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Home-based workers and SDG 8

The world is pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that aim to bring about marked improvements in the lives of the people living on the planet and usher in an era of sustainable growth.

The deadline for the achievement of these goals has been set at 2030 – by when it is expected that countries of the world will be able to reach the desired levels of progress and development much to the benefits of their citizens. There are several targets as well set under these goals so that nations can measure their progress from time to time and ultimately meet them.

Pakistan is also a responsible country and has expressed its resolve to follow the agenda of the SDGs and improve the quality of life of its citizens. There are 17 SDGs in total that include ending hunger, ensuring good health and well-being of citizens, provision of quality education, availability of clean water and sanitation, promoting peace, justice and strong institutions, reducing inequalities, developing sustainable cities and communities and so on.

While there is no doubt that all the SDGs are important, lately a serious need has been felt to pursue SDG 8 which is about decent work and economic growth. In Pakistan, millions of workers are doing work which can be called anything but decent. With the global economy under pressure after Covid-19 and because of the increasing trend to employ informal or contract labour, the quality of life of workers has gone from bad to worse. Over time, more and more people have lost formal jobs and have been left with limited options. Either they work as small time vendors, do manual labour on a day rate basis or engage themselves in home-based work in the absence of an employee-employer relationship.

The category of home-based workers, mentioned above, mostly comprises women who are informal labour. Earlier, they would get work on contract through middlemen but now there is hardly any work available. Being informal workers, and hence uncovered under the existing labour laws, they are not entitled to social security benefits, job security, social safety nets, regular salaries, minimum wage etc. Women home-based workers are in much worse shape than men because their mobility is limited and they have to look after their households as well. In short, they are deprived of almost everything that SDG 8 promises and the term ‘decent employment’ is something not known to them.

So when we talk about these women home-based workers, we must refer to both SDG 5, which talks about gender equality, and SDG 8, which talks about decent employment and economic development. There is an agreement that the lot of informal women workers cannot be improved without making them direct beneficiaries of the government’s efforts to achieve these two goals.

Coming to these women home-based workers, one recalls they were the first to get hit by Covid-19 when the global economy came to a standstill and value chains of businesses, especially textiles, got badly affected. As there was very little international buying and orders for fashion-wear were put on hold, women workers lost their jobs. They had to face extra hardships as the male members of their families also lost their jobs due to Covid-19 and sat back at home empty-handed. Some of them were lucky enough to get small loans/supplies of cloth so that they could make masks at home and sell these. On the other hand, there were others who were not even on the radar of government-backed assistance initiatives and could not be accommodated under the Ehsaas programme. Though they are estimated to be above 12 million in number in Pakistan, there is no proper database of home-based workers which makes it extremely difficult to identify and reach them for provision of support in time of need.

Against this backdrop, voices are being raised by workers’ support groups like HomeNet Pakistan to ensure protection of workers in the informal economy by introducing universal social protection for all. Without doing this, decent work opportunities promised under SDG 8 cannot be ensured. Ideally, all workers must have social security cover and must be registered properly.

The question that arises here is: how will funds be arranged to cater to the social security needs of such a large number of informal workers? The answer coming from worker rights campaigners is that the government must ensure that the informality of work is discouraged and employers of home-based workers are identified so that they can deposit contributions with the social security department. Furthermore, as it happens in developed countries like Austria, the indirect taxes collected by the government can be used to provide universal social protection to all. In Thailand, the unorganised sector workers have been added to the pool of workers entitled to receive social cover under the government’s pro-people agenda. In Pakistan also, legislations on home-based workers have been carried out but we are quite slow in implementation. Their identification is not that difficult as local government representatives can tell who in their areas are doing genuine home-based work.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines decent work as one where the core labour rights of workers – including decent wages, social security and health and safety at workplace – are ensured. Are our informal workers acquainted with this concept and, if not, who is responsible for their plight? This is the question that needs to be answered.

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed, "Home-based workers and SDG 8," The News. 2020-11-10.
Keywords: Law and humanity , Labour laws , Health safety , Labour rights , Social security , Social protection , Ehsaas program , Global economy , Economic development , Social safety , Covid-19 , ILO