Unpacking the relationship between homeworking and child workers
As many of us experience our first taste of homeworking amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I encourage you to spare a thought for homeworkers in the global South. Some of whom may be embroidering a fashion garment, stitching leather shoes or involved in food processing or assembly work as you read this, but for many this work may have stopped. Since the start of the lockdown, orders have been cancelled, wages have been withheld and agents who supply homework have been ignoring calls. Almost all homeworkers are women, employed informally and paid in cash. They are excluded from employment based social protection and health care, and for many from migrant communities, emergency relief schemes too.
There is important new evidence about the real benefits of homework to children's wellbeing.
The overwhelming majority of women homeworkers often have no other way to combine paid work with their domestic and caring responsibilities, given prevailing gendered and cultural norms, which can be particularly strong within some marginalised communities. Without their wages, they are unable to earn a vital income, to support their families.
Yet it is clear homeworkers add value to garment supply chains: by providing artisanal or specialist skills that are difficult to integrate into a factory setting, or flexible labour that ensures that production spikes are met.
Many brands prohibit the use of homeworkers, often as a knee-jerk reaction to the controversial association of homework with child labour. However, there is important new evidence about the real benefits of homework to children's wellbeing.
Working outside the factory and far from the oversight of auditors, these invisible workers are likely to face even more miserable working conditions, resulting in a negative impact on both the women and their children.
Out of sight, out of mind
Countless studies have shown that manufacturing homeworkers are almost always drawn from the poorest communities. They are paid very low wages and have no job security or trade union representation. Yet, many are producing for international brands.
Our work on leather footwear supply chains has found homeworkers producing both for brands which permit homework and for those which do not. When brands prohibit homework, their suppliers are reluctant to disclose their presence in supply chains. As a result, homeworking is driven even further underground. Working outside the factory and far from the oversight of auditors, these invisible workers are likely to face even more miserable working conditions, resulting in a negative impact on both the women and their children.
An alternative approach
Another recent study explored the relationship between homeworking and child labour in more depth. It was based on interviews with over 600 homeworkers and their children in seven countries (China, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia and Vietnam). All the interviewees were producing for global markets but in situations where the brands recognised their contribution and worked with their suppliers to take steps to improve their situation.
School enrolment rates were higher, even for older children aged between 12 and 14 where the risk of children, particularly girls, dropping out of education is highest.
As usual, the homeworkers were drawn from the most marginalised communities, facing chronic nutrition, sanitation and health challenges. Their homework provided a vital source of income. 80% reported that their children were not involved in their work. In the minority of cases where children were actively engaged in the work, most were attending school regularly but assisting their parents during evenings or weekends. A small number were working more regularly, usually because one or both of their parents were absent or unwell. The fact that the work was often very irregular increased these pressures, as then the entire family worked extra hard at peak times, when there was plenty of work available, to ensure that they had sufficient income to survive dry periods when they had no income.
This study also compared the outcomes for the homeworkers’ children with data collected for factory workers’ children. Positive impacts for the homeworkers’ children were identified. They were able to breastfeed for longer, and fewer were left unattended in their homes for long periods while their parents were at work. School enrolment rates were higher, even for older children aged between 12 and 14 where the risk of children, particularly girls, dropping out of education is highest.
These results are hardly surprising when one thinks through the likely consequences for families where both parents may be juggling eight-hour shifts in a factory, often extended by overtime or commuting. The study also found that homeworkers producing for global markets were actually better paid than those working for domestic suppliers, although it is important to remember that this study focussed on situations where the brand was prepared to extend their due diligence monitoring beyond first tier suppliers and crucially, recognised the homeworkers as workers.
Sustaining such gains requires brands to recognise that there may be homeworkers in their supply chain and work together with suppliers to document supply chains beyond the first tier, understand the interests of different stakeholders and put in place simple measures ... which can improve homeworkers’ pay and conditions.
For several years Homeworkers Worldwide and Cividep India has been working with footwear suppliers in south India that use homeworkers to stitch leather uppers. Recently we were able to demonstrate that setting a fair piece rate in one brand's supply chain led to significant increases in homeworkers’ wages. A simple job card system confirmed that this money was actually received by the homeworkers. These positive results were, however, only in the supply chain of one supplier, producing for one global retailer.
Sustaining such gains requires brands to recognise that there may be homeworkers in their supply chain and work together with suppliers to document supply chains beyond the first tier, understand the interests of different stakeholders and put in place simple measures like these which can improve homeworkers’ pay and conditions. Although challenging, finding ways to bring the homeworkers together to organise, and also to provide access to grievance is also vitally important. Rather than being a ‘reputational risk’ for brands, homework, if properly managed and brought out into the open, can be in the interest to both the children and women homeworkers.