For almost 15 years, Maya Kumari has helped support her family by looping embroidery thread expertly into colourful fabric. Garments she has embellished in her modest rural home near Udaipur in India’s Rajasthan state have been sold by a major Indian brand exporting to 40 countries.
Whoever ends up wearing her handiwork will know nothing about her or the conditions in which she works. Along with millions of other artisans, Kumari is an integral but invisible part of global supply chains reaching into low-income homes in the developing world.
“The highly skilled embroidery and embellishment done at low cost by women in their homes adds value to garments,” said Janhavi Dave, the international coordinator of the advocacy group HomeNet International. “In fact, their hard labour ensures that fast fashion even exists.”
A widow living with adult sons and their families, Kumari is more fortunate than most of the region’s home-based, piece-rate workers. She was the first in her community to join Sadhna, a social enterprise that creates employment for more than 700 women in low-income households in and around Udaipur.
Trained by Sadhna as a group leader, Kumari has been able to combine this role with caring for her young grandchildren while their parents work. She and her co-workers are all close neighbours and, in normal times, take turns watching over children as they run in and out of their homes.
Eye strain and back pain are occupational hazards of this work, and belonging to Sadhna means Kumari receives regular health checks. The group also helps members access government insurance schemes and relief programs that provided some support during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Lifelines in times of crisis
Shortly before the start of the COVID-19 crisis, HomeNet South Asia was studying a subset of home-based garment workers who, like Kumari, belong to membership-based organizations that act as intermediaries, helping their members obtain orders and deliver quality products. This research, supported by IDRC, found that these groups provide their members with a range of important social and economic advantages and safety from exploitation.
Such organizations also cushion the impact of crises on home-based workers. For example, one report describes the response of two Kathmandu fair-trade organizations — SABAH Nepal and Sana Hastakala — to the severe earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015. The efforts of these two organizations in the aftermath of the disaster — from distributing food to providing trauma counselling and rebuilding livelihoods — foreshadowed the pandemic responses and post-pandemic recovery efforts of homeworkers’ collectives.
When the initial wave of the pandemic hit South Asia in early 2020, women doing embroidery, knitting, and weaving work from home were among the first to sense the approaching storm. Imports of raw materials suddenly stopped, orders were abruptly cancelled, and already precarious livelihoods ground to a halt.
The poorest, least-protected people in the supply chains were forced to absorb the risks in the production system and bear the brunt of the emergency.
IDRC extended support for the HomeNet South Asia research to document how membership-based organizations in seven South Asian countries helped home-based workers cope with the pandemic. The research found numerous examples of these collective groups rising to the occasion and providing critical support as well as a safety net in the emergency.
SABAH Nepal, for example, helped women reskill as they shifted from knitting and weaving goods for export to producing food items or making hospital linen, masks, and other protective equipment for local use. In West Bengal, India, where residents also had to deal with a devastating super cyclone in May 2020, SEWA Bangla helped members improve their digital skills so they could sell products online. A follow-up study focusing on the second year of the pandemic is underway, along with other research on the impact of climate change on home-based workers and gender-based violence in the sector.
A hidden workforce
Particularly in the past two decades, global garment value chains have provided employment for some of the world’s most economically vulnerable people. Although official labour statistics are uncertain, there may be about 300 million home-based workers worldwide.
“Many research studies have mapped garment supply chains, but they usually end at the factory or workshop level and do not reach the homeworkers,” Janhavi Dave said. “Both global and domestic employers have found it convenient to keep them hidden in their supply chains to increase their own profits.”
HomeNet South Asia pre-pandemic research was carried out with four social enterprises and one union to document their members’ experiences. Almost 500 women home-based workers took part in surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus group discussions, in the Indian states of Rajasthan and West Bengal and in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley.
The women either worked inside their own homes, with neighbours in public spaces outside, or from small workshops within walking distance. But as members of an organization, they were all distinct from the unorganized workers who deal individually with subcontractors, without the benefit of group bargaining power.
The research team attempted to assess the value to the women of belonging to membership-based organizations. They used the four pillars of decent work adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), with gender equality as a cross-cutting theme:
rights at work
social protection (access to healthcare, occupational safety, and old-age security, for example)
social dialogue (advocacy, organizing, and collective bargaining).
Social protection, security, and confidence
The researchers’ detailed, nuanced findings are specific to the contexts studied. However, they identified a number of good practices that offer useful examples of what can work in creating decent conditions for home-based workers at the bottom of global value chains.
When compared with a small sample of unorganized home-based workers, the research “found that women who belonged to social enterprises had more regular work, as well as greater access to markets and sustained training opportunities,” said lead researcher Ratna Sudarshan. “Most of the organizations had connected their members to government social-protection programs, and a few set up their own schemes.”
Membership in supportive organizations also enhanced the women’s confidence, self-esteem, and mobility. Sudarshan found the absence of this type of non-economic benefit among unorganized home-based workers to be the most significant.
“The difference lay not so much in the piece rates earned, but in all the other aspects surrounding work,” she said. “Those workers were much more isolated, had limited access to social security, and were vulnerable to exploitation.”
For example, most of the unorganized workers were paid in cash, with the lack of a paper trail seriously compromising transparency and accountability. By contrast, all members of Sadhna and Rangsutra, another social enterprise in Rajasthan, were paid within 30 days directly into their bank accounts.
Homeworker collectives are good business
Promoting decent work for home-based workers is a win-win proposition, HomeNet South Asia emphasizes.
These types of jobs are needed. They “provide an entry point for women into the labour force and allow many to continue working despite unequal care burdens and patriarchal norms,” said Dave.
Development economist Lin Lim, who prepared a companion paper on corporate codes of conduct in textile supply chains, explained that global companies benefit from the presence of strong, membership-based organizations advocating for home-based workers. Although many of these companies have codes of conduct to promote ethical business with respect to labour rights and working conditions, they often don’t reach all the way down to the women working at home or in village craft centres.
“The social enterprises that negotiate the terms of work orders on behalf of their members can also ensure that ethical standards are met,” Lim said.
Recovery from the COVID-19 crisis
To survive the loss of income during the pandemic, many home-based workers have had to deplete meagre savings and incur high debt, imperilling their ability to recover from the crisis. Millions risk falling into extreme poverty if national livelihood-rebuilding plans do not include them.
HomeNet South Asia has lobbied since 2000 to bring the tens of millions of home-based workers in eight South Asian countries out of the shadows to take their rightful place in ethical value chains. In February 2021, the organization joined forces with other advocacy networks in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to form HomeNet International. The regional groups now have a stronger global voice as they push for ratification of ILO Convention 177 on homeworkers’ rights, inclusion in national labour laws and social-protection programs, and organization of isolated home-based workers into collective groups. The nascent organization has its work cut out for it in the urgent struggles ahead.
“The pandemic has only amplified the issues that home-based workers have faced over the years, and exposed the cracks in government relief programs,” Dave said. “We have a slogan, ‘Nothing for us without us.’ Home-based workers must be included in designing and implementing recovery plans, so those are sustainable, inclusive, and just. Recovery begins at home and with home-based workers.”