Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

“Eat and Don’t Die”: Daily-wage labour as a window into Afghan society

S Reza Kazemi 23 min

At a time when Afghanistan’s economy continues to deteriorate due to intensified conflict and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, AAN researcher Reza Kazemi gives a voice to daily-wage labourers who flock to busy town squares to find work and are among the poorest in the country. Based on conversations and observations in the major western city of Herat, a hotspot for such work, as well as a literature review, Kazemi explores the ways in which these workers eke out an existence. He also looks at the factors that are likely to cause even more hardship for daily-wage labourers and other Afghans who may soon be forced to join their ranks.

Daily-wage workers at the Pa-ye Hesar intersection near the ancient Herat Citadel (in the background), 08:37 am, 27 August 2020. Photo: author.

Report summary

  • 80 per cent of the Afghan workforce are in ‘vulnerable employment,’ with high job insecurity and poor working conditions, according to the Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey 2016-17, the latest data available at the moment.
  • An estimated 16 per cent of the vulnerably employed are daily-wage labourers, an indeterminate number of whom gather at busy city intersections, looking for work that, if found, only provides their families with a hand-to-mouth existence. Herat province, particularly its capital Herat city, has been a hotspot of such work in the country.
  • Daily-wage labour has multiple interconnected causes including violent conflict pushing people out of their villages to already overcrowded cities, population growth, lack of pro-poor development and recently the impact of Covid-19.
  • Given the exacerbation of most of these factors, it is likely that vulnerable employment, including daily-wage work, has expanded since the 2016-17 survey.

This report is organised as follows. It starts by giving space to one daily-wage labourer and his story. It then broadens the perspective to the situation of daily-wage labourers in Herat city by focusing on those that are gathering at specific intersections in search of work. Next, it discusses daily-wage labour as a category of vulnerable employment in Afghanistan, with special attention to Herat province. It finishes with thoughts on what daily-wage labour tells us about Afghan society, in which large numbers of people have been pushed to more severe forms of vulnerable employment and poverty.

In terms of methodology, this report is based on the author’s semi-structured conversations with ten daily-wage labourers in July and August 2020 in Herat city (all men – as finding daily-wage labour out in the street is an entirely male phenomenon – and aged approximately between 20 and 65). In addition, it builds on the author’s intermittent casual observations (since 2014) of a specific city intersection where labourers assemble, as well as two interviews (one with an official of Herat’s Labour and Social Affairs Directorate in late August 2020 and the other with the spokeswoman of the National Statistics and Information Authority, NSIA, formerly called the Central Statistics Office/Organisation, CSO, in mid-October 2020). Where relevant, the report draws on the literature on (un/under)employment in Herat and Afghanistan.

A worker’s voice

The following personal narrative of a daily-wage labourer illustrates how such workers find work, what they earn and what they need to earn in order to cover their costs.

Farid, aged 45, has basic literacy and numeracy skills and is the sole breadwinner for a household of five: himself, his wife and their three unmarried children. (1) For well over two decades now, he has mostly worked on a daily-wage basis, both as a migrant in Iran and after he returned to Herat in the early 2000s. In Herat, he has mainly found work at the bustling Badmurghan intersection in the south of the city – a town square locally called sar-e gozar (literally ‘in the passageway’). (2) Men come here to offer themselves up for work, waiting for passers-by to hire them, some resting in the pushcarts they brought along, others with a shovel or other construction tool next to them. When the author spoke to Farid in mid-July 2020, he had temporarily found more permanent employment as a watchman for a construction site in a well-to-do area not far from the centre of the city:

I got to know the person who owns this land and is building a posh house on it through an acquaintance. He brought me here to watch his construction materials and tools like steel rods, cement, bricks, shovels, pickaxes and wheelbarrows, especially at night when everyone else working here goes back home. I go home after two or three days [for a break]. I earn 270 Afs a day (currently 3.51 USD)… I couldn’t bargain with my employer because there’s little work and many workers [in the sar-e gozar].

