Pakistan’s home-based women workers face some of the most challenging working conditions and remain highly vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination, says a recent World Bank report. Now, the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have taken the initiative to improve their lives.
Poor levels of education, staunchly patriarchal settings, restrictions on their movement, and overriding customary laws have kept Pakistan’s women indoors – and out of work. As a result, women’s participation rate in the country’s workforce is a mere 20 per cent, the lowest in SouthAsia.
The inertia has always needed a disruption, or, more aptly, a SHIFT – yes, that is the acronym for a national programme called Securing Human Investments to Foster Transformation that the provincial governments of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have undertaken. The programme has chiselled the rights of home-based workers to impel an improvement in the conditions they work in.
The new laws promise to ameliorate the conditions for 3.6 million women working from homes. Besides, this has resulted in the adoption of 10 laws by the two provincial assemblies with an eye on extending informal home-based workers’ access to social security and fair wages. Besides making equal pay and non- discrimination a right, formalising the set-up also mean a range of basic services – from accessing childcare to separate toilets to affordable and convenient transportation.
“The need for enhanced legal protection for women workers to improve their access to basic facilities in the formal sector was identified as a critical challenge during consultations with experts on gender and social inclusion in Pakistan.”
Recognised as formal workers
The SHIFT program is geared to respond to gaps in legal coverage pertaining to women workers both in the formal and informal sectors to enable greater female labour force participation in Pakistan, says a World Bank report on SHIFT.
For one, Pakistan has lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night, a measure that has eased women’s access to labour force and lifting constraints for them.
The laws are expected to impact a sizable proportion of at least 4.4 million vulnerable home-based workers in Pakistan. According to the World Bank report, the data collection activities will be critical in developing a deeper understanding of the impact of the legal reforms. Further, amendments in labour laws (Shops and Establishments, and Factories Acts) achieved through the SHIFT reforms will ensure better working conditions and facilities for 3.7 million women workers in the formal private sector, reduce restrictions on women’s work hours, and encourage more women to enter and stay in the workforce.
“For the first time, hundreds of thousands of informal home-based workers living in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces will be recognised as formal workers because of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan’s laws for home-based work,” says Zehra Khan, General Secretary, Home Based Women Workers Federation. “This is a great achievement for women HBWs who have been demanding for their labour rights to access minimum wage and social security for decades.”
Discrimination and exploitation
The lack of data on the extent of women home-based workers doesn’t help, but it is agreed that women form over three-fourths of Pakistan’s home-based workers. Remunerations are low – often on a piece-rate for their role in a textile or leather produce manufacturing or supply chain. Some are engaged in agricultural-allied activities like raising livestock or for by-products from the agricultural processes.
The new laws take into account the exploitation home-based workers face at the hands of the contractors and middlemen and their limited access to markets, training, and to most public services and work amenities. “HBWs (home based workers) lack rights and social protections, face greater work and safety hazards, and are given little to no consideration in economic and labour policies,” the World Bank report says.
It particularly alludes to women facing discrimination in being remunerated for their work and how the adoption of modern, friendly provisions at the workplace in the form of segregated toilets, childcare facilities and transportation help enhance their participation in business and production, courtesy the SHIFT programme.
Secondly, the report also highlights how gender-based legal discrimination has dotted labour work – in terms of hours they give and also in terms of unequal remuneration for work of equal value as compared to men. The amendment of the factories act, shops, and establishments act by the two provincial assemblies is a step in this direction, it says.
Jointly with the provincial labour departments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the World Bank has initiated work to collect data to bridge knowledge gaps and develop more responsive programmes based on evidence.
There is now recognition that data and legislations serve as the springboard to improve the lives of women workers some of the most marginalised communities.
Image: Zofeen Ebrahim / IPS