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Exploited and Unprotected: The Life of Pakistan’s Home-Based Workers

The home-based workers of Pakistan are unprotected by law, leaving them open to economic abuse from their families and exploitation by middlemen. But experts disagree on how best to help them.

Written by Amel Ghani Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Taking up home-based work has become essential for many Pakistani women. But is it empowering?Hashoo Foundation (CC BY-SA 2.0)

LAHORE, Pakistan – Razia Mashooq is 40 years old. She lives in a two-room house and spends almost 19 hours a day sitting on the floor, stitching clothes. She makes around 400 rupees ($4) for every suit she stitches, for a total of less than 22,000 rupees ($200) a month.

Mashooq is one of Pakistan’s 12 million female home-based workers. She took up tailoring, she says, because her husband is a daily wage laborer and doesn’t make enough money to support the family alone. They have no savings.

“Whenever I get a payment, I spend it almost immediately because there is always some need that has to be taken care of,” Mashooq says. “There is no point in keeping track.”

Deciding to work wasn’t easy. Before she married, Mashooq did not have to work to support herself. But after she began living with her husband, she found she did not have enough to get by.

One day, she asked her husband for money to visit her parents and buy some gifts to take to them.

“He gave me only 14 rupees (13 cents), which was just enough for the two-way bus fare,“ she says. She was so upset that she could not buy gifts for her family that she decided she had to make her own money.

It was then that Mashooq decided to put to work the only skill she had. She used to help her mother sew clothes for her siblings, and so began asking people in her neighborhood if they wanted clothes stitched.

Driven to Work by Poverty

While many international development programs dedicated to women’s advancement emphasize work as an emancipatory tool for women, home-based workers in Pakistan often don’t feel empowered by their ability to work and make money. They are from extremely low-income households and despite the hard work they put in, can barely scrape together a living.

survey of 9,000 households in 2016 showed that 76 percent of home-based workers decided to take up work because of poverty.

“I work because I have to. I don’t want my daughter to do this type of work,” Mashooq says. She is hopeful that her daughter will be married into a house where her husband can take care of her needs.

study by Gender Southasia published last year found that most home-based workers in Pakistan face economic abuse, and they have little control over how they spend the money they earn.

Fatimah Ihsan, who was part of the research team for the study, said home-based workers are overwhelmingly working out of necessity.

“If you look at the global economy, they are the lowest tier in the supply value chain,” she says. “No laws apply to them because they are in the informal sector. If they aren’t self-employed, the rate is set by contractors and they accept exploitative work conditions because they have to feed themselves.”

Mashooq is self-employed and does not rely on middlemen to find her work. But there are many women who need to work but have no tangible skills, or who depend on contractors to bring them work such as packing up clothes, making flower garlands or basic cooking.

Zia ul-Qamar used to be one of these women.

Her husband is a government employee, but he did not contribute to the house. “I don’t know how much he used to earn, but he would give me 3,000 rupees a month ($27),” she says. When she found out her daughter had a weak heart valve, “I had to work for her, to make sure we could buy her the medicine she needed.”

In the beginning, Qamar would travel from Lahore to Peshawar, buy cloth from a wholesale market and come back and sell it on to shopkeepers. She says she made good money doing that, but when she herself fell ill with stomach cancer, she could no longer continue to travel for work. Once she was in remission, she decided to work from home instead.

Qamar and 15 other women struck up a trade sewing lining into girls’ school uniforms from their homes. A contractor would come to Qamar’s doorstep, drop off the material and the women would work throughout the day, making an overall daily profit for 800 rupees ($7), which they split between the group.

Now Qamar has become a community leader, helping other women improve their lives. She has set up a sewing center in her house with the help of HomeNetan NGO working throughout South Asia to build solidarity among home-based workers. The project is funded by Oxfam.

Women who already know how to stitch teach the skill to others in the community and together, they decide on a basic fee to pay each worker. Qamar makes sure women’s husbands are on board with their work, and helps organize care when their children are sick.

“If this project can help young girls gain some skills which might help them, why not?” Qamar says. Unlike Mashooq, she does want her children to be involved with home-based working. “I’m also going to enroll my daughters and daughters-in-law.”

Securing the Rights of Home-Based Workers

Yet some are critical of the work that NGOs such as HomeNet are doing.

“These women face tough competition in the market and the NGOs aren’t doing anything to help them escape the exploitative jobs they’re caught up in,” Zehra Khan, the general secretary of the Home Based Women Workers Federation in Karachi, says.

To improve conditions for home-based workers, HomeNet Pakistan has been advocating to bring informal workers into Pakistan’s social security system. The idea, HomeNet Pakistan Executive Director Umme Laila Azhar says, is to have home-based workers recognized under the law so they can be given the same rights as other workers in the country, including a minimum wage, occupational safety and health insurance.

But Khan says this approach is not enough. She wants home-based workers, not NGOs, to lead the conversation about improving policy.

“Look at the training programs run by NGOs. How many women have come out of them and taken leadership positions? Forget that – how many have even been able to start a business of their own? These [programs] don’t break the chains of exploitation,” she says.

Still, some states have heeded the calls for reform. In 2015, the government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest state, introduced a definition for home-based workers in its Labor Policy and made them eligible to register unions in the province.

Both the Sindh and Punjab governments have taken a lead in formulating policies for home-based workers. These policies aim to provide a minimum wage to home based-workers, bring them under the social security net, give them freedom of association and provide training opportunities. But neither piece of legislation has been passed.

They may disagree on tactics, but Azhar and Khan both think these policies are necessary.

“Everybody is on board with this – the labor departments and the policy makers,” Azhar says. “All they need is a formal approval from the parliament.”

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