About a month and a week later, towards late August 2020, Farid was back at the sar-e gozar, having been fired:

The employer rejected me a few days ago. He said, “Pack your things, here’s your pay for the days you worked and go.” He made an excuse, saying that I hadn’t been present at work for some hours one day. I packed my things and went. He doesn’t give me my livelihood; only God does. I worked there for 37 days and made 9,990 Afs (129.74 USD). And that was without breakfast or dinner. For lunch, I ate along with the other workers; for breakfast and dinner, I prepared and ate something on my own.

After being unemployed for some days, Farid got some construction work in a nearby mosque in late August. In early September, he was again back at the sar-e gozar, looking for work.

When asked about whether the money they made was enough to cover their needs, a common answer by Farid and other workers living in similar circumstances was that they lived a life of “bokhor o namir” – “eat and don’t die.” They said they would need to make about 500 Afs a day (6.49 USD) to be able to survive – that is, if they already had a roof of their own over their heads, did not frequently host guests and no one in the family fell badly ill. They said that on average they made about half that amount, when they were fortunate enough to find work at all. These anecdotes are more or less corroborated by a 2016/17 study by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs that found that daily-wage labourers worked an average of two to 13 days per month with a mean income of 313 Afs (4.06 USD) for each day of labour. (3)

Daily-wage labour in Herat city

Farid is one of many. In the early mornings, labourers from the city and some nearby districts as well as displaced persons from neighbouring provinces such as Badghis amass at specific sar-e gozars in search of work. These sar-e gozars are usually strategically located at or near busy intersections with heavy traffic and intense commercial activity. (4) Sometimes, against the backdrop of sar-e gozars in expensive residential areas, the groups of clearly poor and often malnourished daily workers starkly illustrate the widening social inequalities, not only between groups of people but also between cities and villages.

Take the Badmurghan sar-e gozar frequented by Farid. Located not far from a key marketplace and the provincial police office, it is one of the busiest and most congested intersections in the city. Shoppers go there for food, fruit and vegetable stores and vendors, photography shops and businesses offering music and film services for ceremonies such as weddings, to name but a few. Over time, the intersection has evolved into a commonly known meeting point between those looking for work and those looking for workers.

Daily-wage workers surrounding a potential employer in the congested Badmurghan intersection, 09:57 am, 11 October 2020. Photo: author.

The prevalence of daily-wage labour is partially a result of massive population movements – particularly the influx of tens of thousands of people displaced mostly by conflict between 2012 and 2019 (see figure 1). These population movements, in particular of internally displaced persons (IDPs), have made Herat province, primarily its capital Herat city, an increasingly difficult space for living and working. Many IDPs and returnees from Iran have resorted to daily-wage labour as their main, if not only, chance to earn money, according to the author’s conversations with labourers, including returnees, long-term residents and an official from Herat’s Labour and Social Affairs Directorate. (5)

Figure 1: Herat province has seen widespread population movements in the 2010s. Source: author’s illustration of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Afghanistan’s baseline mobility assessment released in June 2020 (for source and category definitions see footnote 6).

In an interview with AAN, Zubair Rauf, an official at Herat’s Labour and Social Affairs Directorate, listed seven sar-e gozars in and around the city where daily-wage labourers gather, one of which, he said, has become a hotspot for IDPs from Badghis province looking for work. (7) He said the number of labourers gathering fluctuated, depending on the season, with numbers tending to increase towards autumn and winter when agricultural and other work, for example in brick kilns, decreases. (8) However, he said that each sar-e gozar was frequented by an average of 400 to 500 labourers on a daily basis throughout the year. For these parts of the city alone, that adds up to several thousand people trying to get work every day.

In mid-August, one daily-wage labourer described to AAN the daily routine he has observed at two sar-e gozars – one in the south and the other in the north of the city:

I came here [Badmurghan ­sar-e gozar in the south of the city] this morning about 7:30 am, but haven’t found any work yet. Because I feel pain in my legs, I can’t go to Ghor Darwaz [another sar-e gozar in the north of the city] to see if I can find work there. When I came here, there were many people, but now there are fewer. They go from one sar-e gozar to another. When it gets to 9 or 10 am, they go to some cheap samavari (teahouse) to have some tea. When there’s no work, they return home empty-handed.

