The year 2020 has been turned into the year of gloominess and loss, especially for the informal sector workers. Because COVID-19 has impacted daily wage earners to severity leaving them laid off and without money.
In Pakistan, where millions of women do piecework for national and international brands, work began to fall off in February as fear of the virus spread. Since many of the raw materials these workers rely on come from different countries including China, they were unable to get supplies on time or had to pay more. This affected those who produce garments as well as those who assemble electronics, games and other products.
Home-based workers who are self-employed are also without income as governments around the world impose lockdowns. The situation is critical in Pakistan too. Home-based workers (HBWs) cannot meet with customers or clients. Also, many were unable to stockpile raw materials before lockdowns began. They might not have had time, storage space or the available cash to do so. This prevents them from using this time in isolation to amass products that they can sell once the lockdown is over. Although, there is relaxation in lockdown in Pakistan, HBWs still face a lot of problems. In many districts and cities, some self-employed HBWs belong to self-groups or cooperatives that rely on steady orders from brands and social enterprises. As the situation of the COVID-19 is becoming critical, the economic condition of the women in the informal industry has become even more precarious due to the non-availability of work and their declined household income.
Keeping in view the evolving situation where the Government of Pakistan has started the ‘EHSAAS’ programme for the facilitation of ultra-poor, majority of women from the informal sector have not been able to access the scheme. A large number of women do not have computerised national identity cards (CNICs) and hence cannot avail relief being offered by the government. The situation is especially uncertain for female HBWs as they are unable to avail relief under the EHSAAS programme because they do not fall within the category of daily wagers.
Many women home-based workers, who were previously beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), have been excluded from the EHSAAS programme so they are now unable to benefit from the government’s relief programme. Excluded women are also unaware of any appeal process for the programme. There is no platform for redresses at the moment. This has led to anxiety and depression among HBWs.
Farhana, from SabriChowk 11 Orangi town, is one of the deprived home-based workers who are not getting any work because of the current situation. “Along with the disturbance in work, we have to pay all the household bills and school fees of our children. The schools are closed here and this is not a developed area where online classes can be conducted, even then the school has not provided any compensation in fees,” says Farhana.
Fozia, from Saeedabad, Baldia Town is another victim. “Our routine was to receive work and deliver it in 3 days but now it is completely disturbed because we have no work due to the lockdown in Karachi. Suspension of one month’ work has given us a loss of 6 months. Moreover, workers in our area have not received any ration,” laments Fozia. “I am the sole earner of the family and I have three school-going children. Although schools are closed, there is no exemption and I still have to pay school fee which is an extra burden,” adds Fozia.
Most surprising thing that has come to our knowledge is the partial distribution of rations. In some areas where ration is provided, it is distributed to only specific community. “Ration was brought in our area only to be distributed among ‘Kachi baradari’ and other needy people were neglected because they didn’t belong to that baradari,” informs Rasheeda, a HBW from Musharaf Colony, Baldia Town, Karachi.
There are a number of HBWs who only get paid when the work is done and because of epidemic they are facing a crisis like situation. One such worker is Sadaf, from Musharaf Colony, Baldia Town. “We don’t get advance payment. The middleperson only makes the payment when work is completed. This time, due to lockdown, middleperson couldn’t pick the completed work from me, thus, I am left with all the finished products without any payments. I have a group of more than 60 HBWs who work per piece that are left unpaid. We don’t have any work now and we have not received our previous payments as well,” shares Sadaf.
Haseena Ali, from Nathan Khan Goth, Karachi, who runs a vocational centre in her area, is facing a tough challenge. “This pandemic has affected my work tremendously. Due to social distancing, HBWs are unable to sit together and make products. Since shops are also closed, workers are unable to purchase raw materials. I had to close the centre due to lockdown,” elucidates Haseena. “Now, I am going in losses as I have to pay the rent of the centre, as well as salary of the teachers. I initiated this centre hoping that I would provide skills to young girls who are otherwise not allowed to leave their houses, but outbreak of COVID-19 has changed everything. It is a huge loss for me and it will take unpredictable months to recover,” elaborates Haseena.
Women home-based workers from Karachi have informed HomeNet Pakistan that none of them have been provided any health facilities. In fact, prices for masks inflated as the virus cases have increased in Pakistan. HBWs have not received any social protection schemes despite the fact that Sindh has enacted the HBWs Law in 2018. Government of Sindh has taken many steps and action for facilitating the poor daily wages, but still women home workers are not fully covered, benefitted and attained the social services. They are not fully aware of how to stay safe and keep their work going. Their houses are small with large families, staying at home is becoming a menace for them especially with men staying at home with no work.
EHSAAS has not been able to reach out to all poor, needy women home workers and this is because of the lack of data. The women who receive message of verification from the EHSAAS office have to wait for hours at the centre which make them vulnerable and potential carrier of the virus. There is absence of facility in terms of isolation wards, where effected persons can be treated or isolated. Women leaders have done awareness programmes in different areas, villages but still they need to conduct specialised standard awareness sessions in collaboration with government and CSO. Locally, no economic opportunities are available for sustaining the livelihoods of the home workers and more women will suffer due to non-availability of work.
It has been observed that there is no relief response from the Punjab government. Local organisations are providing donation and support to the home workers. Only a few are registered with EHSAAS and have received cash. From Kasur, it was reported that more than 50 women home workers received messages of eligibility from EHSAAS centre but they have not received or contacted for any further action.
Provision of household Ration cards should be introduced in order to limit social interaction and ensure provision of ration. Lists of beneficiaries of the EHSAAS relief programme needs to be updated in order to include persons who were slightly above the poverty line/PMT score but have now fallen under it including women home-based workers.
Ume Laila is the Executive Director of Home Net Pakistan. HNP has been working for the recognition and support of home-based workers and women in the informal economy since 2005.