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Doubly marginalised HBWs bear the brunt of lockdown

By Xari Jalil 2020-05-12
LAHORE: Neelum, a home-based worker, is facing hardships since the onset of the lockdown as her entire set-up of doing embroidery on shirts has closed down completely while her expenditures remain sl(y high. Rent, food and school fees of her children are among the several fixed costs that she must bear even when everything else is shut. She claims to have contacted several welfare organisations that claim to be providing ration to the needy and even tried to avail government support schemes but in vain.

Neelum is not alone who is facing this predicament as there are several others around her facing the same issue. Fozia, a widow in her 40s, must support her children through cropping (cutting loose threads from finished shirts) and stone work.

`All our work has stopped we had a routine, a pattern that has all been disturbed,` shelaments. `We are only daily-wage workers but the wages were helping us run the household.

Now we have to beg for some kind of relief.

Fozia would get only Rs500 for every 500 shirts she does, a meagre amount for the work she does.

The informal economy makes around 74pc of the total economy with a majority of women worl(ing invisibly as home-based workers (HBWs), domestic workers, contract workers in factories as well as those in rural economy (farms and kilns), etc. A huge chunk of these informal workers are HBWs and a majority of them are women. But like all other informal workers, HBWs also do not have social protection and they are engaged with the enterprises, which are not registered. However, they are also subcontracted by national and international supply chains and are paid per piece, bundle or amount of work they do. Even in regular circumstances, these workers do not earn enough to help them have a decent living,in fact they put their health and safety at risk sometimes to produce as much as they can in order to earn more. But ever since beginning of the Covid-19 and the lockdown, their lives took the turn for the worst Most HBW women, numbering in millions, started losing work in February as fears of the virus spread increased. Since many of the raw materials these workers rely on come from different countries, including China, they were unable to get supplies or had to pay more for the inputs. This affected those who produced garments as well as those who assembled electronics, games and other products. Such women reportthatthey have notreceived orders orgot the regular orders renewed for weeks now.

`Many workers were unable to stockpile raw materials before the lockdown began. Others had not got enough money or even space to stockpile,` says Umme Laila, the executive director of the Home Net Pakistan, an organisation that has been lobbying for workers`rights and has successfully been involved in passing a bill on domestic workers last year.

`But now, during the lockdown, they have been unable to use this time to make more products that they can sell later.

Fazeelat, a group leader from Kasur, has provided the data of deserving HBWs to the Punjab government but it has been a month and she has not received any reply.

`Women HBWs do not have smartphones and I am helping them register with EhsaasProgram but they can hardly pay for it. The local DC is not paying heed to our applications,` she says Haseena Ali explains that her work has been very badly affected as to social distancing, the women cannot sit together and work. She recently initiated a vocational centre in her area as the girls there were not allowed to step outside their houses because of cultural barriers. But just as the place began showing progress, the lockdown started. Now Haseena is left with paying the rent of the building as wellas the salary ofthe teachers.

`It is a huge loss for me and it will take many months to recover,` she bemoans.

Durre Shahwar, a part of Mazdoor Ikath and CEO at APWA (All Pakistan Women Association), says while the year-long exploitation was going on anyway, the Covid lockdown has made it worse. About 85pc of all textile workers are from the informal sector, she says, and 60pc of them are women.

Ms Shahwar says most of these women in the informal sector do not have the CNICs and therefore, they cannot receive the relief from Ehsaas programme. `In Umar Colony at Ferozepur Road, I found only one or two women who have received this relief. In Model Colony and the DHA, most were Christian and were not even getting Zakat.

After the lockdown, Shahwar foresees not only the wages going down but also the school going girls sitting at home to contribute in excess work.