There are different people coming here. Some are from Badghis. Some are returnees from Iran, some are from the villages around the city and some are from the city. Their numbers only increase and never decrease. By around noontime, many go to this mosque here and do ablutions and say their prayers. If there’s no money and no charity bread or food, they fast. By the evening, those who are from the city or villages around the city go back to their houses. Those who are from Badghis spend a week or so in some inexpensive samavari or mosaferkhana (inn) and then return to their families for a visit… There are two kinds of work, kar-e sakhtemani (construction work) and hammali (porterage), but workers like me do any work that comes our way. In construction, we work helping masons and carry sand, soil, gravel or other construction materials like cement, plaster and tile. In porterage, we load and unload anything, like wheat, tyres and other goods and do other things like carrying people’s household items when they move house, washing their carpets and doing any other work they ask us to do.

Some men, among them daily-wage workers, have tea and chat in a samavari near Badmurghan intersection, 07:23 am, 13 October 2020. The owner said he and previously his father had run the teahouse for the last 25 years. Photo: author.

Those ending up at sar-e gozars have generally run out of other options to find work. They lack wider social networks from which to get more dependable employment. “Those who have contacts find work by receiving calls on their phones,” said a daily-wage labourer while waiting at a sar-e gozar for a potential employer. Daily-wage labourers also do not have the capital to start a little business of their own like some others who have managed to raise money including from short-term labour stints in Iran or borrowing from acquaintances or both. Such more fortunate people can become “rais-e khod” (“their own boss”), as a rickshaw driver who was previously a daily-wage construction worker phrased it. They are driving people or commodities around in rickshaws, running small grocery or other shops or working as vendors, hawkers or cart-pullers – the main forms of local self-employment. It may still be precarious and not very lucrative, but is a step up from those trying to secure work at the sar-e gozars.

A man sells watermelons on his cargo rickshaw in Herat city, 28 September 2020. Driving passenger and cargo rickshaws has become a major type of local self-employment. Photo: author.

Daily-wage labour in figures – and why they remain blurry

How many people in Herat – and countrywide – currently work for daily wages is not known. The existing data is inconsistent and often not comparable, mainly due to a jumble of different definitions used over the years. (9) Even the latest data is years old. The most recent Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey (ALCS) is from 2016-17 (the sixth edition, the first was published in 2003). (10) In conversations with AAN in mid-October 2020, the spokeswoman of the National Statistics and Information Authority (NSIA), Rohina Shahabi, said the NSIA had not reached an agreement with foreign funders (meaning the European Union) over how to carry out a subsequent survey round. She said the EU had asked for data collection to be sub-contracted to an external party while NSIA had insisted it was capable of doing the work itself. The author contacted the EU Afghanistan delegation for its take on the issue but did not hear back by the time of publishing. Therefore, Shahabi said, the NSIA has (with technical support from the World Bank) carried out a nationally funded survey called the Income, Expenditure and Labour Force Survey, which includes daily-wage work. She said preliminary findings would be published in the remainder of the current solar year 1399 (meaning by March 2021), but stressed that for the moment, no data from the study was available.

As for absolute numbers, the existing reports offer slim pickings. The National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment from 2011-12 lists, for example, that there were about 187,000 daily-wage labourers out of a total provincial population of 1,871,000 in Herat in 2011. (11) At the time, Herat was the province with the highest numbers of daily-wage labourers, accounting for around 15 per cent of the national total, calculated then at more than one million (1,279,000). (12) In addition, other research found that daily-wage labourers in Herat were earning less than those doing similar work in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. (13) This author has come across corroborating anecdotal evidence that this inequality has continued: some daily-wage labourers involved in construction work said they had found higher – and more punctually paid – wages outside Herat in, for example, Lashkargah, Kandahar or Kabul cities.

There are no more recent absolute figures for daily-wage labourers, neither countrywide nor for Herat, most likely indicating difficulties in data collection, such as decreasing access due to insecurity. The ALCS 2016-17 only gives percentages. It found daily-wage labourers made up an estimated 16 per cent of all those in vulnerable employment, while 80 per cent of all employment countrywide was considered vulnerable (see figure 2) (for a definition of vulnerable employment and two other estimates see footnote 14).

