How to Protect Pakistan's Home-Based Workers

A woman outside her house in Pakistan.
A woman outside her house in Pakistan.

By Hina Shaikh

Women working from home make a significant contribution to Pakistan’s economy, but their work is undervalued and home-based workers are denied any form of legal protection.

Despite strong evidence of the different ways in which men and women experience poverty and vulnerability, there has been little attention to the role of gender in implementation and effectiveness of social protection programs. One aspect of this is women working in the informal sector in Pakistan, where the International Growth Center is helping boost the country’s capacity to generate policy-oriented research on reform issues critical to sustained economic growth.

Although women working from their homes make a significant contribution to the national economy, including export earnings, their work is undervalued and they are denied any form of legal protection, including a minimum wage guarantee or social security benefits. Most informal workers in Pakistan are not recognized as workers in official policies, so they are denied access to labor protection and social welfare. Women are particularly vulnerable given their concentration in this sector especially in home-based work. Women also report lower average wages than their male counterparts.

Women remain essential to the subcontracting system, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises that operate either from small workshops or from homes. The Working Women’s Helpline in Pakistan estimates there are around 20 million home-based workers (HBWs) in the country of which 12 million are women. In fact, as per unofficial estimates women HBWs constitute almost 75% of the entire informal labor force. HBWs include own account (13.4%), piece-rate / sub-contracted workers (24.6%) and unpaid family workers (61.9%). Unpaid family workers typically live in rural areas, employed on family-owned farms, or work as sharecroppers. These workers have limited access to education and health services, safety provisions and social protection.

UN Women’s advocacy and technical support to local governments and partners to recognize the human and economic rights of informal women HBWs has contributed to improved access for nearly 23,785 women HBWs to skills development, income generating opportunities, social security/health benefits and microcredit schemes, enabling them to participate more fully in the formal economy. Currently around 20,000 women HBWs from Punjab and Sindh are in the process of being registered with the Labor and Human Resources Department to access income-generating opportunities and social and healthcare.

Recently a program for training 4,000 women has also been launched under the Punjab Skills Development Fund ,a not-for-profit company set up by the Government of Punjab in collaboration with UK’s DfID. A total of 10,000 domestic workers will receive training under the Domestic Workers Program.

It is also essential—in Pakistan and beyond—to devise a universal social security mechanism inclusive of the informal sector (including home-based work) enabling the large majority of women workers to access state labor welfare institutional benefits.

Some next steps include:

  • The informal economy must be documented and regularized, and extended worker rights protection.
  • The government needs to work more closely with specialized organizations like the ILO as well as with NGOs and the private sector to develop a comprehensive action plan for ensuring home-based workers’ rights.
  • Specialized entities or dedicated cells need to be set up within the existing administrative framework to undertake registration of home-based and informal workers.
  • Compulsory coverage of social safety nets for employees in the informal sector, allowing them to self-register with key social security schemes.
  • Where social security laws are applicable, workers should be paid the same regardless of the number of employees. Wages should be linked to the status of the enterprise and ability to pay the worker. The share of employer contributions to social security payments should also be made smaller for women and subsidized by the government.