COVID-19 and a Path Forward for Homeworkers
Camila Gómez Wills
Due to COVID-19 and subsequent shelter-in-place guidelines, working from home is the new routine for many professionals. That being said, homeworking has been the norm for millions of people in global supply chains for many years. This article provides a brief overview of homeworking and its role in the global economy, describes some its most salient risks of modern slavery, and outlines the impact of COVID-19 on this population.
What is homeworking?
ILO Convention No. 177 regulates homeworking and stipulates that national policies should seek to provide equal conditions for homeworkers and employees including in terms of access to remediation, freedom of association, and protection from discrimination. Although it entered into force in 2000, it has only been ratified by 10 countries. In 2017, the OECD agreed on the Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector and included a module with specific recommendations regarding homeworkers which “should be viewed as an intrinsic part of the workforce entitled to receive equal treatment and therefore should be formalised”.
Homeworkers are home-based workers that are subcontracted for a piece rate. Although the terminology may appear to be confusing, precision is important because homeworkers are not considered employees for the purposes of labor protections. Even though they are responsible for production costs, they are often paid less than the statutory minimum wage. Tight competition among suppliers has prompted an increase in homework and other forms of subcontracting as it allows them greater flexibility to meet orders from retailers and lower fixed costs.
Homeworking is not a phenomenon specific to the Global South. There are homeworkers on every continent and most of them are dedicated to intricate weaving, embroidery, incense making, jewelry, and assembly of electronics. Irrespective of region, the majority of homeworkers are women. By staying at home and working at a piece rate, women abide by dominant gender norms and have the flexibility to take on care duties while contributing financially to the household.
Homeworking and Modern Slavery
There is a gap in prevalence estimates for both modern slavery and homeworking, and by its very nature it is difficult to quantify homeworkers in a specific region or industry and it is even more challenging to identify how many of them are under conditions that indicate modern slavery. The following section describes some of the general vulnerabilities that affect this population.
- Homeworkers are subcontractors that are at the bottom tier of supply chains. The relationship between them and the factories is often through intermediaries or agents that keep varying percentages of the piece rate for themselves.
- They are often not included in corporate codes of conduct and are therefore not part of social compliance processes (the ETI Base Code does include homeworkers). Their working conditions are seldom monitored.
- Homeworkers usually live in informal settlements where working conditions can be unsafe, electricity is unreliable, and transportation costs to deliver their orders are high.
- Homeworkers often do not have proof of their contracts or rates. A 2019 report found that none of the 1,452 workers interviewed had a written contract. Since they are not considered employees, they are excluded from employer-provided social insurance and benefits.
- Homeworkers have low and irregular pay that is often below statutory minimum wages. During peak order times they may work well beyond legal overtime limits. Conversely, they may face several months a year with no income and may take out loans with high interest rates to cover their expenses.
- The nature of their work means they are isolated from others and lack bargaining power.
As was previously mentioned, the majority of homeworkers are women. By definition, addressing modern slavery risks for this subgroup is also a matter of gender justice. Although homework highlights many precarious working conditions that are indicators of modern slavery, it can also be a source of income diversity for women in contexts where they are culturally not expected to leave their residence or face other constraints that inhibit their ability to work at a factory. The potential for providing a source of income in vulnerable communities should not be overlooked. Many brands have banned homework altogether as part of their social compliance mechanisms. This does not improve conditions for those on the ground. If anything, these policies “reduce economic opportunities or push this labour further underground, reducing transparency and regulation.”
We advocate for a different approach in which homeworkers are paid a fair piece rate, their working conditions are closely monitored to ensure adequate lighting and ventilation, and are provided with pathways to organizing and voicing grievances. Several brands have begun to recognize the role of homeworkers in their supply chains and enacted specific policies towards this population.
Impact of COVID-19
Global supply chains have been severely impacted by the pandemic. A retailer’s decision to cancel orders already in production or reduce forecasted orders for the coming season trickles down the multiple tiers of the supply chain and eventually hits homeworkers as well. Many of them have had their payments for already completed work delayed. After extensive coverage of order cancellations and the devastating consequences that this has on workers, some brands have agreed to pay for orders in full. Several trackers are now available to measure brand progress and pressure others to commit.
The lack of new opportunities to generate an income has pushed homeworkers to accrue debts that will be difficult to pay back considering the hand-to-mouth livelihood in which they found themselves even before the pandemic. This can catalyze bonded labor. Additionally, many of them do not have the disposable income that would have allowed them to stockpile raw materials and produce during the lockdown. That being said, some homeworkers have leveraged their sewing skills and transitioned to making personal protective equipment (PPE).
The fact that homeworkers usually belong to the most vulnerable sectors of the population is heightened by their lack of access to government relief due to their informal status. Several organizations have come out with charters, declarations, or petitions for governments to include homeworkers in their aid packages, ensure treatment and testing for COVID-19 for those that don’t have insurance, distribute rations of food and personal hygiene products, and so forth. An alliance of homeworker organizations has also called on brands to establish a Supply Chain Relief Contribution of 2% of annual orders to supplement the income of workers affected.
In terms of their actual living conditions, now that the entire family is forced to be at home indefinitely, homeworkers are in even more crowded conditions and face competing demands for their time: child care, cooking, working, and so on. The fact that the family is all in the same place may increase their risk of exposure to toxic chemicals used in the work process.
All in all, homeworking is part of the reality of global supply chains. As such, they need to be included in corporate codes of conduct, national policies, and programs targeting modern slavery. COVID-19 presents additional risks and may push more workers towards bonded labor; it is also an opportunity to revise errors of the past and start to have a more holistic view of who the workers actually are.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Camila Gómez Wills is a Colombian attorney with experience in program management, stakeholder engagement, and international research. She recently finished a Master’s in Public Policy focused on best practices to address modern slavery in global supply chains.