2% of labour force: Is the figure for women correct?

By Zubeida Mustafa

According to the latest official figures available, women constitute only two per cent of the organised labour force in Pakistan. But it is now generally conceded that this figure is highly misleading.

Even if household work is not taken into account, women’s contribution in the Gross National Product. It, however, remains unaccounted for because much of it is through unpaid labour. For instance, women’s role in agriculture has been a significant one. Yet they do not figure in the agricultural labour force.

There is yet another class of female workers, who receive payment for their labour but are generally not taken into account in Government statistics. These are the women who do piecework at home and are paid according to their output.

They are engaged in a variety of jobs such as shelling dry fruits, assembling trinkets, embroidery, filling match boxes, stitching, and so on. The tasks they perform are important and keep an industry going. Yet they are under-paid and since their problems are never highlighted they can hope for no relief.


The task of unearthing these women workers so that their numbers, contribution, needs and problems become public knowledge could prove to be a monumental one. Scattered and unorganised, such workers escape notice and to collect any information about them would require a house-to-house survey

Whether this will ever be done on the national level is doubtful. It would require massive resources and organisation. But sample studies conducted in different areas could prove to be extremely helpful.

In that context, the survey conducted by Ms Farida Shaheed and Ms Khawar Mumtaz of women engaged in piecework labour in Kot Lakhpat Township (Lahore) is a valuable contribution to the scant knowledge we have about women in Paksitan. Although only 300 households were surveyed in one low-income locality, the report prepared is quite representative in that it brings out adequately the existence of such workers, their living conditions and the impact of their work and earnings on their life. On the basis of their findings, the investigators have formulated some recommendations to the Government.

What clearly emerges from the study is that the percentage of women undertaking piecework labour is by no means small and is not reflected in the official statistics on the female participation in the labour force. In Kot Lakhpat, eight per cent of the women were found to be engaged in such work. This number could be well higher for some women might not have disclosed their occupation. In some cases, daughters or sisters helping an older woman, who is responsible for receiving the assignment and the remunerations might not even be counted in their own individual capacity.


In any case, even eight per cent participation of women in just this one category of labour is not an insignificant number. What is even more important is that many women would like to take up piecework labour but are unable to do so because of limited opportunities.

Some of the other facts to emerge from the study might not be startling in their revelation but they confirm what sociologists and economists have believed on the basis of their own observations.

Literacy rate among the women who take up work is higher than is the case generally, most of these women are married and they work on account of economic need. Hence their earnings help to raise their standard of living since the extra income is used to meet the household expenses.

Economic independence which a woman gains by taking up paid labour brings her other gains too. She acquires confidence and self-esteem. This has been clearly established by the study conducted by Ms Shaheed and Ms Mumtaz.

The most important chapter of the study is on purdah. It is important because it throws light on women’s attitude towards this institution and how it effects their capacity to be economically productive. Since piecework at home is undertaken mainly by women who cannot leave their homes to take up employment outside because of objection by male family members, the incidence of purdah is quite high in this group. Hence it provided the authors the opportunity to observe this institution quite closely. It is interesting to note that in spite of the fact that most women interviewed observed purdah and approved of it, few accept it as desirable for their daughters and daughters-in-law. They find many disadvantages in it — it is cumbersome, useless and anachronistic. Some view it as a hindrance to work.


But the major economic impact of the purdah is that by secluding the woman at home it isolates her from other workers. This makes her open to exploitation by her employer since she is in no position to know about market rates and lacks the capacity of bargaining which a group of women possess.

Moreover the purdah also restricts women’s employment opportunities since not all jobs are acceptable to them or they are unable to learn about the jobs available. Working at home allows a woman to combine her job with housework.

But this has many disadvantages because she cannot concentrate on her work and there are far too many interruptions caused by the children.

At times the purdah is used as a pretext by men to prevent their women from taking up a job outside their homes. But in reality the underlying factor is that in most such instances the economic independence of the female members of their family hurts the male self-esteem. Since by taking piecework at home a woman is not required to go out she can conceal her activities quite easily from friends and family.

These factors are major handicaps for women. Added to these are their lack of skill and training, poor health and vulnerability to exploitation since they fall outside the protection of labour laws.

The recommendations made in the survey are eminently reasonable. Without obtaining relevant information about the piecework workers, the authorites cannot undertake any measures to improve their conditions.

Hence it should be made compulsory for all employers to provide statistical details of home piecework to the Labour Ministry. The Government should also introduce laws to give protection to all such workers who should be given the right to unionise to safeguard their rights.

The suggestions put forward for Kot Lakhpat are equally valid for other low income localities where women undertake piece work, such as Orangi and Landhi in Karachi. The Government as well as social welfare agencies should seek to establish industrial homes in such localities designed to provide orders and training for women.

Such centres could provide the focus for unionising activities. Without such centres it is impossible for women workers, who have no opportunity to get in touch with each other, to form groups for collective bargaining.

Any improvement in the quality of life and working conditions of piecework labourers has economic implications. It will raise the quality of work they do and could help modernise production.

Economic implications

It is however clear that the problems of piecework labour need to be seen in the wider framework of working women in Pakistan. A low female literacy rate, lack of skills and training, inadequacy of health cover and absence of facilities to help with child-rearing and housework have handicapped them severely in all occupations. These issues should be taken up on a wider scale.

But there is no doubt that studies such as the one on “invisible workers” by Ms Shaheed . and Ms Mumtaz are extremely helpful. They focus attention on a particular aspect of women’s life in Pakistan and can provide the basis for further research.

The Women’s Division has done well to lend support to this project. The authors have suggested other subjects for further research. These should be seriously considered, but the professional approach should be strictly adhered to.

Thus, the present survey contains no indication as to when it was conducted. The book has no date of publication. Such a lapse detracts from the professionalism of a piece of work which has otherwise been produced after painstaking research and great objectivity.

Invisible workers: piecework labour amongst women in Lahore; by Farida Shaheed and Khawar Mumtaz, Islamabad; Women’s Division, Government of Pakistan: 127pp

Source: Dawn , 7 September 1984.