Invisible, Unrecognised And Exploited: The Case For A Policy For Home-Based Workers

Invisible, Unrecognised And Exploited: The Case For A Policy For Home-Based Workers

12 Jun 2018

A day in the life of Maya

“I can just about feed my family, why do I need a policy for home-based workers?” laments Maya, a home-based worker. Maya, lives with her husband, a daily wage labourer, a father-in-law who is bed-ridden and three children in one of the suburban slums in the sprawling capital of India, New Delhi. Her life reflects none of the glitter or power of the city. She wakes up before sunrise and starts her domestic chores of fetching water, cooking, cleaning, and getting her children ready for school.

After all of this, Maya must quickly get down to work. After many weeks, she has been given some embellishment work by the contractor she works for. But the work is time-bound – she has to complete the job within 5 days. This is a challenge, because her house is small with very little space to work and the materials must not get soiled. Also, the work is intricate and needs good light. She can work only when the children are away or at night when all have gone to bed. If she doesn’t deliver on time, the chances of getting more work from the contractor are very remote. There are many other women who are willing to take up the work assigned to her. But Maya needs the money she gets from the contractor so that she can buy the children their school books and uniforms.

Her husband’s earnings are not enough to sustain the family and she must contribute. When she falls ill, she has no access to affordable health care. When she gave birth to her 3 children she got no maternity benefits and when she gets old and cannot work anymore, there will be no pension or other social security. Her livelihood is very fragile, invisible and unrecognised. In the absence of any written contract and record of work, the contractor exploits her and pays her very little for her work. He often rejects her work or makes unjustified cuts in her payment. Though the contractor further supplies to an exporter who finally supplies to a high end fashion house in Europe, Maya gets paid a pittance. She also doesn’t know where her work is finally sold and for how much.

Home-Based Workers

There are many such Mayas in South Asia as well as around the world. They are informal sector workers who are involved in the production of goods or services directly for the market or an employer for remuneration. They work from their homes or adjoining areas.

Home-based workers are of two categories. The self-employed workers who have their own businesses, like, home-run tailoring units. But more often, they tend to be sub-contracted, piece rate workers, like Maya. They source work from vendors and contractors and work across a variety of industries, like bidi-rollers or embroiderers embellishing clothing for high-street brands or even engaged in packaging and finishing of garments.

By some estimates, there are 100 million home-based workers worldwide, of which 50 million are in South Asia. India is home to 37.4 million home-based workers (according to the National Sample Survey Organisation statistics for 2011-12) while there are nearly one million in Nepal (according to Labour Force Survey 2008).

The Need For A Policy

From the description of Maya’s life and work above, there is no doubt that Maya and other informal sector home-based workers like her are invisible, unrecognised, exploited and not covered by any kind of labour laws or social security. Much remains to be done for them and one significant step would be to have a Policy for Homebased Workers. This is not to suggest that having policies alone are the panacea for all the concerns of home-based workers. But a policy is essential in order to provide a framework that articulates the government’s intent and approach.

A good policy will address all aspects and concerns of these workers ranging from fair wages / remuneration, social security, occupational health and security, skill building, housing and civic infrastructure (since home is the work place for homebased workers), market support, credit and grievance redressal. To fulfil these policy pronouncements, specific laws, programmes and schemes can be taken up. Interventions like these will hopefully answer Maya’s question about why she needs a policy.

Firoza Mehrotra

The author is Strategy Adviser to HomeNet South Asia