May Issue 2010

By | Life Style | Published 10 years ago

On May 1, 2009, while other women labourers availed their holiday after finishing their respective chores, 35-year-old Nasim spent her day travelling from her abode in Baldia Town, Karachi, to a government hospital in Saddar Town. Naseem is being treated for a respiratory disorder that she developed while working in a garment factory last year.

The symptoms started to show two years ago, but Nasim ignored them, thinking they were normal as her other colleagues also experienced coughing fits and breathlessness whenever they were exposed to cotton dust. However, when her condition worsened and continued to last for hours even after work, she got worried and visited a doctor who told her that she had contracted a chronic form of asthma.

Nasim was diagnosed with Byssinosis (also known as brown lung disease) — an occupational lung disorder that is common among workers in the textile sector due to their excessive exposure to cotton dust. This could have been prevented had her employers provided her with a mask designed for textile workers, to stop them from contracting such pulmonary diseases. Nasim gave up her job upon her doctor’s advice. She still remembers the unjust way her employers treated her when she informed them of her decision: “They refused to sponsor my medical expenses, saying that I was lying about contracting the illness at work and that I had been sick from before I joined them.”

If the trade union had supported her and pursued her case “with more zeal,” she says, her employers could have been forced into covering her medical expenses. But as that was not the case, Nasim now has to pay for her medicine herself, spending Rs 2,000 a month, which constitutes nearly half her monthly wage.

40-year-old Maha Bibi does not rely on labour unions to solve her work-related problems any more — no matter how zealous they are. Being the only breadwinner for her family of eight, Maha led a protest march of workers against the owners of her garment factory when they refused to increase their monthly wage from Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,500 (Rs 6,000 is the minimum monthly wage for a labourer, according to Pakistani law). Since her employers barred trade union activities at work, Maha sought help from ‘bajis’ at an independent labour union she used to visit, and they succeeded in convincing her employers to sanction the raise.

However, Maha’s supervisor started harassing her soon after the incident. “He would humiliate me and use profane language,” says Maha. And when she protested against this abuse, he told her to leave. Maha remained jobless for two months and the warehouse she has now joined as a daily-wage worker, pays even less than what she was paid by her previous employer. But now she is adamant that she won’t protest.

“How will I feed my children if I fight with every employer?” she asks, pointing out that even though the union was able to get her a pay raise, it couldn’t help retain her job or secure a better one. This has led her to believe that trade unions are ineffective, and that they cannot prevent the exploitation of workers at the hands of their employers.

“When it comes to rights of women workers, there is no major achievement to our credit,” admit labour leaders Riffat Razi, chairperson of the women’s committee of the Pakistan Workers Federation, Sindh, and Rehana Yasmeen, general secretary of the Hosiery and Garment Textile Workers Union. Riffat and Rehana have been struggling for the rights of women workers for decades. Speaking to Newsline, they say they regret being unable to show high success where solving issues like sexual harassment, gender discrimination in salaries and the employment status of women workers is concerned. A lot of small-scale problems have been addressed, says Rehana, giving the example of her own union which arranged awareness seminars at many factories in Karachi on the issue of separate washrooms for women — an effort which yielded positive results. However, both say the movement has not been able to proceed beyond the initial phase of the struggle.

A major reason for this, says Rehana, is that women don’t speak up and give in instead of struggling. She refers to the example of a factory worker in her union, who chose to quit her job instead of seeking help from the union after she was sexually harassed by her contractor. Another woman, who was pregnant, also quietly left work when her employer expelled her in order to avoid doling out her due maternity benefits.

Rehana explains that women don’t approach trade unions because they fear losing their jobs, or earning disrepute in cases of sexual harassment. “But we cannot fight for them unless they are willing to fight for themselves,” she says.

Riffat concurs, sharing her personal experience. After her husband’s death, she was offered the ‘friendship’ of two authority figures within the Sindh Employees Social Security Institution where she worked as a social security officer. Upon her refusal, one accused her of being found in a compromising position with a male colleague and issued her expulsion orders. The other friendship seeker withheld her annual increment.

