The Daily Struggle of Iraq's Women Labourers

In the early hours of every morning, 40-year old Umm Lamia travels to Sidda area in Baghdad looking for daily work. In recent years the area has become known as a ‘mastar’, the Iraqi name for labourer gathering points. These days, however, the mastars have gained a new term, ‘mastar al-nisa’, meaning female meeting points.

Like many other women, Umm Lamia is desperate for work. Her husband is dead and her family unable to help her and so to survive and feed her daughter, Lamia, she must work.

Every morning, tens of divorced, displaced and widowed women gather at the mastar, waiting and hoping to be picked up for a day of work. Contractors arrive early and select the women they want. Some days they are offered construction work; other days jobs tending animals, harvesting crops or packing dates.

“Working in construction requires a strong body,” said Umm Lamia, saying that the work is often dangerous. Sometimes, she explained, the work is so hard and the heat so intense that she faints.

The jobs pay very little, barely providing enough funds for food. But for Umm Lamia there are few other options and she is desperate for survival. Most of the women work eight to nine hours each day for a total wage of US $10-13 and almost all of them, including Umm Lamia, also bring their children who earn a half-wage. For many of the children the work is painfully hard.

Skinny, with thick fingers and a bony face, Lamia’s mother told Niqash about the difficulties of waking so early and getting her daughter to work. “I call Lamia to come and drink her tea, only to discover that she has fallen asleep again and that I have to wake her up once more. Sometimes, I have to shout at her to wake her up,” she said.

Traditionally, mastars have been meeting points for male workers in search of a day job. Only in recent years has the new term ‘mastar al-nisa’ emerged as more women have been forced to go out and find work in order to provide for their families. Today, these female gathering points are scattered across the poor areas of Baghdad.

Other women are also profiting from this new industry in different ways. Umm Abboud collects women from their homes on a daily basis and then sends them directly to work locations in exchange for a commission.

Umm Abboud justified the system saying it provided desperate women with an income. “Some women suffer from sexual harassment at the hands of their employees and they quit their work in search of new opportunities – but then they have to wait for some days without an income,” she said.

“Women’s work is seasonal,” she explained. “During the date, corn, wheat and barley harvest season, almost all the women get the opportunity to work.”

Women's organizations, however, react to the growing phenomenon with worry and say that the government is not dealing with the associated dangers and exploitation adequately.

According to Samiha Abdel-Wahid, head of the Widows Care Organization, most of these women are illiterate and cannot find other work. They never went to school or dropped out because of deteriorating economic conditions. Now their poor status and lack of knowledge is being exploited said Abdel-Wahid.

“There are many civil society organizations trying to implement projects teaching women new professions and providing them with financial assistance in order to help them abandon dangerous jobs, but the number of women who need help is much higher than the capacity of civil society organizations,” she said.