Women workers in Pakistan: an invisible workforce?

Afsheen Amed, 27, works in a sportswear factory in the north-eastern city of Sialkot, in Pakistan’s Punjab province. She works 10 hours a day and earns just 4,500 rupees (US$46) a month.

“There are more than 250 women workers in the factory but none of us get the same salary as our male counterparts” she tells Equal Times.

As is the norm with female workers, neither Afsheen nor any of her colleagues have a letter of appointment (a contract).

“We do not have separate washrooms or a kitchen in the factory, let alone a day care centre. There is no concept of maternity leave in our factory. Pregnancy means removal from the job.”

Afsheen says that harassment is common but that there is nowhere that female workers can express their grievances.

“The unions only listen to men. There is no representation of women because you need an appointment letter to become member of the union.”

Unfortunately, the situation at Afsheen’s factory is not unique. There are no accurate statistics on the numbers of working women in Pakistan, but as 50 percent of the country’s population, their needs are rarely taken into account.

Labour inspectors

In a country where working conditions are generally difficult, female workers bear the brunt. The scarcity of labour inspectors in general, and the almost complete lack of female ones, doesn’t help.

Almost half of Pakistan’s 180 million-strong population live in Punjab province, and it is home to more than 48,000 industrial units. But there are just 180 labour inspectors for the whole province, only two of which are women.

Afsheen says that labour inspectors do come to the factory to talk to trade union representatives about the issues faced by female workers but that they are usually not considered important. In addition, cultural barriers make it difficult for female workers to table their complaints themselves.

For Shaheena Kausar, General Secretary of the Women Workers’ Union, there is one simple solution: “The government should either train male labour inspectors to talk independently with women as well and look at specific issues that are related to women or hire female labour inspectors,” she says.

The problems facing women workers are numerous: “Over 90 per cent of women workers in the country do not have appointment letters; they get half of the wages of their male counterparts though they work the same hours; they are not registered with social security networks,” she tells Equal Times.

“Even our unions are gender biased. They do not make women their members and on the other hand women do not show readiness to take part in the politics of union.”

But in addition to the problem of non-gender responsive labour inspections, women make up 65 percent of the labour force in the informal sector where labour inspections do not occur.

“The government needs to extend labour inspection to the informal sector as well,” says Kausar.

Change on the horizon?

In 1953, Pakistan ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention (No.81) on Labour Inspections.

Under this convention, Pakistan is bound to educate and inform employers and workers about their legal rights and obligations concerning all aspects of labour protection and labour laws, advise employers and workers to comply with the requirements of the law, and enable inspectors to report on problems that are not covered by laws and regulations.

But, this is not what happens on the ground – a situation which hurts female workers the most.

The lack of data and feedback hinders the understanding of the gender dimensions of work, leading to an absence of insight into policy and programme interventions.

But things are slowly changing. Although labour inspector has traditionally been considered a difficult job, reserved for men, Tahir Manzoor Hotiana, who works in the Punjab labour office, says the department is working hard to incorporate gender-based labour inspection.

“We have developed a Gender Responsive Labour Inspection Toolkit with the help of the ILO. This toolkit will help labour inspectors perform their functions in line with best practices in Gender Responsive Labour Inspection.”

He says that there are 70 labour laws and over 100 rules implemented in Pakistan. “Most of these laws are gender neutral so to amend all these laws according to gender needs would be a lengthy process. But, after a lot of consultation, we decided to make inspection procedures gender responsive.”

In addition, the department plans to recruit five extra female labour inspectors by the end of the year.