While the coronavirus pandemic has upended millions of lives in myriad ways, one of the most-severely affected group has been home-based women workers.
Home-based workers (HBW) are defined as individuals who produce goods in or near their homes for local, domestic or global markets and are in contact with middlemen connected to buyers they hardly know. Many HBWs produce goods under sub-contracts for global chains as this saves the latter’s cost of paying full-time workers decent wages, social security benefits and health coverage, etc. Severely underpaid, HBWs suit big businesses as they work in their own space, consume their own electricity and sometimes engage entire families to increase the volume of work — thus reducing the company’s input costs and increasing profits.
Of the estimated 20 million HBWs in Pakistan, 12 million are said to be women. According to a UN Women report in 2016, women account for 65% of the then Rs400 billion which HBWs contribute to Pakistan’s economy.
Since the ongoing pandemic has brought about one of the worst economic downturns the world has ever witnessed, women HBWs are without work as demand has slumped. Since they get paid on a ‘per piece’ rate, there is no fixed salary and no work means no money.
“In Pakistan, work began to slow down in February as fears of the virus spread,” explained Ume Laila Azhar, executive director of HomeNet Pakistan. She said that as entire supply chains came crashing down after global trade came to a halt, HBWs were left without work since most raw materials they rely on are imported, and that too mostly from China — the epicentre of the virus outbreak. Moreover, the drop in demand from international businesses only made matters worse.
Haseena Ali, an HBW from Nathan Khan Goth, Karachi, explained that the pandemic has severely affected her work. Due to social distancing, she added, HBWs are unable to sit together in their localities and make products.
Since various industries and markets were closed for a long period due to the government’s lockdowns, HBWs were unable to purchase raw materials which brought their income to zero. The worst hit are families where women HBWs are the main bread earners.
Nabeela, an HBW from Lahore, said the ban on large-scale weddings and slow business activity around the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday affected workers who engage in embroidery, stitching, bangle-making and henna designs. “The worst part is that they have no idea when things will go back to normal,” she lamented.
Ume Laila of HomeNet Pakistan shared that due to poor wages, HBWs have not been able to save and social protection is not built into their wages. Resultantly, they live hand-to-mouth and are not even covered under the government’s Ehsaas programme. She informed that members and partners of the international Clean Clothes Campaign have called for an urgent need to fund support workers, especially garment workers, who are living under dire circumstances following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the same initiative, HomeNet Pakistan received a small amount which is being used for distribution of food, PPE and raw materials among HBWs, she explained, adding that such relief work is a drop in the ocean and the real support needs to come from the government both in terms of material assistance and giving suitable work to HBWs.