Mapping and Other Forms of Research

Where are the homeworkers? What work do they do? For whom and with whom do they work? What resources do they have? What are their working and living conditions. their problems and needs? These are some of the questions that could be answered through mapping as a research methodology.

Homenet Southeast Asia conducted a mapping workshop on March 15-16, 2001 with the support of UNIFEM and ILO /EASMAT in Bangkok. There were about fifteen participants at the workshop, including the delegates from Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. The workshop enabled the participants to understand the meaning of home-based work, the forms it takes, and the methods of data collection and analysis. involved in mapping…

Soon after the workshop, HomeNet Thailand, with the support of HomeNet International, launched its mapping exercise in May 2001, after the finalization of the survey form for all their members. The training of the homeworker leaders to collect the information was held in four regions and they completed the data collection at the end of July 2001. (For a summary of this, see HomeNet Thailand website).

HomeNet Indonesia focused its UNIFEM-supported mapping exercise on women homeworkers in the putting out system in Surabaya and Bali. The project, envisioned to form part of its membership expansion efforts in the target research areas, commenced with a planning meeting in September 2001 and ended March 2002 with the finalization of the report. (This report appears in summary form in the HomeNet Indonesia website).

In the Philippines, PATAMABA (with UNIFEM support) commenced their mapping efforts in November 2001, targeting 500 of its homeworker members in four areas: Bulacan, Rizal, Iloilo, and the National Capital Region. In addition to a survey, PATAMABA area leaders conducted focus group discussions with their members and documented best practices. An important component of the mapping project is the built-in training for PATAMABA leaders and staff in computer-based data encoding, processing, and analysis, a step forward in their own empowerment in the area of research. (For a summary of the mapping report, please see the PATAMABA website).

All three HomeNets came together in a subregional workshop in Crown Peak Hotel, Subic, Zambales, the Philippines on 19-20 October 2002 to present and learn from the results of all their mapping efforts. (See related article on the subregional workshop on sharing mapping results in the section on SUBREGIONAL AND REGIONAL MEETINGS).

The HomeNets in the region have also been involved in a number of other multi-country researches. PATAMABA and HomeNet Indonesia conducted studies on the impact of the Asian financial crisis on selected homeworkers in the garments, food and other affected industries with the support of the World Bank. HomeNet Thailand did a similar project with ILO support and recently came out with a book on the research. All three national HomeNets were also involved in a recent UNICEF study on subcontracted women and children in various manufacturing industries. In 2002, HomeNet Southeast Asia (Thailand and the Philippines) embarked on a research on social protection for informal workers in the garments industry with the support of the ILO. (See subsequent section on social protection).

Planning and Coordinating

To provide an opportunity for Homenet Southeast Asia members to review and plan their activities at the national and regional levels, the Southeast Asia workshop was organized during September 20-21,2000, in Bangkok under the auspices of CIDA-SEAGEP. Forty-eight participants and observers put their heads together in charting the path for the national and regional networks in the first years of the new millennium.

To oversee the implementation of the regional and national plans, regional and national coordinators have been designated and are being supported by UNIFEM and FNV.

In July 2003, members of the Asian Regional Coordinating Committee (ARCC) created under the UNIFEM-FNV Project entitled “Strengthening the Network of Homebased Workers in Asia” met at the UNIFEM Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand, 28-29 July to review and assess the progress made covering the period September 2002 to June 2003, as well as to identify requirements for future actions. (See related story on the ARCC meeting in the section on SUBREGIONAL AND REGIONAL MEETINGS).

How has globalisation affected homebased work?

Globalization is sweeping across the Asian region and radically altering the social and economic environment of countries as well as having a differing impact on women and men. Women’s roles in the economies of the region are strong and increasing, yet they are to be found in the most vulnerable sectors of both employment and business. The deregulation of markets, increased competition, and development of new technologies that have occurred as a result of globalization and trade liberalization have led to a significant boom in subcontracting through home-based work and casual and part-time work. Growing competition has seen retailers and suppliers use various cost-cutting strategies. The informal nature of home-based work makes it possible for employers to reduce costs by taking advantage of low wages, low overheads and the flexibility of a work force with few rights and a growing need for income. Subcontracting in industries such as garments, footwear, toys, plastics, and electronics is taking place on an international scale.

Thus, while employment has expanded for women, a majority of women are concentrated in non-standard forms of employment which are insecure, yield low wages, provide little or no legal and social protection and often involve poor working conditions. These workers are dispersed, isolated, lacking in skills and access to information. As a result, their bargaining power to improve their situation and to gain an increased share of the benefits of globalization is extremely limited.

The Asian financial crisis dramatized the impact of globalization. It has led to some painful effects in Southeast Asian countries such as loss of jobs, loss of markets, falling piece rates and profit margins and increased hours of work. The growing informalisation, as more people after losing their employment in the formal sector move to the informal sector, has led to more competition for paid work and scarce resources (i.e. Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia).

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 home-based work, such as flexible hours which allow women to carry out their home-based work around their family responsibilities, women often turn to home-based work due to lack of necessary qualifications and formal training, absence of childcare support, social and cultural constraints and lack of alternatives. Families need cash income for their survival. Loss of informal employment and reduced returns from agriculture often result in men migrating to urban centers, 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 a 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 home-based 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.