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Opinion

Organising is Essential for Homeworkers

Pradeepan Ravi, Cividep India

Did you buy a new pair of shoes recently? If they are from a global brand, it is likely they were stitched in Ambur, a leather-hub in the south Indian state, Tamil Nadu. It’s also very possible that their ‘uppers’ were stitched by homeworkers.

Certain styles of footwear require stitching by hand that cannot be done by machines. Many shoe factories outsource this labour-intensive work to homeworkers through agents. The agents, who are almost always men, provide this service to the factories for a commission. In this arrangement, no direct link exists between the homeworkers and the factories. Work is allocated to agents who in turn distribute it to women in nearby villages. In some cases, the agents allocate work to sub-agents who further distribute the work. This lack of transparency and traceability makes the supply chain even more obscure; and combined with the absence of legal and social protections exacerbates poor working conditions for homeworkers.

In the absence of formal employment contracts, the employers are absolved of all obligations towards this category of workers.

In India, homeworkers are rarely recognised as workers with legal entitlements. Employers benefit from this flaw in labour law, and brands have used this as an excuse not to recognise homeworkers as workers. As a result, they remain ‘invisible workers’ within supply chains, usually working on a piece-rate basis in their homes, and without a formal employee relationship with shoe factories they supply.

In the absence of formal employment contracts, the employers are absolved of all obligations towards this category of workers. The payment of minimum wage or provision of social security benefits is not considered to be the responsibility of factories. Many factories are unaware of the number of homeworkers engaged by agents. Homeworkers end up working for piece-rate wages that equate to less than half of the statutory minimum wage in the industry.

Homeworkers in Ambur are paid anywhere between INR.6 (0.074 EURO) and INR.12 (0.15 EURO) for a pair of uppers that takes them up to half an hour to stitch. It is also ironic that these poorly paid workers must purchase needles to do the stitching work at their own cost! Factories gain from home working, as they can reduce their labour, equipment, and infrastructure costs.

Organising is key

Homeworkers are often from marginalised communities with very poor socio-economic backgrounds, with various vulnerabilities. Almost all homeworkers in Ambur are women, who are tied to care work at home and have at most a few years of schooling. Hardly anyone has cared to organise and educate them about their rights. Many do not know the names of the factories that give them work.

Organising is essential for home workers to gain recognition from employers and improve their working conditions. If homeworkers were able to mobilise as a collective, it would compel both brands and policymakers to acknowledge their roles and labour. And in turn, recognise them as workers in their supply chains who are entitled to full labour and social protections, like anyone else. Collective action would give these workers visibility and amplify their demands and concerns.

Homeworkers have outlined their key demands which include recognition as workers; fairer wages and regular work and better working conditions. Their demands cannot be realised without representational forms of worker organising. However, for homeworkers to organise themselves is a very challenging proposition given the nature of the employment relationships and the innumerable vulnerabilities women workers endure.

Not only would organising provide legitimacy and recognition, but it would also provide a starting point to address transparency in supply chains.

Mainstream trade unions have rarely attempted to organise homeworkers. However, there are examples of successful organisation of homeworkers and informal workers in other manufacturing sectors. Here, workers have organised into self-help groups, worker collectives, federations, cooperatives and trade unions. Organising has enabled workers to make limited gains, such as access to social security and better wages.

This is why freedom of association is a fundamental right for all workers and is particularly critical for homeworkers. Not only would organising provide legitimacy and recognition, but it would also provide a starting point to address transparency in supply chains. International labour standards and multilateral organisations for responsible business conduct require brands to perform human rights due diligence within their supply chains. This requires brands to identify, prevent and remediate human rights risks in their entire supply chains, including sub-contracting and homeworking supply chains.  Recognising and having dialogue with homeworker organisations could make the due diligence process more effective.

Post COVID-19 an informed and organised workforce could have legal avenues to address exploitative practices and violations. In the long term, it is not just homeworkers, but the brands and suppliers as well who stand to gain from recognising the labour rights of homeworkers.

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