LAHORE, Pakistan, March 13 (UPI Next) -- Some human rights activists in Pakistan have welcomed proposed federal government policies and provincial legislation aimed at improving conditions for the country's home-based workers.
HomeNet Pakistan, a collection of organizations that advocates for rights of such workers, estimates 5 million Pakistanis work from home for other employers, with 80 percent of them women and 65 percent living in urban or semiurban areas. They work in informal and unorganized areas such as garment making, hand-loom weaving and selling newspapers.
"They face modern slavery in the sense that they work indoors for 12 hours, but only get $1 or less per day in many cases," Umme Laila Azhar, executive director of HomeNet Pakistan, told UPI Next.
"Since home-based workers are mostly illiterate women and belong to conservative society, they do not know [the] market value of their work, and outsource contractors exploit them at their free will," Azhar said. In addition, Azhar said, home-based workers are not covered by labor laws or protected by a social security net.
The federal and provincial initiatives are still being prepared, but governments at both levels plan to accord home-based workers special workers status and give them some benefits, such as fixed minimum wages, contracts and work hours.
The International Labor Organization says the Asia-Pacific region has the world's highest number of home-based workers but lags far behind in terms of guaranteeing basic rights and protections.
Although home-based workers comprise the second-largest subsector of the informal economy, their labor is not considered real; they do not have the basic rights and protections others do, such as specified working hours, minimum wages, maternity protection and a weekly day off. They live in poor parts of cities and remote rural areas, unaware of their rights. Urbanization is increasing the number of home-based workers without social and legal protection.
Maryam Bibi, a 35-year-old Lahore woman who weaves carpets at home for her employer, is worried about paying school fees for three of her children. She told UPI Next she was unaware of labor laws and government social security programs.
She said her eyesight is suffering from her work and that while she is paid weekly, "If there is a slight delay in giving work done back to [the] contractor, he delays our payment or sometimes denies payment."
Muhammad Ramzan, a Lahore middleman, who brings assignments for home-based workers for multiple companies, claimed ignorance of government law and policy about women workers.
"In many cases, home-based workers complete our work with the assistance of their low-skilled or unskilled daughters and sisters. They deliberately delay our work. In this way, they spoil our work. We are forced to cut their wages or delay their payments," Ramzan said.
Seema Bilal, 40, a home-based worker in Multan district in Punjab province, said her work depends on the season.
"In wedding seasons, I work on embroidery of bridal clothes. In mango season, I pack mangoes," she said.
She said inflation has reduced the buying power of her earnings, which have stayed constant for three years.
"I cannot properly feed my eight children, since my husband has been jobless for many years," she said.
Federal Women Development Minister Waheedah Hameeduddin told UPI Next the government is taking steps for the betterment of home-based workers.
She said a new federal policy in the offing will require provinces or states to come up with legislation to grant rights to home-based workers. In Pakistan, provincial governments, not the federal government, determine benefits.
"Sindh and Punjab provinces are making legislation for according special worker status to home-based workers while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces will also follow suit after the announcement of the policy," Hameeduddin said. She said the government would leave no stone unturned in implementing wages laws for these workers.
"The government will provide training facilities for alternative skills and will link them with the job market," Hameeduddin said.
Shaheena Kausar, secretary-general of the Punjab chapter of the Woman Workers Union, lauded the new laws being prepared and federal policy concerning women workers.
"The biggest thing is that the government of Pakistan is constantly and seriously pursuing the policies and laws about home-based workers," she said.
She expressed satisfaction over the pace of work on legislation in Sindh and Punjab provinces and federal policy formation.
Salman Abid, regional director of Strengthening Participatory Organization, a pro-democracy organization, said he appreciated that the government is serious about rights for home-based workers who are mostly illiterate women.
However, Abid expressed reservations about the proposed laws and policies, saying women who labor at home had not been recognized as workers under some proposed laws.
Muhammad Hasnat, a director of Punjab's provincial Labor Department, said a draft law was being prepared to address issues of home-based workers.
"Our department prepared a fresh draft law in 2013 and sent it to the Law Department, but the Law Department sent it back to us with objections,” Hasnat said. “The major issue is enforcement of the law. We are holding meetings to chalk out strategies for its effective implementation.
"The Labor Department is also preparing a home-based workers policy, which hopefully will be implemented in 2014.
"After the policy is implemented, the home-based workers will get social security benefits like [the] Employees Old Age Benefit [program] and Benazir Income Support Program," Hasnat told UPI Next.
"The law will ensure the application of all rights, including contracts, minimum wages, social protection coverage, maternity protection, and safe and fair conditions of work for home-based workers," Hasnat said.
"They will enjoy core labor standards. The role of intermediaries and middle persons will come to an end after implementation of the law.”
The measure will become law after two-thirds of members approve it, Hasnat said. After approval, an implementation committee will be formed to put the law into effect.