Homeworkers treated unequally in absence of law: ILO study

Staff Correspondent | Published: 22:52, Jan 13,2021


Use of home working in the country’s apparel and footwear sectors has been increasing dramatically due to the COVID-19 outbreak but ensuring decent work has posed a new challenge for those who are working from home in the absence of national legislation, according to a latest global report.   

The report ‘Working from Home: From Invisibility to Decent Work’ prepared by the International Labour Organisation showed that homeworkers did not have the same level of social protection as other workers.

They were also less likely to be part of a trade union or to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement, said the report published on Wednesday.

The world would have been better prepared to deal with the home work phenomenon resulting from COVID-19 had it given more consideration to the ILO convention 177 that promotes equality of treatment between homeworkers and other wage earners, said the report.

The report found that homeworkers faced greater safety and health risks and had less access to training than nonhomebased workers, which could affect their career prospects.

According to the report, the countries that had increased the size of their apparel and footwear industries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Turkey and Vietnam had also increased their use of homeworking.

‘One likely consequence of COVID-19, even when the pandemic is finally controlled, is that homeworking will be much more widespread in the years to come than it was in 2019,’ the report said.

Yet industrial home work remained a critical part of countless value chains and would remain so for the foreseeable future, the ILO said.

The homeworking was a highly flexible form of production that allowed enterprises to respond swiftly to shifts in product demand and reduce costs but this flexibility could come at a high price for homeworkers, who bear the brunt of decisions made by employers  to reduce or suspend production, the report read.

‘When retailers in the United States were forced to temporarily close their doors as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, many of them cancelled orders with suppliers in Bangladesh. That abrupt cancelling of orders has meant that homeworkers are no longer receiving tasks and worse, there are reports of homeworkers not being paid for completed tasks,’ the study found.

Citing a study titled ‘The Great Homeworking Experiment’, the ILO said that working from home could be highly productive and that it was applicable in a wide range of occupations and industries. 

Given the possibility of other labour market disruptions in the future, homeworking might well feature as a key method of operation adopted by firms and their workers, it said.

Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Vietnam are the world’s top apparel exporters, directly employing 15 million workers and the continued importance of homeworking in the apparel industry stems from the labour-intensive production process, which imposed limits on what could be automated.

‘Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to think that homework is limited to apparel production. It is used for the production of many other consumer goods, from artificial flowers to electronic assembly to stitching footballs, and is also prominent in the production of handicrafts,’ the study observed.

It said that the constantly evolving nature of fashion and the consumer desire for uniqueness meant there would always be a need for someone to hand stitch beads or embroidery, and to do so quickly.

The report also identified that the wealth of Bangladeshi households was rising as women were choosing to work from home as the traditional norms of women remaining in ‘purdah’ or seclusion made a reoccurrence in society.

In the first months of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 an estimated one-in-five workers found themselves working from home. Data for the whole of 2020, once it is available, was expected to show a substantial increase on the previous year, the ILO said.

The dramatic increase in working from home due to the COVID19 pandemic has highlighted the poor working conditions experienced by many homeworkers who, prior to the crisis, numbered an estimated 260 million people worldwide, ILO said.

Since homeworking occurs in the private sphere it is often ‘invisible’. In low- and middle-income countries for instance, almost all home-based workers or 90 per cent work informally, it said.

‘Homeworking is often poorly regulated and compliance with existing laws remains a challenge. In many instances, homeworkers are classified as independent contractors and therefore, excluded from the scope of labour legislation,’ the study found.

For industrial homeworkers, the report underlined the importance of facilitating their transition to the formal economy by extending legal protections, improving compliance, generalising written contracts, providing access to social security and making homeworkers aware of their rights.

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