The Leadership Series: how can international brands ensure that homeworkers are treated fairly?

  • 27 March 2018
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage.

With the help of specialist NGOs such as WIEGO and Homeworkers Worldwide, ETI's company members have been working to improve the lives of homeworkers in their supply chains. Yet huge issues continue to beset this group of workers. In this third of our Leadership Series of 20th anniversary blogs, WIEGO’s Law Programme Director, Marlese von Broembsen, writes that recognising homeworkers as 'legitimate' – and ensuring they have equal rights with other workers – is key.

I was struck by a comment reportedly made at the 2018 OECD annual garment trade forum:

"For too long we have expected brands to play fair in a world without rules, what we need is to transition to a world where there are agreed fair rules for the game."

I wondered whether the forum had given much thought to who is allowed to participate in the game? And who should participate in making these rules?

The science behind recognising workers as legitimate participants

Social theorist, Nancy Fraser, argues that for people to participate, they must be “recognised” as legitimate players. Social, cultural and legal norms create “status hierarchies”, she argues, that recognise some, and fail to recognise others, as legitimate players. For example, social and legal norms “misrecognise” women as workers in certain occupations on the basis of their gender, and they cannot therefore legitimately participate in those labour markets.  

Similarly, labour law scholar, Simon Deakin notes that contemporary labour market institutions are “social mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion.” One such institution is the employment contract, which is used as a proxy to identify “legitimate” workers, who are entitled to participate in decision-making processes, collective bargaining, and to labour rights; and de-legitimatises others who do not enjoy these labour rights.

Recent ILO statistics show that 61% of the global workforce are informally employed. Yet, informal workers are seldom “recognized” as legitimate players in either national or global rule-making processes.

To be sure, in the context of the global supply chain discussions, most factory workers that the global rules aim to protect are informal workers.  Although these workers work in factories, they may very well not have employment contracts. 

But besides factory workers, there are other informal workers – subcontracted workers or industrial outworkers — who are deeply embedded in production processes.

The growth of home working

A subset of industrial outworkers – homeworkers – produce goods for domestic and global supply chains from in or around their own homes.

Statistics: homeworkers in South and South East Asia

Homeworkers are overwhelmingly women and represent a significant share of the workforce in many developing countries, particularly in South and South East Asia. The data suggest that there are at least 41 million home-based workers outside agriculture in South Asia alone. They represent 15% of total non-agricultural employment (and 31% of female non-agricultural employment) in India, and as much as 40% of total non-agricultural employment (and 48% of female non-agricultural employment) in Nepal. The data also suggests that homeworkers represent between 14% (Bangladesh) to 33% (India and Pakistan) of all home-based workers; and as high as 45% (India) to 60% (Pakistan) of women home-based workers.

Homeworkers produce, add value to, package and sort goods for a range of industries, including plastics, electronics, consumer durables, metal, garment/textiles, and fishing.

Traditionally, in Asia, their activities were limited to labour-intensive skilled artisan work such as stitching, weaving, embellishing or craft-making and making fishnets.

In the last thirty years, however, homeworkers have also started to assemble and package goods for the electronics, pharmaceuticals and auto parts industries.

Homeworkers may be a permanent part of the supply chain workforce, (working seven to twelve hours, six days a week) or they may work intermittently for some days a week when a factory has an oversupply of work and contractors issue work orders.

Yet often, upon finding homeworkers in their supply chains, brands ban their suppliers from outsourcing to them.

This is because brands and retailers are under pressure to take responsibility for human rights violations in their supply chains, and find it difficult to supervise working conditions outside of factories.  

It has led to an assumption that eradicating homework is a good thing. 

Even the International Trade Union Confederation’s early discussion papers argued that informal work, like child and forced labour, should be eradicated.

However, homeworkers disagree. So the challenge for brands is how to improve conditions and embed homeworkers’ rights.

Defending the right to work from home

In focus groups in India and Thailand, homeworkers articulated a range of reasons for homeworkers to be “recognized” as workers and enjoy the same rights as other workers, including the right to collective bargaining.[i]  And for why homework should not be banned by buyers and retailers.

  • First, homeworkers argue that factories do not employ people over 40.  Banning homework would therefore exclude many people over 40 from the labour market.[ii]
  • Second, women homeworkers argue that they need to work from home to fulfil domestic / reproductive responsibilities – cooking, cleaning, collecting water and fuel, caring for children, grandchildren and sick or disabled relatives.
  • Third, homework enables women who live in villages outside of cities to access work, as the contractors bring raw materials to them, and fetch finished products.  For many, travelling is unaffordable, and not possible on a daily basis.
  • Finally, homework is a means for women to engage in paid work in societies where cultural norms preclude women from working outside the home.

Perhaps the most important argument for recognising homeworkers as legitimate players who should participate in rule-making processes, is the fact that banning suppliers from using homeworkers will not eradicate homework. 

