Pakistan: Women organise union in the home-based industrial sector
Women workers are often the hardest hit by neo-liberal restructuring and capitalist crisis. 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 labour regulations of the country. 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 an important part of this workforce and in the “home-based industries” they constitute the overwhelming majority. These workers either work 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, product assembly) they are not directly employed by such companies. Instead, they work for “middlemen”, contractors and subcontractors.
Home-based industry is not a small sector. Even though the precise size of the workforce can only be guessed at, it certainly numbers millions. Women work for up to 14 hours a day, often earning less than 100 rupees per day. They are not hourly paid 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, the lack of any social security or safety provisions means that women lose their income if they get ill or pregnant. On top of that, they have to carry the cost for health services themselves and often also the cost of the machinery and tools and their maintenance. All too often, this forces them into debt and, as a result, greater dependence on “their” contractor.
Moreover, these women also often face sexist harassment from their contractors or threats of violence.
Nor is this degrading form of super-exploitation of millions of women workers a hangover from the ancient past. On the contrary, it has become really widespread under neo-liberal capitalism. The working conditions echo those of the very earliest years of capitalist development in Europe but the industry is fully integrated into the global chain of exploitation. Production in workers' own homes, or in small-scale workshops, is part of a global chain that is linked directly to the large monopolies in the West. This is particularly true for textiles, which count for about half the country's exports.
All the same, this home-based working and the contract system would be impossible without the traditional patriarchal family system in which women's oppression is rooted. The low wages of women in home-based industries are often considered “only” an “extra” in their families' income. This is also 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.
Women's oppression is not only confined to the house, of course. In Pakistan, wage labour for women is considered shameful, particularly by the growing Islamist forces and by the petit-bourgeoisie and the “middle class”. In addition, 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 on their own to work are faced with harassment.
These conditions and values are an integral part of women's oppression in Pakistan. Like many such rules, they are not only arch-reactionary, but also hypocritical. Peasant and working class women have never lived their lives “without work”. They have not only always had to take responsibility for their own housework but also that of richer families. They have also always had to work in agriculture, in service or industry so that peasant or working class families could actually survive.
This all plays into the hands of the capitalists and the small contractors. Don't the home-based industry and the small workshops in the next street “allow” women to stay at home? They can thus avoid harassment in public, look after the house and care for the children who, for their part, can enter the “world of work”, as unpaid “helpers” of their mothers.
That is the reality and no one should expect any improvements 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 industry. 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 in the home based industries certainly 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 LFI 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 do not only distribute leaflets and organise branch meetings, but also weekly “street corner” meetings (often actually in backyards) with up to 100 workers, almost exclusively women, attending. At the last meeting in February alone, 40 women joined.
This shows that the unorganised can be organised, even though we have only taken the first steps in this work. 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 LFI 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.