Shamim Bano has been an invisible worker for 40 years. Working 12 hours a day from home as a “cultivator” in the port city of Karachi, she cuts loose threads from clothes and makes samosas to sell at school.
Bano is paid around 25 Pakistani rupees (£ 0.10) a day. It is a precarious existence for home-based workers in Pakistan, without access to social security benefits or pensions. Most of these informal workers are women.
But now Bano has been seen – as the first to register under a new law that will finally recognize his work. Sindh province will enact a law to provide employment rights to around 3 million informal workers.
In 2018 Sindh passed Homeworkers Act, making Pakistan the only country in South Asia where homeworkers are recognized as legal workers. Although the country’s three other provinces have not followed suit, it is believed that 12 million people across Pakistan are home-based workers, making clothes, shoes and crafts from their living rooms.
About 80% of them are women. Their contribution to the economy is substantial – the informal sector accounts for 71% of jobs in Pakistan outside of agriculture, according to Labor Force Survey for 2017–18. In rural areas 75% of the people are classified as informal workers.
In the dilapidated one-room office of the Home Garment Workers Union in Karachi last week, Bano became the first woman working from home in Sindh to register with the provincial government’s labor department. She will now be eligible for social, medical and maternity benefits, and will also be eligible for government grants to help pay for weddings and funerals.
“I don’t know when I will really be able to enjoy the benefits, but I am satisfied I am at the forefront of the struggle, said Bano, who lives with her husband, two daughters, son, son-in-law and three grandchildren. “Even to this point, and that I am able to help so many other women, including my daughter have a future, is better than… [getting this myself]. ”
It’s a long journey to get to this point. That Home Workers Federation (HBWWF), has fought for its 3,500 members to claim social security benefits and receive a living wage since 2009.
Zehra Khan, secretary general of the federation, said the “historic” registration proves that “when scattered workers, especially women, organize themselves, they can move mountains and fight capitalist greed”.
Khan added that the registration process will also provide a true picture of the number of home-based workers.
As she filled out her registration form, Saira Feroze, 36, general secretary of the union that belongs to the federation, said she never thought “we will be recognized as workers for our whole life”, and it seems “like a distant dream”.
The registration process will begin in August, but Covid-19 restrictions are delaying its launch. Now the Feroze Union tries to make up for lost time. “We are now taking it upon ourselves to start over at our end, fill out the form and submit it to the labor department,” he said.
The delay in registration meant that women working from home did not qualify for the government’s emergency cash payment program during the Covid-19 lockdown, which had a major impact on home-based workers.
Bano’s husband lost his livelihood selling snacks at a kiosk during the closure.
“There are no jobs,” said Bano’s daughter, Sumera Azeem. “We have to take out a loan to be able to buy groceries. We haven’t paid the 7,000 rupee monthly house rent since April, or the electricity and gas bill. “
Zahida Perveen, president of HBWWF, said many homeworkers were already living together when the city jammed in March. “The second wave of Covid-19 is hitting us and with food inflation reaching its peak, I doubt if we can count on this government to help us,” he said.
“If the registration process is not postponed, many of us can take advantage of the government emergency cash payment. “