Homeworkers Worldwide was set up to support homeworkers in their struggle for rights and recognition as workers. We have mapped homeworking in many different parts of the world. Recent projects (in partnership with local NGOs) include documenting homeworkers in garment manufacturing supply chains in north India, Pakistan and Nepal, and working with supply chain stakeholders to improving transparency and working conditions for homeworkers stitching leather footwear in south India.
Homeworkers are predominantly female, as the working arrangements provide a vital source of income for women who cannot work outside the home, due to domestic responsibilities, health problems, cultural norms or for other reasons. We therefore welcomed the opportunity, in 2019, to use the WWW-Banana Link Gender Equity Framework to analyse our 2017-19 partnership project with Pentland Brands, to improve transparency and piece rates for homeworkers stitching leather footwear in Tamil Nadu.
Homeworkers are present in many manufacturing centres across South East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and to a lesser extent, within OECD countries, including the UK. It is estimated that 37 million homeworkers are employed in textile and apparel supply chains in India, and 4 million in Pakistan. Our research has found them in many different supply chains, providing a source of flexible, skilled labour to complete numerous essential tasks, including embroidery, sewing and finishing clothes or homewares, assembling jewellery or stitching leather shoes. Homeworkers add significant value to the end product and provide additional capacity to ensure that deadlines are met.
What nearly all homeworkers have in common are their employment terms. Some of the worst in the industry – low pay, no access to social security or the rights enjoyed by factory workers, including sickness and maternity leave, and no guarantee of regular work. Typically employed informally by subcontractors, and drawn from the poorest communities, women homeworkers’ employment is irregular, precarious and sometimes hazardous, and their very low rates of pay create high risks of child labour. Covid-19 lockdowns hit homeworkers hard, as factories closed and many were left unpaid and without future orders, with no social security and many unable even to access the limited government relief that was available in some states.
Homeworkers are the women workers with the worst paid and most precarious employment in many garment supply chains.
Yet homework is often a deliberate choice for women who want to contribute economically to their households, whilst balancing their care and domestic responsibilities. It enables women to continue using their skills after starting families, to earn a living and often to retain control of these earnings. Research shows that the children of homeworking women can experience better outcomes than their peers whose mothers continue to work in factory settings – when they are working in supply chains where their contribution is recognised.
Homeworking is almost always a highly gendered employment relationship. Over 90% homeworkers in South Asia are women, and the agents who distribute and pay them for their work are usually men, who often deliver the work into the women’s homes. With no guarantee of regular work, it is virtually impossible for a homeworker to bargain over piece rates or refuse to complete a last-minute order, even if it means working through the night. The weak bargaining position of women homeworkers is impacted by the isolated nature of their work and often compounded by discrimination rooted in caste, religion or ethnicity, or other challenges, including migration and indebtedness.
Why should homeworkers have worse pay and conditions just because they work from home?
Progress can be made to address these issues if brands recognise that homeworkers may be present within their supply chains, and commit to seeking collaborative solutions to the issues they might face. By working constructively with their suppliers, brands can map homeworkers within their supply chain, jointly documenting and resolving the issues identified.
Historically fashion and textile brands have been fearful of the risk of child labour homeworking presents. Their reluctance to ‘authorise’ homeworkers in their production chains leaving the reality unchecked. Decades of experience has shown that whether authorised or not, homeworkers are likely to be involved in garment and textile production. Brands that have accepted this reality and developed processes to understand and manage the role homeworkers play, are not only proactively mitigating these risks but also contributing positively to the livelihoods and rights of women workers.
Engaging proactively with homeworkers, overcoming the challenges of dispersed locations, lack of documentation (and often low literacy rates in rural areas) and lack of collective organisation (in many but not all cases), requires specific skills. The good news is that several businesses have made great strides in developing systems that recognise and value the contribution that homeworkers make. There is already a body of knowledge and a suite of proven tools out there to use and adapt, as well as specialist organisations that can advise and support businesses on this journey.
Homeworkers Worldwide recently published an online toolkit, to support brands and suppliers to improve transparency and working conditions within homeworker supply chains. You can download the toolkit here please get in touch to find out more.
Recognising and respecting the contribution made by homeworkers to the global fashion and textile industry won’t transform the gender inequities of our sector overnight – let’s not pretend otherwise. But with 3.5 million homeworkers (90% of them women) in India alone, working in global fashion and footwear supply chains, putting homework at the centre of our gender policies can make a substantial difference.
The Hidden Homeworkers Toolkit has been produced by Homeworkers Worldwide and Cividep India, working with partners on the Hidden Homeworkers project, a consortium of NGOs led by Traidcraft Exchange and co- funded by the European Union.