sabato , 26 Settembre 2020

Women that show the way. A conversation with Zehra Akbar Khan of the HBWWF, Pakistan

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We have already connected with the important experience of the HBWWF, the first union which organizes the home based women workers in Pakistan and which has been formally recognized by the government after a huge campaign that has involved a ever-increasing number of workers since 2006. Today we are proud to publish an interview with Zehra Akbar Khan, general secretary of the HBWWF, believing that this experience should be an important dowry for those who aim to organize the un-organizable, by breaking up the isolation of those who live the global condition of precarity.

The villages in Sindh and Balochistan where this story began are not marginal or backward sites in comparison with the more developed centers of global production. Rather, Zehra’s tale takes us inside its most secret laboratories, hidden by the doors of those homes where millions women everyday produce commodities for the local and international market. In this specific form, these laboratories are connected with the global capitalistic system. In order to better observe the experience of the HBWWF, then, we should look forward rather than back. This is neither proto-capitalism, nor a step back into the past. The processes of dismantling of unions and informalization of labour that started during the ‘70s in Pakistan are part of the history of this organization, while representing the present or the possible future for those places that some still consider to be the «First World». Looking at Europe – which has been experiencing the crisis of union organizations for a long time – or at the United States – where unions involve only 12% of workers – the HBWWF experience has much to tell. First of all, concerning practices, insofar as it interlaces a capillary activity of organization – the «door to door» communication, in this instance, is literally the only way of entering working places – with a wider lobbying activity towards the government and the institutions. If isolation and fragmentation are the main feature of precarity as a global social fact, the capacity of these women to pull down those fragile doors and to produce visibility and voice goes far beyond the simple bargaining activity. Rather, a process is taking place which is slowly changing the relationships of power, not only because it is able to obtain concrete results in terms of improving wage conditions, but also under the light of the transformation that it is producing within that same patriarchal structure which allows the intensive exploitation of women by impeding their mobility.

Here a process of overturning is really happening, and it is happening within a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the home based nature of this labour weakens women, by isolating them and by reproducing their domestic invisibility. On the other hand, the fact that they directly receive a wage is the condition of possibility to shake the community norms, by pushing for processes of individualization which determine the success of the union organization and undermine the sexual power of the male households. In this case, however, males do not only «grant a permission» to go beyond the doorstep and take part to the political workshops, assemblies and demonstration organized by the HBWWF. Rather, here we can see how it is conquered the power of speaking, demanding, deciding and pointing out the road to be followed. It was women who started to go out of the narrow local situations, and to connect themselves to other workers on a regional scale and beyond the specific kind of job they have. Today, even men are following them in adopting this pattern. The women of the HBWWF are forcing them to look forward too. 

Could you explain to the readers the conditions of the Home Based Women Workers in your region? 

 The phenomena of the Home based is not new for our country. The term used in 70’s when the globalization policy badly hit our region. The state withers away from their basic responsibility and work on the dictation of IMF and WB policy (globalization and neo liberalization) which resulted in high rate of inflation, unemployment and economical instability. Government of Pakistan sold countries assets on thrown way prices and privatize more than 300 public properties to multinationals who retrenched more than 800 thousand workers from their jobs. These policies curb the right to associate in formal sector and ban the genuine union from the factories. Subsidies on social sector by government were taken away which create the situation more worse in terms of high rate of Inflation in all things.

The process of liberalization has also resulted in huge growth of informal sector. Formal sector rapidly shifted to informal work and hire more & more women than male workers especially in home based work. More than 75% women and children especially girl child are engaged with informal sector of the economy. The reason behind this is that the women are less aware and unorganized in our society and cultural values, customs and religion halt the mobility of the women which gives benefits to the employer and investor to exploit women worker more in terms of paying fewer wage, hire without job security, force to work for long hours and no access to social benefits such as health education and old age pension.

Home based sector includes many sector like bangle industry, cropping work, stitching garment, carpet, zardozi, traditional embroidery work, pottery, automobiles parts, and sports industry etc, where workers especially women workers have no legal rights, they work for long hours, are paid less and no any facility by government or investors. The work, in many sectors, in addition causes serious hazards to health like joint, eye, back pain, lung problems, TB, skin allergy and diseases. Majority of them have no access to health facility.

