Pakistan: new union for women workers in domestic industry

06 March 2016

By Alisha Arshad

IN PAKISTAN, women are largely confined to working in the huge “informal” sector, which employs about three quarters of the total workforce of an estimated 65 million in the cities, towns and countryside.

Workers in this sector, male or female, are not covered by the country’s labour regulations. They have no entitlement to social security, health services or insurance, and no holiday pay or pensions. Most of these workers earn below the official “minimum wage”.

Women form the overwhelming majority in these “home-based industries”, either working in their own homes or in small workshops of up to 20 women. Although their work is part of the production chain for large Pakistani or international monopolies (in textiles, packing, toys and product assembly), they are not directly employed by such companies. Instead, they work for “middlemen”, contractors and subcontractors.

Women work for up to 14 hours a day, often earning less than 100 rupees (£1.10) per day. They are not paid on an hourly basis but on a piece-rate. This means that, if the contractor claims that their work is not good enough, they will get no pay, or have to work “overtime” for free.

In addition, if they get ill or pregnant, women lose their income. On top of that, they often have to pay for the machinery and tools and their maintenance. This in turn forces them into debt with “their” contractor, from whom they often face sexual harassment and threats of violence.

This degrading form of super-exploitation is not a hangover from the ancient past; it has become really widespread precisely under neoliberal capitalism. Though these conditions echo the earliest years of capitalist development in Europe, they are linked directly to the large monopolies in the West.

However what is true is that this system would be impossible without the traditional oppressive patriarchal family system in which Pakistani women’s oppression is rooted. The mobility of women is extremely restricted by traditional religious and cultural “values”. They should not leave their homes on their own, particularly in the early morning or in the evening. Women who travel to work on their own are frequently harassed.

In addition the low wages of women in home-based industries are often considered only an “extra” within their families’ income, reflected in the fact that, on average, working women earn about half of a man’s wage, thereby maintaining and reinforcing the woman’s dependence.

To make matters worse in Pakistan, the growing Islamist forces promote the idea that wage labour for women is shameful, an idea particularly accepted by much of the petit-bourgeoisie and the “middle class”.

Fighting back

No one should expect any improvement for working class women from the Pakistani ruling class or, for that matter, from the Western corporations who buy up and sell the goods produced or assembled in the home-based industries. Their liberal, “progressive” wing tries to present the oppression of women as solely the result of “ancient” and backward forms of exploitation and values. But Pakistani and Western capitalists are not prepared to sacrifice the extra profits they gain from the denial of women’s and workers’ rights.

Working class women cannot afford to wait for capitalists or bourgeois parties to help them. Their only way forward is to organise themselves as workers. In recent months, that is exactly what women workers, with the aid of trade unionists from other sectors and members of the League for the Fifth International in Pakistan, organised around the paper Revolutionary Socialist have been doing. They have started to build the Home-based and Domestic Workers’ Union (HDWU), starting in Punjab and in particular in Lahore.

We are only at the beginning of this work, but more than 1,000 women have already joined. They are organised in branches at the estate level. Obviously, their first task is to fight for the consolidation and recognition of the union itself. Activists from the HDWU not only distribute leaflets and organise branch meetings, but also hold weekly “street corner” meetings (often actually in backyards) with up to 100 workers, almost exclusively women, attending. At the last meeting in February, 40 women joined.

This shows that the unorganised are eager to get organised. Together with other unions and organisations in the labour movement, the HDWU also wants to start a campaign against the whole “contract system”, for a minimum wage, social security and free education for working class children plus safety regulations for home-based work.

These are demands which, as the union organisers and the comrades of the League are well aware, need a political struggle. Indeed, the whole campaign expresses a wider reality of the class struggle facing both working class women and men in Pakistan. Against a background of a fragmented working class, a highly militarised state apparatus, the War on Terror, the oppression of minority nationalities and the intervention of different imperialist powers, building effective, mass-based unions is a highly political issue. How much more so is the building of a union mainly composed of women workers? That is why the fight to establish the HDWU is closely tied to the struggle for a working class party that fights both women’s oppression and capitalist exploitation.

Alisha is a supporter of the Revolutionary Socialist Movement, Pakistan section of the League for the Fifth International

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