Network of Homebased Workers
in South Asia

Overview of Homebased Workers

Historically, homebased work included skilled artisan production and entrepreneurial activities as well as low-skilled manual work and survival activities. In recent decades, new forms of homebased work have emerged and today, homebased work encompasses a wide diversity. From traditional embroidery and weaving, homebased work today extends to some of the latest sectors such as computers and tele-work. Homebased workers may work in the new economy (assembling micro-electronics) or the old (weaving carpets), they can be in the rural areas as well in the urban. And they are not confined to the developing countries only, but are also found in developed countries (e.g. Ireland and the Netherlands).

Homebased worker refers to the general category of workers who carry out remunerative work within their homes or in the surrounding grounds. Within the general category of homebased workers, are two main types of workers: Piece-rate workers and Own-account workers.

Piece-rate workers receive work from subcontractors or intermediaries, an employer, a trader or a firm and are paid a piece rate, according to the items produced. These workers do not have any direct contact with the markets for the goods they produce. Often, they have to buy the raw material from the factories or contractors and also arrange for tools. The cost of electricity, infrastructure, and raw material can cut into their earnings. They can be engaged by international chains of production (garments, footwear, electronics, plastic footballs) or work for national or local markets (garments, bidi, agarbatti, textiles). Certain forms of craft-work, while apparently traditional, are now done on a subcontracted basis (weaving, basket work). This trend is also growing in non manufacturing areas such as agri processing (cashew nut, cotton, horticulture, floriculture and animal husbandry).

Own-account workers are workers who are generally in direct contact with the market and buy their own raw materials. They face competition from larger and more powerful corporate houses and often do not have access to credit, except at exorbitant rates of interests. Since they can not buy large quantities of raw materials, the per unit cost of their products is higher. As subsistence agriculture decreases and farming becomes more commercialized, women are increasingly using traditional skills to earn a cash income (embroidery, weaving). Often living in remote rural areas, they generally rely on the agents, contractor or the middle persons to sell their goods directly in the markets. In terms of earning and working conditions, they are not much better off than piece-rate workers.

It is often difficult to make a sharp distinction between the two types of home-workers as many own-account homebased workers are economically dependent on outside forces, while many women do both kinds of work depending on what is available. Many work in a `commercial’ arrangement that disguise their dependence. 

Both categories lack collective bargaining skills, lack occupational health and safety and social protection but the problems faced by them are quite different. Homebased workers face the problem of exploitation, of low wages and lack of secure contracts. In addition, they have to pay for many of the non wage costs of production – costs of space and storage, utilities and equipment. To improve their situation they need the capacity to bargain. The self employed lack access to local markets and competition. To improve their situation, they need better access to financial markets and better capacities to compete in product markets.

Women are over represented among homebased workers, especially among homebased workers engaged in manual work. There are around 50 million homebased workers in South Asia, most of them are women. Women turn to homebased work for a number of reasons. Lack of necessary qualifications and formal training, absence of child care support, social & cultural constraints and absence of alternatives are some of the reasons. Families need cash incomes for their survival. Loss in formal employment and reduced returns from agriculture often result in men migrating to urban centres, leaving behind women and children. With homebased work being the only alternative available to poorest communities, it is not confined only to women but also involves children, especially girls. There are positive aspects to homebased work also. It gives women the opportunity to combine work with domestic chores, flexible and sometimes better working conditions. While designing strategies to meet the challenges, it is important to retain the positive aspects of homebased work.

While each sub sector has its own character, all of them contribute significantly to the economy. For example, the agarbatti industry contributes US $240 million annually to national income in India with an export value of US$112 million. The garment industry in Bangladesh contributes TK 2,700 crores and is the country’s largest export earner and fourth largest employer. Pakistan accounts for 80% of the match grade footballs, earns PK Rs. 3 billion in foreign exchange from this industry alone. Despite its contribution, the true extent and nature of home work has not been reflected in the official statistics nor perhaps recognized by the workers themselves. Homebased workers remain invisible and unrecognized and are also unprotected by the law.

Women homebased workers are invisible on several counts. Homebased work as a category of workers remains invisible, particularly the subcontracted and the homebased workers. Invisibility of homebased work is also due to the tendency to view homebased work as marginal or peripheral economic activity while several studies have pointed out that workers spend nine hours a day during peak season times suggesting that homebased workers are full time rather than part time workers.

Another problem is the difficulty in identifying the employer - whether it is the intermediary – the contractor – who directly places work orders, the supplier that puts out work to the intermediary, the manufacturer that outsourcers goods from the supplier, or the retailer that sells the goods. Subsequently which unit in the chain should be held accountable for the rights and benefits of workers down the chain?

Working from home, homebased workers tend to remain isolated from other workers and, therefore, have less voice vis-à-vis employers or public authorities than other workers. The lack of a specific employer also makes mobilization of these groups of workers very difficult since there is no common ‘enemy’ against whom they could be organized.

The invisibility of homebased workers manifests itself in several ways. No policy for homebased workers exists. Most of the labour laws in India are designed for the protection of wages and working conditions of workers in the organized sector. When the work place is at home, such laws cannot offer protection to the workers. They are designed for the ‘employee’ or for a labour market where the employer-employee relationship is very clear. There are only two labour legislations which recognize homebased workers existence these are the Minimum Wages Act and the legislations specifically for the bidi workers.

Many of the production and service activities of the homebased workers are of low productivity consequently yielding low incomes. Low productivity also arises because of the low levels of technology used in the sector. The self-employed homebased workers face the insecurity of lack of capital to undertake their operations. The lack of access to credit, to undertake their operations leads to income insecurity and vulnerability among workers. Thus, the invisibility and lack of recognition, with no formal contracts or identity cards, gives rise to other insecurities like of access to credit, raw material, infrastructure facilities etc.

Homebased work is fast emerging as an increasingly important source of employment worldwide. Fewer workers the world over are working in formal, unionized jobs and more and more people, particularly women, are working informally, many of them at home. With the growing globalization and decentralization of production, homebased subcontract work has emerged as the final link in a global chain of subcontractors encompassing a wide range of industries and services.

Homebased work appears to be on the rise around the world as a result of combination of factors. Firstly, global competition increases pressures on firms to cut costs through flexible work contracts or sub-contacting production. Secondly, increasing lack of formal employment opportunities forces many workers to take up self employed work from home. And, finally, the existence of social networks and cultural norms that makes it more acceptable for women to work from home.

What is evident is that in conjunction with increasing vulnerability, irregular work and low wages, Homebased work also lead to the overburdening of women as they shoulder various means of making a living while tending to their domestic as well as community responsibilities, many times with unemployed but unsupportive husbands. In the current situation, the heightened vulnerability of women homebased workers is coupled with increasing invisibility of women homebased workers.

(As approved by the Board of Trustees on 05.09.2014)

I. PURPOSE OF HOMENET SOUTH ASIA :

The structure of an organization or a network depends on what it’s purpose and strategies are.

Vision Statement

HomeNets in South Asia envisions a scenario in which Homebased Workers are visible, protected, promoted, empowered ..

Newsletter,Issue 1