The drivers for outsourcing homework in the past will still be important drivers for the foreseeable future.

Besides, banning homework is likely to lead to it being done clandestinely, thus further exploiting the homeworkers.

For homeworkers themselves, banning homework amounts to the worst human rights violation, as it deprives them not only of work, but also of a livelihood. 

The drivers for suppliers to subcontract to homeworkers

Chen and Sinha (2016) identify several drivers for suppliers to subcontract work outside the factory, including the fact that sub-contracting works is a means of:

  • Transferring the risk of fluctuating demand. 
  • Downloading non-wage costs onto workers, including the costs of workspace and electricity; equipment (such as sewing machines), and supplies (such as thread and glue), equipment
  • Avoiding employer responsibility for worker benefits, social protection contributions and occupational health and safety. 

Further, suppliers often subcontract tasks to homeworkers that cannot be mechanised, such as embroidery. These drivers will ensure that if contracting to homeworkers is banned, it will continue, but ‘underground.’

Recognising homeworkers as legitimate

What would it mean for homeworkers, and other informal workers, to be “recognised” and participate? 

Through WIEGO’s intermediation, ten homeworker representatives from three continents participated in the 2016 International Labour Conference General Discussion on Decent Work in Supply Chains.

They were mandated to convey a platform of demands, which was agreed on by a meeting of homeworker representative organizations from eleven south and south-east Asian countries in Ahmedabad, India in March 2016. 

As Zehra Khan, General Secretary of the Home-Based Women Workers Federation from Pakistan stated in her plenary address: “Failure to recognize the economic contribution of homeworkers as part of global supply chains will simply mean that the bottom of the supply chain remains unregulated.” 

Subsequently, the ILO has recognised homeworkers as an integral part of production in global supply chains and OECD Due Diligence Guidance for responsible supply chains in the garment and footwear sector also recognises homeworkers within supply chains. 

But, while Module 12 of the OECD Guidance on “Responsible sourcing from homeworkers” contains some good ideas, from WIEGO’s point of view they are very general.

Had homeworkers been recognised as ‘players’ and participated in the OECD rule-making process, we believe their suggestions would have been far more specific.

And, they would have foreseen some likely unintended, but detrimental consequences of the well-meaning rules.

Top lines for companies

With HomeNet South East Asia and HomeNet South Asia, WIEGO has developed a set of recommendations to give effect to the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business.

These recommendations outline specific actions that corporations can, and should take, if they are serious about identifying, preventing and mitigating human rights violations experienced by homeworkers. 

The recommendations include but are not limited to:

  1. Insisting in contracts with suppliers that suppliers and sub-contractors include written contracts with homeworkers, give homeworkers a copy of their contract, and include the name of the buyer in the contract
  2. Require suppliers and contractors to disclose the names, addresses and contract details of any homeworkers to unions [like the Australian legislation].
  3. Insisting on specific contract provisions with homeworkers including: Payment within seven days of receipt of goods; no withholding of parts of payment; safety equipment must be provided by the contractor/sub-contractor; a homeworker may not lost his/her job without written reasons; and a homeworker can always bring a complaint to a body set up to hear complaints [a grievance mechanism]

Ensuring fairness

To return to the quote that inspired this blog: rules that are “fair” to some workers, may, at best, be “unfair” and, at worst, violate the rights of other workers. 

How would we know how rules affect different groups of workers, if these workers cannot speak for themselves? 

Recognition as “players” can, and should, happen at different levels – at the global level, at the national level, and within individual supply chains.

While brands may not be able to impact on global and national legal rules that serve to “misrecognise” informal workers and deny them legitimacy as workers, they are uniquely positioned to influence – define even — the social and legal rules that govern their supply chains.

They can certainly ensure that homeworkers are recognised as workers in accordance with ILO Convention 177 on Homework.

The photograph at the top of the page is of Mayuri, a single mother from Bangkok and is courtesy of WIEGO. Mayuri took up home-based work in order to look after her children while generating income. Like other home-based workers, she sometimes has to work long hours to meet tight deadlines with irregular pay. Joining HomeNet Thailand has given Mayuri access to information on the rights and entitlements of home-based workers as well as opportunities to meet potential employers. 


ETI's Leadership Series of blogs commemorates our 20th Anniversary and links business to human rights. Its aim is to re-affirm the case for ethical trade and encourage a constructive approach that pays homage to the concept of 'principled pragmatism'. Earlier posts include:

[i] WIEGO, with support from the Carr Centre for Human Rights, Harvard University, held focus groups with homeworkers and subcontractors in the garment sector in Tiruapur, India on 6-10 March 2017, and in Bangkok, Thailand in April 2017.

[ii] This assertion is borne out by studies, and by my discussions with the Workers’ Rights Consortium, which audits garment supply chains in countries all over the world.



ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.