Pakistan's Home Workers' Union starts paying off

LAHORE, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)--Asia Afzal, 35, wipes her forehead with the corner of her duputta scarf as beads of perspiration gather on her face.

In her two-room house, a solitary ceiling fan is still due to the tedious hours of energy rationing. As her four children, ranging from 6 to 9, loiter around her, Afzal sits cross-legged in the center of her front room surrounded by the ice-cream sticks, beads, laces, glue and fabrics she molds into decorative pieces. She utilizes a variety of materials for the decorations, ranging from brightly colored glass flowers to spare buttons and even X-ray paper which she chews in her mouth to soften up and make it easier to mold before painting.

It takes her an entire day to make a single decoration. She says she makes an 'abysmal' profit of less than 10 rupees, about 13 cents per piece, and sells all her stock to a single middleman who visits her every 10 days.

'My fingers often get tired and I develop blisters on my hand,' she says. 'But what can I do? I have to help my husband make ends meet.'

Until recently, Afzal was sure her future was going to be grim. But due to efforts from female activists, she is now making history as the general-secretary of Pakistan's first union of home-based workers, the Aurat Workers Union Pakistan, which officially formed on Aug. 22 with more than 600 members.

Now every day Afzal wakes up determined to take steps to unite all home-based workers on the union platform. She believes workers like her can pressure middlemen to provide better wages and facilities. The government too could be pushed to provide better benefits, such as free health care and more protective labor laws. Nascent Unionization

The verdict is still out on whether the union will be able to gain lasting improvements in how the home-based workers are treated or influence government oversight.

But it has already begun making small differences in the lives of women in one rural region, says Saima Zia, a union consultant who works at the Lahore-based Women Workers Help Line.

'Some members of ours working in Kot Lakhput are involved in stitching uppers onto leather shoes,' she said. They were paid meager amounts, about 50 cents for 24 shoes. Zia encouraged them to organize and approach their buyer as a collective force. 'As a result they first got a pay raise to about 60 cents and now they are almost getting a dollar for 24 shoes,' doubling their revenue, she said.

Zia says similar stories are emerging from other areas where the union has started to organize workers. Workers are organizing for better wages and conditions.

Before that, Afzal and other home-based workers--about 65 percent of all working women--thought they had no option other than being overworked and grossly underpaid, she says. And in Pakistan, where prejudices against women stepping out of their homes to earn remain strong, many are compelled to find work they can perform within their own four walls.

In 2007-2008 Pakistan was ranked 136th out of 177 countries on a gender empowerment index, which measures inequalities between men's and women's opportunities in political participation and decision-making, economic status and power over economic resources, according to a U.N. Development Program report. 10 Million Toiling Women

Over 10 million women in Pakistan are involved in home-based work sectors like sewing garments, bangle-making, shelling nuts, shoe-stitching and embroidery. Their average earnings range from 10 to 50 rupees per day--less than one dollar--and they work 12- to 16-hour-long days.

'These women represent the most underprivileged and exploited sector of society,' says activist Bushra Khaliq, who is affiliated with the Women Workers Help Line. 'Their efforts are persistently ignored.'

Toward the end of 2006, spurred by nongovernmental groups that work on women's economic development issues, the women began organizing to form Pakistan's first home-based workers union.

For many months, organized groups were busy establishing cooperative centers in the four provinces of Pakistan to provide home-based workers with trainings and inform them of their rights. Labor organizers motivated several hundred workers to take to the streets earlier this year to protest against the conditions they worked under and to demand their rights under international standards established by the United Nations' International Labor Organization.

'This is truly a historic step toward women's empowerment in Pakistan,' said Zia, the union consultant. 'For the first time, home-based working women have a voice.'

The union was formed on Aug. 22 at a national congress held in Lahore. More than 600 home-based working women participated at the congress. Elections were also conducted leading to the selection of a 31-member national committee and 11-member executive committee.

Afzal, who was elected general-secretary of the union's Punjab committee, remembers the day with pride and glee.

'I want to see a Pakistan where women workers are paid well and treated with respect,' says Afzal, who views her work supporting the union as an investment in her children's future. 'Since no one else is helping us, we will help ourselves.' Seeking Power of Collective Bargaining

Union officials claim it will improve their members' ability to collectively bargain and leverage their position in negotiating with middlemen for better wages.

'This initiative has given us hope,' said Rozina Saif, 31, a home-based worker who spends her days stitching sequins onto blankets. 'I now believe things can improve, and will improve.'

Saif, who has been elected chair of the union's national committee, says she has seen the benefits of collective action. 'Some months back, the middle-agent was only giving me five rupees (6 cents) per blanket,' she says. 'I gathered together all the women who were supplying him and we went to negotiate with him.'

The women threatened to stop supplying if he didn't increase the rates. Much to their surprise, he immediately agreed to raise the price of one blanket to seven rupees, about 9 cents. It was the first time they had received a raise in their earnings.

'When we go and talk to contractors on an individual level, they don't listen,' said Saif. 'But when we go there collectively, they have no choice but to hear us out.'

Though Saif lives below the poverty line, she says she sees far worse when she visits other home-based workers. 'In one house I saw all the women working--from the grandmother to the daughters-in-law to the children--and all they make at the end of the day is 70 rupees (90 cents). Then they wonder about how to fill their stomachs with such a meager amount,' she said.

Economist Shahida Wazarat of Karachi University says informal-sector workers are left out of the standard benefits of Pakistan society, such as women working as tailor-masters, jewelry makers or factory workers. 'About 80 percent of our industrial labor force is made up of the informal sector,' she says. 'The contribution of these people to our economy is huge but our contribution to their welfare is negligible.'

Nasir Khan is based in Lahore, Pakistan.