On my way back home, the car stopped at the signal. That’s when I saw her for the first time. Sitting on the pavement, shabbily dressed and with her head bowed down. She suddenly looked up at the traffic and got up. Her hair, oily, like they hadn’t been washed in years fell on her forehead and over her wide lost eyes, with which she was scanning all the cars. She slowly started approaching them, on a closer look I saw tears in her eyes. She reached up with one hand and wiped them off and with the other hand spread forward, she went from one car to the next, begging people for help. She looked utterly helpless. People turned their heads to the other side when she approached their car. I could see grief in her eyes and wondered what could possibly be the reason behind her tears. But before I could do anything the signal went green. I found myself thinking about it the whole day. I talked to my mother about her and she said it was just one of the tricks these beggars pull now a days. I didn’t believe her for a second for I truly thought I felt her pain and that she wasn’t faking it.
The next day, at the same time, same route while coming back from my university I saw her again. The same spot, same clothes, same face and the same tears. Surprised at the revelation that my mother was actually right, I rolled down the window and waved at her to come over and when she did, I gave her some money and asked her why was she crying. She replied through her sobs that she didn’t have enough money to feed her children. I told her that so was the case with every other beggar but I didn’t see them crying for sympathy. And then I left. But what do you know? A few days later the car stops at the same signal again, and there she is crying, again.
Across Pakistan, the tribal customs change with the topography. The ancient art of handmaking goods has been prevalent for centuries, but it is fast becoming an unappreciated custom. With an increasing reliance on international products, none of us turn our eyes to the now socially obsolete bazaars that have existed in Lahore for centuries and sell locally made goods. Popular brands like Khaadi sell based on a handmade philosophy as well, yet similar goods, but without the brand’s tag, would not be bought by any one of us at all. The 16-hour work days, without proper nutrition, sanitation and with large families to manage, is a part of the lives of people who remain faceless in our otherwise vocal media. Yet the value any of us gives to the hours or sweat put into these products by disadvantaged women and children is nil.
The plight of these workers is already being enhanced by several factors. With cultural bondage, most of the women cannot travel to urban areas to sell their goods at the prices they deserve, thereby having to rely on a patriarchal value chain to provide them with earnings from their work. Most of the rural home-based workers lack knowledge of where their products end up. A worker, paid Rs.8 for producing eleven hundred incense sticks, may not know that a packet comprising of ten such sticks sells for Rs.20 in the market. Same is the case of a woman who sews 50 shalwars per day and is paid Rs.3 in total. Lack of proper funding for workers, especially in backward areas such as Kot Lakhpat (which alone has three hundred workers) means that they have to rely on the middleman to provide them with the right amount of material to produce their goods. The middleman, according to most of the home-based workers I interviewed, ends up exploiting these workers financially, emotionally, and, in extreme cases, physically. Also, most of these workers have an almost zero sense of entrepreneurship, and cannot market and sell their goods even if they are let out of the house to do so. On a mass level, the home-based women workers, whether underage, married, or old, are at the mercy of the patriarchal system. The labour judicial system itself lends to open discrimination against these women. And at the end of the chain, with almost no appreciation for their hard work by us, the drive to better their lives is killed every day.
Brands like Generation and Shubinak are working in recent years to promote the work of cottage industry workers, with such workers citing a positive financial change by working with these brands. NGOs, too, have worked tirelessly to ratify the policies (or lack thereof) concerning cottage industry workers. HomeNet is one such organization that collaborated with Zakia Shahnawaz, Mehnaz Rafi and other activists last year on the passing of a bill regarding more rights for home-based workers.
But as part of a more liberal generation that already seeks to better our nation, don’t we have a duty to the women and children who contribute to at least 6% of our GDP? With improving economic prospects internationally, these workers deserve a chance to better their lives. Their labour goes wasted at a large scale. With a little support from those of us living in urban centres, a huge change can be brought about that can work a long way toward supporting hardworking individuals who are Pakistanis too. Just not as blessed.
By: Sidra Zia