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Covid-19 and women workers

Opinion

August 7, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit every sector of life, especially health, and the economies of the world hard. Because of the restrictions imposed on cross-border movement of goods and people, international trade has suffered a lot. Though restrictions are being lifted gradually, a lot of damage has already been done.

In this scenario, the textiles sector of Pakistan was affected adversely. This sector contributes a major share to the country’s overall exports and earns precious foreign exchange as well. The fact that European countries – the prime importers of our textiles products – were badly affected by the pandemic led to a sharp dip in their demand.

As the demand for our products came down, many Pakistani factories had to stop production because they lacked the financial means to pay workers their wages, even for work already done, and cover overheads without being able to earn anything. They had never been through such extraordinary circumstances and had no contingency plan to depend on. The local demand of these products also came down because people wanted to save up for food items and healthcare needs.

The situation emanating from this scenario is that millions of workers are without income and job security. Of these, women textiles sector workers are in a highly disadvantageous position because most of them are informal workers. The labour departments do not have their data with them. In short, they are not considered labour and therefore do not fall in the ambit of the country's labour laws.As a result, they do not get social security cover – and job security is a dream for them. Most often they work on 'piece rate' and are paid according to the quantity of the products they produce.

The current situation in the country is that a large number of informal sector women workers have lost their jobs. Those few who still have some work are getting reduced wages. Unfortunately, they do not have any savings and all they earn is spent on meeting the basic financial needs of their families. With the incomes of male family members plummeting because of reduced economic activity, the financial crisis they face has worsened.

The question that arises here is: who is responsible for the care of these workers, who are facing one of the toughest times in their lives, especially when social protection is available to a lucky few? According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) flagship World Social Protection Report, Pakistan ranks second last in terms of public social protection expenditure (excluding health) on people of working age as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

According to some surveys, the pre-existing criteria of Ehsaas, Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) and other social protection schemes do not cover all women who need support. These include women in vulnerable employment (informal workers, Home Based Workers (HBWs), domestic workers) who do not have Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs).

Besides, the BISP data is more than nine years old and does not include those who were pushed below the poverty line. Many workers – including a large number of women workers – have been unable to access social protection programmes because they have worn out fingerprints which hinders the biometric verification necessary for receiving cash transfers.

Some respite for these women workers has come in the form of support from the global Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) members and partners for garment workers living in harsh conditions during the pandemic. HomeNet Pakistan – an organization working for the rights of HBWs – distributed ration, protective equipment, raw material for garments production etc among informal sector women workers rendered jobless during the pandemic.

While this is a good gesture on the part of these organizations, what is really needed at the moment is a comprehensive intervention on the part of the state. It must step in now to take care of millions of informal sector workers in the country. This can be done by compiling the data of informal labour, getting them registered with organizations responsible for providing social protection to them, and discouraging the informality of the country's economy. This is necessary because a large number of jobless women workers are being further pushed down the poverty line. Those who are the main bread-earners of their families are in the worst condition.

To start with, the government must initiate immediate collection of credible data of informal sector workers. This will help in approaching them for support till the time they get employed once again, and that also according to the country's labour law and in return of decent wages.

The writer is a staffer at The News.

Email: [email protected]