Figure 2: Self-employed (also called own-account), daily-wage and unpaid family workers are all categorised as vulnerable employment and comprise the vast majority of employment in Afghanistan. Source: author’s illustration of data in ALCS 2016-17 (p 72).

Given trends since the last ALCS survey of 2016-17 such as a deterioration in security and the socioeconomic situation, population growth and lately the Covid-19 pandemic (more on these below), it is likely that the extent of vulnerable employment, including daily-wage work, has expanded. Herat is likely to remain a major hotspot of daily-wage labour in the country, given, among other things, the influx of IDPs and a settled population growth of around 270,000 people since 2011. (In June 2020, NSIA reported that Herat province’s population was 2,140,662).

The available data is, however, clear on one point: daily-wage labourers have been among those least securely and least gainfully employed. They and others in the vulnerable employment category account for by far the largest numbers of workers in Afghanistan (as shown in figure 2 above). For most people looking for employment, ‘decent work’ is just a distant dream. (15) The 2016-17 ALCS (p 54) sums it up like this:

Of the total employed population, 20 percent – 1.3 million people – are underemployed, an indication that their jobs are inadequately providing sufficient and sustainable livelihoods. Moreover, 80 percent of all jobs are classified as vulnerable employment, characterised by job insecurity and poor working conditions. Only 13 percent of the working population of Afghanistan can be considered to have decent employment.

Daily-wage labour and the threat of even greater poverty

Already among the poorest of the poor, (16) daily-wage labourers and others in precarious employment may now face even greater hardship. Firstly, the security situation has partly deteriorated further since preparations for ‘peace’ talks with the Taleban in the Qatari capital of Doha started this year (see AAN reporting here and here). The conflict has damaged already struggling local economies and driven more people from their homes. This means, among other things, that in the relatively safer towns and cities near areas of conflict, breadwinners from internally displaced families may surge into local labour markets, increasing the number of those already competing for daily-wage jobs and further minimising chances of anyone earning an income.

Exacerbating the consequences of conflict are the economic repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. As this author has recently reported from around Herat city, daily-wage workers were among the first to be hit by the fallout from the pandemic, with even less work available. In addition, hikes in staple food prices have burdened their already impoverished households further.

A third factor is the scale and nature of aid over the last twenty years, which, perhaps surprisingly, has been problematic, hindering sustainable growth and widening inequality, as we recently reported. The economic growth that has taken place since 2001 has not been pro-poor. A 2010 AREU report, for instance, said poverty reduction policy in the country was at a “critical stage” because it “pays no attention to the societal factors that make and keep people poor,” including the “seeming co-optation of the poverty reduction agenda by a focus on economic growth and job creation with no attention to how the poor will benefit.” Reviewing about ten years of aid to Afghanistan (2002-12), a subsequent 2012 AREU report found that the “dividends and returns from nearly 10 years of aid to Afghanistan have been meagre for many Afghans. Many of the rural and urban poor are certainly no better off than before, and for many livelihood security is worse. The lack of employment and work in both the urban and rural labour markets is a testimony to this lack of progress.” 

Similarly, a recent 2019 World Bank report replicated the point on the exclusion of vast swathes of the population from economic growth from 2009 to 2019, during which time the “welfare of the bottom 80 percent of the Afghan population has been in steady decline.” The World Bank report also said that “[w]hile poverty has intensified since 2012, inequality has declined as the transition [of security responsibility to the government in 2014] was accompanied by a large welfare loss among the most well-off.”

It is estimated that Afghanistan’s national income, or GDP, will have shrunk in 2020 by five to ten per cent. More alarming than this ‘negative growth’ is the projected poverty rate. The World Bank estimates a potential rise from 54.5 per cent of Afghans living under the poverty line to 61-72 per cent during 2020, according to the most widely used measure of poverty in the country. (17) This would mean that not only will existing daily-wage labourers go even deeper into poverty, but that, most probably, more people will be made poor and some may be driven to the streets and also have to resort to daily-wage labour for survival.

