Thousands of home workers remain invisible, face uncertain futureGlobally, millions of home-based workers facing poor working conditions, which was worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, need to be protected, shows a new ILO study.
Padmini Bajracharya has been working for nearly 40 years. But she has never worked in the formal sector.
Her workplace is her home at Gabhal, Lalitpur, where she knits woolen garments.
“I neither sell these products nor do I run a company that exports these items. I only make them,” said Bajracharya, 54. “All my life, I have worked from home and earned whatever I could while doing my household chores.”
Bajracharya receives raw materials such as spools of wool and thread to make sweaters, gloves, and caps. In return, she is paid per piece of clothing she makes—a few thousand rupees a month.
“If I were to work like a full-time job, I could earn good money. But I do it only when I have time after completing household works,” said Bajracharya. “Although the money I earn is not good enough, it is a valuable income.”
She said the income she made off knitting enabled her to buy stationery for her kids when they were at school and buy things she needed.
But working from home does not make her job any easier. It comes with its own challenges.
“Knitting jobs are difficult and hurts the eyes as we also do our job at night. There is pressure to complete the work within the stipulated time. If we don’t finish on time, we won’t get the work next time,” said Bajracharya. “We have to go out to collect supplies and also submit the finished product. There are no perks such as bonuses, paid leave, or pensions that people with formal jobs get.”
Bajracharya is one of the thousands of home-based Nepali workers, most of them women, who have contributed to the economy while working from home, but have remained invisible.”
A study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), ‘Working from home. From invisibility to decent work’, shows that these workers need to be better protected as they have always been usually worse off than those who work outside of their home.
According to the ILO estimates, there were approximately 260 million home-based workers worldwide, representing 7.9 percent of global employment; 56 percent of them (147 million) were women before the Covid-19 crisis began.
“Home workers often face wage and social protection gaps as well as safety risk while handling tools and chemicals without proper equipment,” said Janine Berg, ILO senior economist and one of the report’s authors. “In low and middle-income countries, 90 percent of these work informally and often are not aware of their legal rights. Because women constitute the majority of these home workers, they are most affected by these decent works deficits.”
The ILO has defined home work as “work carried out by a person in his or her home or in other premises of his or her choice, other than the workplace of the employer; for remuneration; which results in a product or service as specified by the employer, irrespective of who provides the equipment, materials or other inputs used.”
Home-based work does not include independent workers running a business out of their home and is also different from unpaid care work in one’s own home, paid domestic work or care work in the households of others, or subsistence production for household consumption.
These home-based workers include teleworkers who work remotely on a continual basis, and a vast number of workers involved in the production of goods such as embroidery, handicrafts, and electronic assembly. Likewise, digital platform workers who provide services, such as processing insurance claims, copy-editing, or data annotation for the training of artificial intelligence systems are also considered home workers.
The report has pointed out that home workers also face greater safety and health risks and have less access to training than non-home-based workers, affecting their career prospects.
The situation is no different in Nepal. Home-based workers are engaged in garment production, sewing and knitting, embroidery, metal-related works, sculptor making, handicraft production, and thanka making business.
“Most of these workers are engaged in the informal sector. They work with contractors who supply them with the materials. Once the order is completed, they are paid,” said Gyanu Maya KC, general secretary of Home Workers Trade Union of Nepal (HUN). “They are not aware of their rights which is reflected in our conversations with them when these home-based workers get surprised when we call them they are also workers like any other sector workers.”
According to KC, although exact data on home workers in the country is unavailable, the figures could run in several thousand.
The report has highlighted that homeworkers also do not enjoy the same level of social protection as other workers. Their conditions were further exacerbated when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, which resulted in forcing people to work from home.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which devastated the employment sector worldwide, also made the business challenging for Bajracharya and four others who knit together. They could not go out to collect the supplies and nor could submit the end-product when the country was under lockdown.
“There was no work at all during the lockdown,” said Bajracharya. “No one could even go out. We all were scared. There was no support from anywhere.”
According to KC, the trade union leader, Covid-19 had disrupted the whole supply chain for homeworkers.
“They could neither collect materials nor produce anything. This affected their income,” said KC. “There was no work, hence no money.”
In the first months of the pandemic, estimated one-in-five workers found themselves working from home, making it more urgent to address the issue facing homeworkers as the number is likely to shoot up in the coming years.
But, so far, the home working sector has remained poorly regulated and compliance with existing laws remains a challenge, according to the ILO report.
“Many countries around the world have legislation, sometimes complemented by collective agreements, that addresses various decent work deficits associated with home work,” Berg, was quoted as saying in an ILO press statement. “Nonetheless, only 10 ILO member states have ratified Convention No. 177 that promotes equality of treatment between home workers and other wage earners, and few have a comprehensive policy on home work.”
The ILO study has recommended that governments, in cooperation with workers’ and employers’ organisations, work together for making home-based work more visible and thus better protected around the world.
In Nepal’s context, KC suggested there should be a tripartite engagement for ensuring the rights of home workers in the country.
“They should come together and be a part of the union for raising their voices as well,” said KC. “Local government, trade unions, and the central government should interact on how they can also be better protected for their contribution.”
It takes Bajracharya around five-six days to complete a sweater which fetches her Rs600. If she doesn’t work every day, she will not get any money.
“There is nothing in return even if you work for several years except the money you make,” said Bajracharya, whose husband is a pensioner. “But there is no pension or retirement plan for people like us who have worked from home all our lives.”