Jewel embellished head wear on its journey of creation in hands of home-based women worker

Jewel embellished head wear on its journey of creation in hands of home-based women worker

Economic, social, domestic and other working conditions of home-based women workers (HBWW) who comprise 70% of the informal workforce contributing towards the Pakistan’s economic activities have been deteriorating. They are meagrely paid on piece-rate basis, are devoid of maternal or any paid leave and are not subsidized for health insurance or pension benefits. Not only HBWWs are invisible in Pakistan’s economy but their employers enjoying full share of profit go without trace too.

The HBWW community exists in almost every low-income urban locality as well as in remote rural settlements remain amongst the most exploited group of workers today. Poor households are disproportionately located in the rural areas of Pakistan constituting more than 85 percent of the total poor households. Bulk of HBWW live and work in ‘on-the margin’ survival conditions and do a variety of jobs for industry and trade, ranging from sewing garments, assembling electronic components to simple jobs of sorting, packaging and labelling goods. As a workforce, HBWW have been remained largely invisible.

Among many other villages of District Dadu, Sindh “Sohrab Bhugio” holds a special place in my memory. Back in 2014 when I first visited this village, I was struck by awe, seeing every single woman as old as 80 and girl as young as 8 embossing intricate thread work design to manufacture Sindhi topi (cap). It was a sight to remember; dozens of women sitting under failing shadows, chatting astutely with hands of seasoned professional moving compulsorily, in strange urgency. Moment of brief uneasiness spun on every face that I extended a handshake with. Perhaps! I was an intruder who wasted sacred moments of hands at commendation of Lugh.

Cutting and preparation of Sindhi men head wear for embroidery by woman home based worker

Cutting and preparation of Sindhi men head wear for embroidery by woman home based worker

This village, home of 500 families had an extraordinary story to tell. Eighteen years ago,Mukhtar, one of residents received 7 years prison sentence for trespassing and stealing cattle. As a prisoner in a central jail of Karachi, famous for its reformative approaches, he received vocational training for Sindhi cap craft. After serving time he returned to his home with an ambition and converted Sohrab Bhugio in a mini-factory of hand-made, traditionally wore Sindhi caps by Sindhi men.  Intelligently he divided manufacturing process into stages and trained every woman as his informal women employee with distinct set of skills suitable for that stage. Some learned skills of cutting, others of stitching, some learned hand embroidery and some machine embroidery; but they learned only as much as was required. Once Human resource for each stage was in place, he formed clusters and designated one woman worker as supervisor of that cluster.  He mentored his son to keep inventory record of disposed raw material, distribute raw material at doorsteps of women workers,  transfer of unfinished product to next stage, and carry quality assurance at every stage. Mukhtar kept finance and marketing departments to himself. Soon he became well-trusted and steady supplier of Sindhi caps in market of Khanpur city.  It is remarkable journey where an illiterate, formerly troubled and a very poor individual enables himself to raise seed money for his business, employs and trains his whole village, becomes principal investor, sole dealer and distributor of product to have a comfortable and luxury life in city. I wish it could have been a happy ending to a succes story but, now, there is more to it. Success of business is often flawed with exploitation of workers; a complex situation to address.

Among 500 households of the village with average household size of 8, none have training and capability to manufacture and fully assemble a cap. Every woman is paid different informal per-piece rate depending on work; HBWW doing simple embroidery on circular portion of cap were paid 20 R- less than a US quarter, one sewing fancy lace were paid 10 Rs. and those stitching all parts together were paid 15 Rs and so on. For last 11 years since the inception of business all women and girls have been working exclusively for same business owner but wages have not seen any change despite inflation and worse floods. If anyone gets sick, there is no entitlement of paid leave. No work means no money, simply laid. When probed, then, Bachul, 49 years old  skilled woman worked said, “I have 4 daughters and we all do embroidery work. Collectively we finish around 350 to 360 pieces a month and earn 4500 to 5200 rupees per month depending on part of cap that we finish”, her hands constantly at work even when she spoke to me and not understanding when I said, “Would not it be better if your girls go to school and making your girls work at this age is snatching away their childhood”. She simply added, ” our family is getting more money since they have started working”.

Despite multiple attempts by non-profits and USAID in area, girl school enrollment programs face substantial challenge in moving young girls out of invisible and under-paid informal home-based skilled worker employment industry.

Eight years old girl at work for payment of less than US quarter per piece

Social security and medical insurance is non-existent and girl child labor is at peak.  At average one informal worker earns, devastatingly meager 1500 Rs wages, equal to USD 15, after 230 hours of skilled labour. Obsession to finish as many pieces as possible had cost them their health and emotions. These rural artists, see a new goat, a new dress on holiday, a better meal or an opportunity of affording better sham to dowry, in every knot of thread, they place.

When probed on collective bargain for better wages, answer was straight, “Yes we have tried, many times, he refuses. If we push it too hard he can easily give this work to women in other village. We are dependent on him, not he. None of us want to lose what we have”, Seema, 67, said innocently, giving a silent glance to her sick husband, asleep between flock of flies in humid shadow of mud corridor. These women living, cut-off and culture-bound, lives were unaware of their collective and fantastic power to bring change in their own income situation. They couldn’t, possibly, realize that being businessman, it would not be easy to shift business to women in next village because it will not only cost him time and money but also a potential conflict and resistance for intruding in someone else’s business territory. It is classic scenario of mind game where one playing it right gets to enjoy power. For development professionals this story with simple texture but complex weaving has a lot to think about.

Most of times development NGOs focused on vocational training programs for communities struggle with establishing sustainable private sector linkages for promoting community based entrepreneurship. This story is living example that how a village itself can be transformed in to an income generation hub, only if vocational and business training plans are carefully tailored for needs of community. There is also a lesson that empowering communities by providing income opportunity may not be enough. Neatly laid out human and labour rights advocacy plans are required to avoid possible exploitation of community by community members in a long run. It is a challenge for development professionals to live up to. Appropriate use of incredible knowledge produced by social researchers and non-profit communities has great potential to address this challenge. Securing labour rights and enabling skilled invisible working communities in today’s complex society are one of many issues  for government, non-profit and advocates to address. I hope that we, with burden of knowledge and awareness of right-thing-to-do, will continue doing our part to make this world a better place for everyone to live in.

IMG_0754Disclaimer: Author gained insight for this post during field trip as former employee of UN-Women, DRR, DRM focused project in flood afflicted communities. At present she is serving with Concern Worldwide as Social Impact Innovation Officer. She believes in equal opportunity for all and right to decent earning.