They also not recognized as labour according to our labor law so they are not registered with Social Security Schemes provided by government. Even we have no accurate data of women and men engaged with the work especially with informal work. Officially it was stated that 65% workers are engaged with informal sector but it is fact that the number is double. Some 20 million workers were engaged in informal work out of which 12 million were women. Government or any other source hasn’t accurate data on home based women workers till now. Government hasn’t showed any interest to ratify the ILO’s Home Work convention 177; for its ratification home based women workers will have to show their strength and power through united actions.

To deal with the situation, class conscious home based women worker have started work on two planks, one is to work in closed collaboration with organization working on HBW to make joint strategy for lobbying with related government department and legislation bodies to formulate law for the right of HBW and secondly organized the HBWW on union bases and connected it with mainstream trade union movement and incorporate the issues of HBWW in their agenda.

In the organizational process HBWWs have formed three unions one in Sindh and two in Baluchistan in following sectors:

– Traditional Embroidery in September 2009 (Hunarmand Baluchistan Democratic HBWW union, Quetta – HBDHBWWU – and Al-Hayat Progressive HBWW Union, Quetta – APHBWWU);

– Glass Bangle Industry in November 2009 (Home Based Women Bangle Workers Union Hyderabad – HBWBWU).

HBWWs have been successful in their attempt to get registered unions in glass bangle and traditional embroidery sector because very peculiar situation which was favorable because of years of lobbying with contractors and investors of the sectors and also with concern government department.

After the three unions’ registration, a process of federal level federation for HBWW had started. In Pakistani law two or more than two union can make their federation. We registered our three unions from the provincial labour department and after completing that process we went for federal level registration. The Home Based Women Workers Federation, Pakistan was formed and duly registered with National Industrial Relation Commission (NIRC), Islamabad which is government body for registration of workers federations on national level, in 30th December 2009. It was the unique and historic moment that first time in Pakistan’s labour history; women workers have formed their unions and then national level federation.

HBWWF representing HBWWs, have been at the forefront of the struggle for the recognition of HBWW and their right to cover under social security, having old age benefits and access to other workers welfare schemes. At present HBWWF is the only registered body of HBW of Pakistan and all of its activities has been organized on voluntary basis and through collecting of fund and other fund raising mechanism. Now we have 4500 members in Sindha and Balochistan. Members get membership in both area and where union is not exist they become direct members of federation. Minimum membership is 5 rupees but it is new for home based workers so few are paying their membership fee.

What are wage conditions of the home based workers and what is the relationship with multinational enterprises?

These workers work from their home for different factories including local and multinationals, but it’s unfortunate that these workers didn’t know their real employers as they get work from the contractors or middlemen. Majority of work which is export outside courties are emboridery sutis done by home based workers on minimum wages. Details of our members work, for local or international market and their wages are as under:

– Sack stitching for onion and rise for the UAE, Sudia Arab markets: small 100 pieces, 100 to 125 Rs; big bag without handle 100 pieces, 60 to 80 Rs;

– Jewelry for local market: earring, 1 to 2 rupees; whole set 5 to 15 Rs, according to designs;

– Children garment for local and international markets (Saudi Arab): small pieces, 28 to 60 Rs; whole frock with pajama, 120 to 140 Rs;

– Embroidery work (Balochi or Sindhi) in Karachi for international market (Saudi Arab and Europe): 1000 to 3000 Rs per suit which HBW prepared with one month;

– Cropping work for local and international markets: Dozen, 2 Rs; 100 pieces cropping with fusing 25 to 30 Rs;

– Hosiery work (piece cutting) for international market: 2 Rs per kilo;

– Zardozi work, oder work for local market, ready made for intentional market (Dubai and Europe): Less work 200 to 300; heavy work, 1000 to 2500;

– Balochi/ Sindhi and Kandhari Embroidery in Baluchistan for local and international market (Dubai, Saudi Arab, Sri Lanka and Europe): 1000 to 3000 Rs;

– Rilli work, patch work, embroidery, capes (embroidery and glass work) for local market (Quetta) and international market (Iran): 200 to 300 Rs; 200 to thousand Rs; 70 to 120 Rs (took 15 to 1 month);

Contractor give wages to women who work for him. Contractors easily convince women workers that they didn’t get full payment from employer so they don’t pay them. Some time contractors answer them that if the finished product will sell they will give their wages. So that’s how women workers do not get their wages on time. In few cases contractors shifted their home from workers locality without informing workers or paying their all due. So we also have that women who’s contractor shifted their rented places and didn’t pay workers wages.

How did the idea of establishing an organization as the HBWWF come about? What is the activity of HBWWF? What is your role in the federation?