Compounding these bleak prospects is the low level of attention policy-makers, both national and international, have given to those in need of ‘social protection’ (a diverse array of socially and economically vulnerable people such as orphans, families of martyrs, people with disabilities, people displaced by war or affected by other disasters and people with incapacitating physical or mental illnesses). Social protection measures would usually include labour market programmes as well as social insurance and social assistance schemes. (18) For the vulnerably employed such as daily-wage labourers, there have been some initiatives like food for work, skills development and cash for work programmes (see pp 10-12 of an Asian Development Bank report). Currently there are also two proposed initiatives: 280 million USD to provide Covid-19-related relief for poor households across the country under the government’s dastarkhan-e melli (national tablecloth) programme and 100 million USD to support food security, strengthen agriculture and provide short-term employment in rural areas. It remains to be seen whether they will be implemented. The dastarkhan-e melli programme, at least, has been rejected by the Afghan parliament on the grounds of being “inefficient, ineffective and non-transparent” (see this media report; see also this social media post from the Afghan parliament speaker, which says given its rejection, the programme does not have any execution guarantees). More importantly, if they do happen to be rolled out, it remains to be seen how corruption-free and effective they will be in reaching and supporting those most vulnerable. The simple fact that so many remain, for instance, in city sar-e gozars raises doubts as to the sustainability of initiatives aimed at providing work for the most needy such as daily-wage labourers.

Several large institutions have been calling for better social protection measures since 2012, indicating that not much has happened before or in the interim. The already mentioned 2012 Asian Development Bank report found that social protection was grossly insufficient and called for its improvement. A similar call was made by a recent September 2020 report by the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth and the UN Children’s Fund Regional Office for South Asia that looked at the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic to social protection systems in countries in South Asia, including Afghanistan. Institutions involved in Afghanistan’s social protection sector are among the least funded and developed in the state, looking at their meagre share in the national budget. (19) For instance, the sector has been allocated five per cent of the national budget for the current fiscal year 1399 (2020/21), which is incomparable to the top three sectors – defence (24 per cent), economic affairs (22 per cent) and public order and safety (15 per cent). The document outlining amendments to the current budget made because of the Covid-19 fallout mentions distribution of government-sponsored free bread to beneficiaries across the country and job creation mainly in the capital Kabul, amongst others (mainly anti-coronavirus health measures).

At the same time, options to mitigate hardship are squeezed off. The once popular option to migrate for labour stints from Herat to neighbouring Iran, for example, in order to earn and send remittances back to families is increasingly unattractive, because of the devaluation of the toman, the Iranian currency (one million toman is currently exchanged for around 3,500 afghani, one of the lowest rates on record). This is coupled with the fear of getting infected with Covid-19, which continues to rage particularly badly in Iran. AAN has heard from various sources in Herat that at the moment labour migration to Iran is, as a daily-wage labourer put it succinctly, “not worth it” (“namisarfa”).

All these factors mean that daily-wage labourers and many others in vulnerable employment have been and will continue to face hardship. The Covid-19 pandemic in Herat city has made an already bad situation worse, particularly during the partial lockdown from about late March to around late April 2020), as illustrated by the following quotes:

Corona made me completely jobless for a month or so. The police didn’t allow us to gather here [in the sar-e gozar]. I ran out of money, so I had no other way but to rely on my two brothers. One sells potatoes and onions on the street and the other works in construction in Iran.

– Daily-wage labourer, 30, unmarried

I’ve been coming to the sar-e gozar to find work since the first period of Ismail Khan [early 1990s]. The best time for me was the time of Karzai. There was lots of work and I wasn’t content with making 500 Afs a day (USD 6.49) [meaning he usually made more than that]. Now, times are bad. There’s little work and pay’s  low… The Taleban time was also good. In those times, there was work and life wasn’t so complicated. The city was calm and not crowded…

– Daily-wage labourer in his 50s

When there’s no money and food at home and when the needs of the wife and children aren’t met and when the man’s jobless and sits idle, it’s way better to not be at home, but outside. Otherwise, it’s intolerable and all sorts of arguments and fights can happen. Myself, when there was no work at all during corona [lockdown], at one point, I had just 1,000 Afs [12.99 USD] left at home, so I feared that I might lose my wife and child. She could have approached her parents, saying there’s no food at home and he has absolutely no work. They could have demanded a divorce.