But instead of apologising to save her skin — and job — Riffat fought back. Her expulsion orders were withdrawn when allegations against her could not be proven. But there were repercussions for speaking up. She had to give up her increment and despite being the victim, Riffat was discriminated against by her female colleagues, among whom she became an unpopular figure because of her ‘boldness.’ It is this tag attached to women activists, that keeps many female workers from participating in trade union activities. Riffat reveals that in her federation, there are only 50 active members.

For both Rehana and Riffat, male union activists are also to blame for the failure of trade unions in solving workers’ problems and the workers’ subsequent lack of faith in them. According to them, the men do not cooperate with their female co-workers. All authority positions within trade unions are also male-dominated, “which means that if they are chauvinists, they won’t take women’s issues seriously,” says Riffat. “A lot of times women are not even included in the decision-making process and are not assigned any responsibilities.” Rehana adds that sometimes workers’ problems are ignored simply because women leaders have brought an issue up. She does give credit where it is due and acknowledges that she is the general secretary of her union because of the support of some male colleagues, but she had to work twice as hard as any male leader to reach this position.

Jehan Ara, who has been a member of a trade union at a leading pharmaceutical company in Karachi for six years now, says women labour leaders are equally responsible for the state of the unions and cannot deflect the blame towards the male ego for their own failure. Jehan Ara blames women leaders for not being committed enough to their cause and kowtowing to male authority. She says the reason why a lot of women workers’ problems remain unresolved is because male leaders in trade unions reach backdoor settlements with their employers, and women leaders simply cover their backs.

She gives the example of an incident that took place in her factory. When women workers who had been on temporary employment contracts since the last 16 years demanded permanent employment status, trade union leaders advocated the case of male workers instead — those who had only worked there for two years — on the basis of shared ethnicity. Jehan Ara says that women leaders ignored this discrimination because they enjoyed the favour of male leaders in the union in return. Acts like these are detrimental to the credibility of women labour leaders and unions.

Rehana Yasmeen differentiates between women activists when the movement first started, and those of today. “Women leaders of today don’t fight or struggle as much and give in when faced with problems.” She says that this is unlike the activists of her time, who faced bullets, braved pressure from society and religious factions and faced fake criminal charges, just to bring about social change.

That women workers continue to be exploited with monthly wages as low as Rs 4,000 and their basic rights to gloves, masks and other equipment denied — even in industries where trade unions are relatively strong — is not contested by Kaneez Fatima, the pioneering women’s labour activist from the ’60s. But she disagrees with the view that the movement has yielded no positive results at all.

The measure for success and failure lies not only in more representation, better working conditions and increase in wages, but also in increased awareness among labourers about trade union activities and their rights. When Kaneez started campaigning in 1963, she would go door-to-door to convince men to let their women participate in trade union activities and get their due rights in the workplace. Today, although the participation of women in trade unions remains low with women constituting only 15% of the activists in the 350 unions of the Pakistan Trade Union Federation presided by Kaneez, she says that even this presence (of women in trade unions) was unthinkable four decades ago.

Kaneez considers this to be a huge milestone and sees the struggle taking the form of a social movement. She envisages that when successful, this social movement will go on to abolish the feudal system and provide labourers with basic needs like shelter, food, free medical aid and free quality education for their children. “It takes a lot of time to bring about change. I have spent my entire life struggling for change, but trade unions alone cannot achieve these goals. Political parties need to step up and be a part of this social movement.”

The need of the time, she says, is to revolutionalise the way people think. While the patriarchal mentality needs to change, Kaneez stresses that women too need to stop treating themselves as a separate entity and work with men on an equal footing. Critical of the formation of separate women’s wings, Kaneez maintains that men and women need to come together on one platform to work for the common good of all workers.

Note: This article originally appeared in the print version of Newsline under the title “Sisters in the Brotherhood.”