The process to organize home based women workers (HBWW), started from 2005 by organizing study circles with them in different areas of Karachi, Hyderabad, Hub and Quetta on different issues. We have established cooperatives for HBWW in 2006 in Karachi with garment/textile/embroidery workers and in Hyderabad with glass bangle workers. Since then we made our focus to make home based workers union for their just demand and the unionization process has been started with the support of Labour Department officials. The main idea to form our union was given by Mr. Nasir Mansoor who is also an union activist and marxist and associated with National Trade Union Federation (NTUF). NTUF supported us legally to form our union and federation.

The areas where the employer relationship is visible, we went for their union, like our three unions, and on that basis we registered our Federation. Where the employer/workers relation is not visible, we have that provision to register those members directly with federation like our work in Karachi, Sanghar, Moro, Thatta, Multan, Hub, Gwader, Pasni and other places.

I work as General Secretary of the Federation and we are conducting meetings and study circle with the members and also training sessions for their awareness raising. It is an interactive sessions on specific issues involving group of 10 to 15 women. In study circle group we discuss on social, economic and political issues like current situation of country, labour and women, gender, ILO Conventions, globalization, class system, privatization, union and responsibilities of office bearers, leadership, decision making, communication, record keeping etc.

We also formed different committees like work committee (responsible for contact with factory or contractor for work and negotiation on wages), Health committee and area committee (responsible for highlighting the issues like water, ID cards, electricity etc), core group (mainly responsible for marriage issues and other issues related with domestic family problems). In addition skill training like stitching, Hina and shoe making also part of trainings. We also contacted with labour and women department as well for raising HBW issues.

We are also part of Working Group on HBW made by different organizations working on HBW issues and drafted national policy for home based workers in Pakistan. We are also a member of “Task Force” formed by Labour Ministry for review on the national policy for home based workers and incorporate home based workers in the law. Women ministry also visited our cooperatives in Karachi and met with home based workers.

We did many demonstrations and rally for home based women workers right also have organized press conferences and conventions. We are in campaign since 2006 for the reorganization of home based women workers and now society in general and the government in particular understands the demands of home based women workers. NP for HBW is formulated by the government and all assemblies have pledged to pass the legislation for the protection of the HBW right which is the big achievements. We recommended some basic changes (like definition of workers, employers and establishment which are very old) in Industrial Relation Act (IRA) to incorporate HBW in it and also a part of IRA committee.

The aim of organizing home based work seems particularly difficult, given the isolation of women working in the closed space of the home. How did you managed to reach and to involve these women in your struggles?

First we visited door to door to convinced women to attend our meeting and discuss women issues with them. In some area we have one contact person and through that contact person we enter in the community and starting meetings and study circle with them. Due to our regular meetings and study circles now these women also participating in our rallies and other agitations. These sessions made them clear on the issues related with socio economic and political as well and made them vocal on their issues and also in their organization.

How much does the fact of being women determine both the possibility of being exploited in such a particular way, on the one hand, and the limits or perspective of political participation and struggle, on the other hand? How your struggle is affecting domestic and social relationships among women and men?

Through our study circle and training on different issues especially on Gender women workers become clear on their issues. That consciousness increased the confidence level of our members. now they also participating in different activities like rallies and demonstration and vocal on their issues. Organization also increased their strength as they have power to get their just rights. It also changed the situation at home as women taking part in decision making and most of the men who were not allowing their women in our activities now they also attending our programs. After registration of union of HBWW in Hyderabad, male workers are also asking for their organization and work for male workers rights too which is shows our strength that in a such area where women have no power and confine at home, male were asking to work for them as well.

Are you connected with other movements and organization in your region?

Yes we have connection with NTUF in country level and home net south Asia on regional level. NTUF supported us legally in making our unions and federations and on regional level we have contact with other home based workers and organization working on HBW. It is worth to mention also the struggle of lady health workers who fought for their regularization and still in struggle. Struggle of nurses and also the women peasants.

What is HBWWF planning for the bettering of the home based working women’s conditions? Do you think that a more general organization of women workers could be possible, i.e. an organization that is not only bound to their specific kind of work (that is making jewels, or cropping and so on) but that involves their condition as women? Do you have any experience of this?

– Working for legislation on HBW

– Involve media in our different activities

– Also involve labor department to work on HBW

– Campaigning for social security rights, wages and other

– Through skill and capacity development of a workers

We have formed HBWWF which is representative of different sectors of women workers involve in Local manufacturing to export oriented industries. In future we may try to form a network of women workers of formal and informal sectors.

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