– Daily-wage labourer in his 30s

It’s two, three years since work has been bad, especially under this two-headed government [ie led by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah]. Terrible! But I can’t stay home because when there’s no bread, how can a man face his wife and children? I find work one or two days a week. By the end of a day with no work, I might get some loaves of bread that some people come and donate.

– Daily-wage labourer in his 60s

Daily-wage labourers wait for passers-by to hire them for work in a part of a sar-e gozar in Herat city, 11 October 2020. Photo: author.

Conclusion

The deterioration of Afghanistan’s economy means that, for many working men, the final option is to stand at a busy street junction, offering themselves up cheap for daily-wage labour. They represent large – and most likely growing – numbers of the country’s population that are sinking deeper into poverty. As the daily-wage workers in this report said, they have been reduced to lives of barely eating and trying not to die.

At the same time, the government and Afghanistan’s international supporters lack up-to-date information on those in precarious employment. Even if they did have that information, there would most probably not have been any interventions to help struggling workers such as daily-wage labourers. The dominant economic discourse of the last two decades, that favours some over most people and which leaves everyone to fend for themselves, has widened economic and social inequalities. These workers will most likely continue to be abandoned.

So there are no easy, quick solutions to the acute insecurity of the precariously employed like daily-wage labourers whose prevalence is the result of multiple interconnected structural factors. Persistent violence, a biased and shrinking economy and lately the pandemic have all wreaked havoc with the labour market. There is also the continued inattention of the government – and indifference from the Taleban. Neither is focused on the crumbling lives and livelihoods of the vulnerable. Only the lessening – and preferably a cessation – of the conflict would start to relieve the pressure that has been building up on Afghanistan’s marginalised workers, felt crushingly in the precarious lives of daily-wage labourers.

Editing by Christine Roehrs, Rachel Reid and Kate Clark


(1) His name has been changed in order to protect his privacy.

(2) In administrative terms, Afghan cities such as Herat are divided into nahiyas (also called nawahi), which are municipal units that in turn are subdivided into gozars, municipal sub-units or neighbourhoods (see article 3 of the Procedure on the Establishment of Gozar Development Council and Nahiya Consultative Council in Municipalities 1395 (2016/17)). This author has also learned from local real estate agencies that gozars are further subdivided into blocks and each block in turn consists of a varying number of houses. As far as residents such as daily-wage labourers are concerned, sar-e gozars refer to focal areas in gozars/nahiyas, usually in and around junctions of main roads where people and vehicles pass by or cross. They also use other terms such as sar-e falaka (literally ‘in the square’) and sar-e chawk (‘at the crossroad’) to refer to such focal areas.

(3) The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs surveyed 544 daily-wage labourers in ten chawks (crossroads) in Kabul city and three chawks in each of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar. The study also found that 85 per cent of these labourers were married and had an average household size of 7.85 members, 85 per cent had no or only informal or primary education, 98 per cent were not aware of trade unions (who might help them to bargain with private or public employers) and that skilled daily-wage labourers earned a mean income of Afs 606 (USD 7.87) for one day of labour. See: Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Waz’iyat-e Eqtesadi wa Ejtema’i-ye Kargaran-e Ruzmozd (“Economic and Social Situation of Daily-Wage Labourers”), Kabul: Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, 1395 (2016/17).

The ministry was called the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled until around January 2019 when the State Ministry for Martyrs and Disabled Affairs was established pursuant to a presidential decree (see this new state ministry’s webpage). 

