They’ve been referred to as “invisible workers,” or Pakistan’s unrepresented working class. While the concept was once rare or completely unheard of in most parts of the country, home-based work is now gaining ground as new opportunities arise in the production and manufacturing industry.
According to HomeNet Pakistan, a group of organizations that push for improvements in workers’ rights, a whopping 5 million people are now working from their homes in Pakistan. Women are believed to make up roughly 80% of the country’s home-based workforce, and it’s estimated that about 65% of the workers live in “urban or semi-urban” areas.
Of course, there are obvious appeals to working from home. Since many home-based workers in Pakistan are female, this employment style benefits women and families by enabling them to raise children and earn much-needed income simultaneously. Additionally, an element of freedom coincides with home-based work. There are no demanding managers, no distracting coworkers to lessen one’s productivity, and no discrimination – at least not directly. Research suggests those who work from home experience less stress and a higher degree of job satisfaction, which translates to low turnover rates for employers.
However, Pakistan’s home-based workers have not achieved the level of work-from-home luxury that those in first world nations currently revel in – at least not yet. Many skilled and unskilled workers in industries like garment-making still earn as little as $1 per day, and sometimes even less for a grueling 12-hour shift. One of the primary issues is that the most common type of employment for home-based workers in Pakistan is “piece-rate work.” This simply means workers are paid a fixed rate for each unit they produce. Handicrafts, carpet-making, embroidery, basket-weaveing, and sewing are a few common areas in which Pakistanis work. And while this employment style is about as behind-the-scenes as it gets, they are often producing product for multinational, name-brand companies. This is where ethical questions arise.
While the Asia-Pacific region, or the area closest to the Western Pacific Ocean, has seen some of the world’s largest leaps in home-based employment, they’ve also seen the least progress for workers rights. Part of the reason for this lag may simply be a lack of education on behalf of the laborers. Some, having migrated from rural areas, are often unaware of their rights, or at least what their rights should be.
According to a study done by The International Labor Organization (ILO), “In spite of these constraints more than 70 percent of are satisfied with their home-based work status.” Unfortunately, this leaves employers with plenty of room to take advantage – especially of those workers who are raising children in poverty and must earn a living by any means possible. Because there was little to no outcry, home-based workers’ rights remained practically nonexistent for some time.
Today, there is a silver lining for independent laborers. In March of 2014, activists rejoiced at the proposal of new legislation that would improve the lives of home-based workers in Pakistan. If implemented, these changes would mean set minimum wages, contracts, hours, and benefits – all of which are well-deserved, desperately needed, and not typically provided for these employees.
The ILO’s study shed light on many of the injustices faced by workers in the Islamabad/Rawalpindi region. Very few home-based workers reported having security benefits, and very few belonged to labor organizations. Even among those that did belong to an organization, barely any workers received financial support or marketing aid.
“Of those facing constraints, for males it is marketing and financial, for females it is low demand and late payments.”
Aside from these practical concerns, working conditions are often dismal as well. Low-income families that live in urban areas must work in cramped quarters, often getting little sunlight during their shifts. Thus in many ways, home-based work has complicated the lives of workers instead of cushioning them. Urban limitations often necessitate poorer working conditions. Some attempt to work by candlelight when electricity goes out, while others skip meals and breaks to take advantage of the daylight.
Fortunately, home-based workers are speaking publicly about their struggles more than ever, and several publications and NGOs have jumped onboard to assist them. One young Pakistani worker spoke candidly to Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). “My husband does daily wage work so the income is not enough to meet the family expenses. I do embroidery work and manage poultry at home to increase the family income. I am leading a miserable life but I don’t want the same for my children. I am working hard just to give a better future to my children.”