Who are the homeworkers?

The majority of homeworkers are women, who take up this form of employment as a way of earning an income to support themselves and their families. Homework is seen as a way of combining the unpaid work of family care, with earning a paid income. While there are positive aspects to homebased work, such as flexible hours which allow women to carry out their homebased work around their family responsibilities, women often turn to homebased work due to lack of necessary qualifications and formal training, absence of child care support, social and cultural constraints and lack of alternatives. Families need cash income 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 home-based work being the only alternative available to the poorest communities, it is not confined only to women but also involves children, particularly girls.

In general, people who find it hard to find employment due to various reasons such as cultural or legal restrictions, discrimination and lack of qualifications wind up doing home-based work. Some men and boys are included in this category. Those with disability also often choose to work from home due to inaccessible transport systems and work places.

Why are homeworkers called the ‘invisible’ workforce?

Homeworkers are members of the expanding workforce of people working informally, often outside legal protection.

Homeworkers are the most invisible of all workers as most of them are women working in their own homes.

According to the ILO, homework is women’s work almost by definition, so it is not surprising that it is often wrongly confused with housework or domestic work. The invisibility of homebased workers is directly related to the traditional isolation of women within many societies that restricts their interactions with other women outside of their families or immediate communities.

Many women refer to themselves as “not employed” or as “housewives”, even when they are spending 14–16 hours a day earning income to support their families. They carry out their tasks with minimal contact with the outside world, often having little understanding of where the work comes from or where it goes once it leaves their hands.

What’s the importance of homebased work?

This is the most vital question.

Homebased work spans continents and centuries. Some of the oldest forms of work, such as weaving and spinning, were done at home. Today, some of the latest forms of work connected with computer technology and modern telecommunications are increasingly taking place in homebased work sites.

Homebased work is, in fact, a vital and growing part of economic modernization, linked to the globalization of industry and the never-ending search for cheaper sources of labour and more efficient means of production.

As governments seek to attract industrial investment, the availability of low-cost labour and labour stability is a valuable bargaining commodity. In today’s international marketplace, it is not uncommon for a single garment or electronic device to be a compilation of the efforts of workers over two or three continents, most of whom are not even aware of each other’s existence.

Quick changes in fashion and demands from retailers for immediate responses have led to the need to produce high-fashion garments rapidly, customized to specific markets. Such uncertainties in demand have resulted in a highly competitive local manufacturing industry which has to rely on subcontracting orders out to small producers rather than undertaking production in large scale factories halfway around the world.

It is well-known fact that the Japanese model of “just in time (JIT)” production (organized at the last minute) was based on the existence of thousands of small sub-contractors who were able to draw upon the skills of women working at home.

While homebased work in both developing and developed countries may be considered “informal” by most economists, in the sense that workers are outside the protection of the law and their work is often not valued appropriately, most of the products they produce are sold by large, mainstream retailers.

The same pattern that is true for clothing can also be found in the automobile industry, all types of electronics production and assembly, and many other modern industries.

In Thailand, for example, as wages in the cities have risen, Thai products have become expensive as compared to their competitors in other less developed Asian countries. Local industries are relocating to rural areas where small workshops can be set up less expensively. There is a growing need for rural families to develop new ways to earn more income. New farming technology requires cash to purchase inputs, while the growing influence of the mass media brings with it an increased demand for consumer goods.

So, homebased work in all of its diverse forms cannot be viewed as an artifact of traditional economies. Rather, such work appears to be growing in both developing rural and urban economies. Further, the income that homework produces is no longer supplementary but has become increasingly vital to families and nations alike.

The women who weave in Thailand, the handicraft makers in the Philippines, the homebased workers assembling electronic devices in Malaysia and the Indonesian women machine-stitching garments at home are all inextricably linked within the global marketplace.

What are the different types of home-based worker?

Basically, there are two principal types: the piece-rate worker who works for an employer or intermediary and the own-account worker who does her or his own marketing.

The piece-rate worker. She gets her raw materials from a trader, contractor, employer, or firm, makes them into finished goods at home, and delivers them to the same person. Rarely does she have any direct contact with the marketplace for the goods she makes. However, often the raw materials she receives are not sufficient, or certain necessary components are not provided, so she has to buy these items herself. While some employers or contractors loan equipment to their piece-rate workers, most have to provide their own tools. As such, the cost of equipment, maintenance, and infrastructure, such as electricity, can cut deeply into the workers’ earnings.

Some workers are engaged by international chains of production (garments, footwear, electronics, plastic footballs) while others 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).

The own-account worker. She is generally in direct contact with the market, buying her own raw material and selling her own finished goods. However, in terms of earnings and working conditions, she is not much better off than her piece-rated sisters. Own-account workers face competition from larger, more powerful businesses and rarely have access to credit, except at exorbitant rates of interest. Thus, they have to buy raw materials in small quantities, making them more expensive, and are rarely able to sell their goods themselves directly in the markets. As a result, they too are dependent on agents, contractors, and other middlemen.

Although there is a theoretical difference between a piece-rated worker, who is dependent on a specific employer/contractor, and an own account worker who is supposedly independent, in practice this distinction is blurred. For example, weavers in Thailand are own-account workers in that they buy their own yarn and sell their cloth in the market. To do this, however, they generally have to buy their material on credit from the same merchants to whom they eventually sell their finished goods, and at prices determined by those merchants. So, although technically the producer is an own-account worker, she has no direct access to the best markets and has limited bargaining power. In terms of earning and working conditions, she is not much better off than the piece-rate worker.

What is home-based work?

Homebased work or homework is done in or around the home for an income. It is not household work done for the family without payment, or domestic work such as cleaning or childcare done for an employer in their house.

Homebased work can range from labor-intensive manual or machine tasks (such as sorting, cleaning, packaging, labelling, coil winding and soldering) to the production of electronic equipment and in the service sector (activities such as filling envelopes, mailing, typing, word and data processing, invoicing, editing, and translating) to garment and textile industries, the leather industry, artificial flower making, handicraft, pottery and weaving.

Homenet SEA joins IAFFE Conference

In the Annual Conference of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) held in Sydney, Australia 7-9 July, Homenet Southeast Asia Regional Coordinator Rosalinda Pineda Ofreneo again presented the network’s newly published book in a panel on social protection.

The conference was attended by academics and advocates from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Latin America, East and Southeast and South Asia.

Homenet Southeast Asia took the initiative to organize a panel on social protection to present the results of country studies in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and India. Shraya Bhattacharya from the Institute of Social Studies and Trust in India represented Homenet South Asia.