(4) Herat city as a whole has become more crowded. For example, this author hardly noticed any traffic congestion in the city, say, around 2015. In the last couple of years, however, more and more roads are congested even outside morning and evening rush hours. Relatedly, the city has grown bigger and bigger by the construction of shahraks (townships/informal settlements) around it, clearly indicating spatial marginalisation. Not just Herat, but also other cities across the country have seen rapid urbanisation since 2001. See: Jolyon Leslie, “Political and Economic Dynamics of Herat,” Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2015, pp 7-12; Detlef Kammeier and Zabihullah Issa, “Urban Governance in Afghanistan: Assessing the New Urban Development Programme and Its Implementation,” Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), 2017, pp 4-6; Fabrizio Foschini, “Kabul Unpacked: A Geographical Guide to a Metropolis in the Making,” Kabul: AAN, 2019; Mathew French, Parul Agarwala, Humayoun Faiz, Ahmad Shoaib Azizi, Masood Hamza, Srinivas Popuri and Jan Turkstra, “Developing a National Urban Policy in Afghanistan: Experiences and Lessons Learned,” in Debolina Kundu, Remy Sietchiping and Michael Kinyanjui (eds) Developing National Urban Policies: Ways Forward to Green and Smart Cities, Singapore: Springer, 2020, pp 147-167. On spatial marginalisation and (in)justice in urban settings, see for instance: M Rafieian, I Ghasemi and K Nouzari, “Analysis of Spatial Justice Discourse in Document of Urban Management Policymaking (Case Study: Tehran City),” Journal of Urban Social Geography 6:1, 2019, pp 71-89 (in Persian).

(5) Many of those who specifically left their villages for work in the cities looked for work at sar-e gozars, at least initially. See: Aftab Opel, “Bound for the City: A Study of Rural to Urban Labour Migration in Afghanistan,” Kabul: AREU, 2005, pp 20-21.

(6) IOM Afghanistan’s baseline mobility assessment report defines its five target populations as follows:

  • Returnees: Afghans who had fled abroad for at least six months and have now returned to Afghanistan
  • Outmigrants: Afghans who moved or fled abroad
  • Fled IDPs: Afghans from an assessed village who fled as IDPs to reside elsewhere in Afghanistan
  • Arrival IDPs: IDPs from other locations currently residing in an assessed village
  • Returned IDPs: Afghans from an assessed village who had fled as IDPs in the past and have now returned home

(7) The seven sar-e gozars listed by the Herat labour and social affairs directorate official are: Jakan, Pul-e Regina, Nawabad (recently turned into a daily-wage labour sar-e gozar, particularly by IDPs from neighbouring Badghis province), Qul Urdu, Ghor Darwaz, Pa-ye Hesar and Badmurghan. They are situated in bustling intersections in different nahiyas of the city (for details on the 15 nahiyas of Herat city, see this Herat Municipality webpage).

(8) An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study, released in 2011, elaborated on bonded labour (also known as debt bondage) in brick kilns in Kabul and Nangarhar provinces; it did not look at brick kilns in Herat province. See: ILO, “Buried in Bricks: A Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labour in Brick Kilns in Afghanistan,” Geneva: ILO, 2011.

(9) The last Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey (ALCS) 2016-17 (pp 55-56), provides the following justification and national labour force definitions that have been used in Afghanistan since 2013:

… Much of the work in the Afghanistan economy is characterised by informal arrangements, low-paid and low-productivity jobs, family work and child labour, and very long or very few working hours. It has been well documented that standard international labour indicators – especially those related to employment and unemployment – are inadequate to capture the performance of the labour market in such economies… Therefore, the CSO [Central Statistics Office/Organisation], the Ministry of Economy (MoEc) and the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled (MoLSAMD) developed and applied definitions that pertain better to the labour market context of Afghanistan…

Figure 3: Afghan and international labour force definitions. Source: ALCS 2016-17 (p 56).

(10) The survey was renamed Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey in 2013-14, having previously been referred to as the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment. There have been six surveys to date:

  1. National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA) 2003;
  2. NRVA 2005;
  3. NRVA 2007-8;
  4. NRVA 2011-12;
  5. Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey (ALCS) 2013-14; and
  6. ALCS 2016-17.

(11) For daily-wage labourers in Herat, see the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment 2011-12 (p 199); for the population of Herat in 2011 and its growth over time see: Leslie, FN 4, p 8.

(12) Other, even older, research also pointed to the prevalence of daily-wage labour in Afghan cities such as Herat. For example, a year-long AREU study from 2006 surveyed 40 households in each of the three cities of Herat, Kabul and Jalalabad and found that Herat had the highest level of “casual wage labour” (38 per cent compared to 33 per cent in Jalalabad and 32 per cent in Kabul) by the types of work studied. The study looked at five types of work: regular employment, self-employment, casual wage labour, home-based work and other work (for example, begging and unpaid work as helper).

