Hina from the Legal Rights Forum, who had brought these women from Hyderabad, said they were not even given maternity leaves. “They sit outside and work in the scorching sun the whole day,” she said.
The panelists, including Justice (retd) Majida Rizvi, Rifat Paracha and Shehla Rizvi, stressed the need for organised female labour unions to solve these issues. The purpose of the convention was not only to spread awareness but to help prepare the female labourers to defend their own rights.
“It is commendable that these working women have dedicated a whole day to raise a voice against the discrimination they face,” said the Women Development Foundation’s Sabiha Shah, appreciating the participants who had come out to know their rights and laws.
“A majority of the women work as domestic workers because of the social boundaries our society has constructed for women in rural and urban slums,” said Shah, speaking about the socio-economic condition of women workers in Sindh.
There are two kinds of workers: informal and formal, but the laws and incentives are exclusive for formal workers, explained Shafiq Gauri, of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research. No religion, sect or culture stops women from working. It is the man-made norms and values that have put up these barriers, he said. “In every situation, a woman is a worker, whether she works at home or in a company,” he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2014.