(13) Adam Pain, “Livelihoods, Basic Services and Social Protection in Afghanistan,” Kabul: AREU, 2012, p 30.

(14) ALCS 2016-17 (p 371) defines ‘vulnerable employment’ as “[e]mployment characterised by relatively precarious circumstances such as a lack of formal work arrangements and access to benefits or social protection programmes, as well as low remuneration. Own-account workers and contributing family workers are the statuses in employment that are considered vulnerable employment. In ALCS, day labourers are included as well.”

However, a 2019 International Labour Organisation publication reported that 66 per cent of all employment was vulnerable in Afghanistan by 2018 (40 per cent self-employed workers and 26 per cent contributing family workers), again without giving any absolute numbers or specifying daily-wage labourers. Additionally, in February 2019, the NSIA and World Bank staff estimated, based on the ALCS 2016-17, that there were 603,892 male “casual and daily wage labor” workers aged 25-50 in Afghanistan in 2016, without giving the numbers of all daily-wage labourers (ie aged 14 or above, based on Afghanistan’s national definition of the labour force, and both genders).

(15) ‘Decent work’ is defined by the ILO as involving “opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men” (reproduced in p 66 of ALCS 2013-14). See also: International Labour Office (ILO) “Afghanistan Decent Work Country Programme 2018-2022,” ILO: Kabul, 2018. For a similar term, ‘good work,’ see: Mark Williams, Ying Zhou and Min Zou, Mapping Good Work: The Quality of Working Life across the Occupational Structure, Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2020.

(16) ALCS 2016-17 (p 123) found that among those in vulnerable employment, households with heads who were daily-wage labourers were poorer. Compared to those not in vulnerable employment, daily-wage labourers were in far more poverty, meaning individuals in households with daily-wage labourers as their heads were considerably poorer than those whose heads have regular salaries (ALCS 2016-17, p 123; ALCS 2013-14, p 112).

(17) By now, there are four approaches to measuring poverty in Afghanistan:

  1. The most widely used measure is the national definition for a poverty line of living on less than 2,064 Afs per month/0.87 USD per day in 2016-17; this resulted in a poverty rate of 54.5 per cent at that point in time (ALCS 2016-17, pp 107-108);
  2. The internationally applicable definition for the poverty line is living on less than 1.90 USD a day; this would have resulted in a poverty rate of more than 80 per cent in Afghanistan in 2016-17; see: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Humanitarian Needs Review: Afghanistan,” Kabul: OCHA, 2019, p 9;
  3. A second national definition for a poverty line is living on less than 2 USD a day which, according to President Ashraf Ghani and the Ministry of Economy, would mean that 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s population were living in poverty in July 2020 (see, for example, this media report); and
  4. The 2016-17 Afghanistan Multidimensional Poverty Index (A-MPI) report found that 51.7 per cent of Afghans lived in multidimensional poverty, in contrast to the above-mentioned three measures of monetary poverty. This meant they lacked access to things like clean water, electricity, sufficient food and schools for their children. This report also found that “people who are monetarily poor are not necessarily multidimensionally poor. In fact, while 51.7% of people are MPI poor and 54.5% are monetary poor, only about 36.3% of people in Afghanistan are poor by both measures.” For the latest edition of the global MPI report, see: UN Development Programme and University of Oxford, “Charting Pathways out of Multidimensional Poverty: Achieving the SDGs,” 2020.

(18) According to the Asian Development Bank, social protection means the “set of policies and programs designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability by promoting efficient labour markets, diminishing people’s exposure to risks, and enhancing their capacity to protect themselves against hazards and interruption/loss of income.” The policies fall into three broad categories: social insurance programmes, social assistance and labour market programmes. Various social protection initiatives have existed in Afghanistan. See: Asian Development Bank, “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan: Updating and Improving the Social Protection Index,” Mandaluyong: Asian Development Bank, 2012, pp 1-2, 6-12. See also: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan “National Budget Fiscal Year 1399,” Kabul: Ministry of Finance, 1399 (2020-21), pp 32-33.

(19) For a list, see the “Social Protection Sector” in the Directorate General Budget of the Ministry of Finance. All budgets since at least 1385 (2006/7) can be found here.

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