WIEGO talks to Chris Bonner, Advisor to WIEGO’s Organization and Representation Programme and member of the HomeNet International Working Committee (IWC), and Janhavi Dave, International Coordinator of HomeNet International, about the creation of a global network for home-based workers. We discuss the network’s objectives, the challenges of creating a global network, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this process.
HomeNet International was launched in February 2021. Where did the idea for a global network of home-based workers originate?
The idea was born in the early 1990s when the issue of a convention for home-based workers was placed on the agenda of the International Labour Conference. But early attempts to form a global network didn’t succeed. Instead, HomeNet South Asia and HomeNet South-East Asia were formed and the focus then was on building those networks. WIEGO’s role at that stage, remembering WIEGO was formed in 1997, was a supporting one.
When WIEGO received some additional funding from around 2010, we started reaching out to other regions to support the organizations of home-based workers. First to Eastern Europe where we had contacts, then Latin America and Africa. Over the years WIEGO supported the mapping of home-based worker organizations in those areas and worked with them on organizing and capacity building. That was tough because we found that there weren't really organizations of home-based workers or, where they were organized, they were organized in different ways—as part of a union, as a women's group or as a self-help group. They didn't have an identity as home-based workers; they didn’t see themselves as such. In Eastern Europe WIEGO helped found a regional network.
Meanwhile, discussions had been ongoing about the formation of a global network. Opinions were divided between those who felt that we didn’t have enough strong organizations on the ground to form a network, and those who thought we should go ahead and form HomeNet International and that things would develop from there. In 2018, during a meeting with representatives of all five regions, a unanimous decision was taken to form HomeNet International. We had a two-year time period to form the network through a democratic participatory process. Then we would be ready—or so we thought.
Because of WIEGO’s experience in supporting and initiating the building of international networks, we asked Chris, who had been involved in the creation of the International Domestic Workers Federation, to join us. We need an independent organization to ensure the balance and democracy within the organization, and we really do depend on WIEGO to play that particular role. WIEGO played a big role throughout the formation process, and they continue to do so now.
What are the objectives of HomeNet International?
As capital globalizes, workers also need to have a global presence. The network is aimed at building solidarity, sharing knowledge and information, taking up worker issues globally, having a global voice in spaces such as the International Labour Organization—so representing workers globally—and providing support to the regions and affiliate organizations of HomeNet International. The international network is not replacing the role of the regional networks, but rather deepening support for capacity building.
What were the challenges you faced when forming the network?
There were a lot of challenges. Just the nature of home-based work, where workers are scattered and hidden in homes, creates a tough basis for organizing. The other thing is that there are different kinds of home-based workers: some home-based workers, piece-rate workers, are subcontracted workers with sometimes hidden employers, and then you have home-based workers who are self-employed, so the kinds of organizations they form are different.
The big issue right from the start is thus that you are working with different types of organizations and that, mostly, home-based workers don't see themselves as workers and others don't see them as workers. Also trade unions don't regard them as workers, particularly if they are organized in cooperatives or producer companies. Therefore it's a bit of an alien concept sometimes to think about organizing.
Also, HomeNet South Asia is big in numbers; then you've got HomeNet South-East Asia which is also long-established, though does not quite have the same numbers. And then there is Latin America where the organizations are very small and very few were ready to join HomeNet International. In Africa, workers really have no concept of home-based work and, through local fair trade organizations, our work there has been bringing these small groups together and helping to build a consciousness as workers. These are vast differences because, apart from the cultural differences which are quite vast as well, you have complete differences in size, shape, and often just in objectives.
These challenges are some of the reasons why it took a long time to actually take that final decision to bring people together in a global network.
What was the impact of the pandemic on the creation of HomeNet International?
We were going to launch in Nepal during a Congress in October 2020, on International Home-Based Workers Day, and it was a big blow for us that we couldn't have a physical meeting. It is very important to us to meet in person to build solidarity. It was a challenge to shift online as many workers didn’t have devices and sometimes they even needed two devices, one to join Zoom and one to access interpretation via WhatsApp. Also, Zoom allows for interpretation into 6 or 7 languages, but we needed 17.
Having said that, the biggest issue was on the ground and the impact of the pandemic on home-based workers. They were talking about a lack of food and basic things like masks and water for washing hands. Most had no work during lockdowns, and recovery has been extremely slow. It was quite difficult for us to think about organizing a global network when there is no income, no food, and here we are talking about building an organization. So yes, we did take a step back. We said the Congress for October is cancelled and instead we focused on extending solidarity support to many of our affiliates, trying to see what we could do on the ground.
At the same time, the membership of many grassroots organizations increased during the pandemic. The reason for that was that they were the only ones who were able to create access to government assistance programs or food, and workers saw that benefit. Later, many home-based workers saw the benefit of coming together and having a joint voice for demanding things like social protection.
Read next week about how the virtual Congress became a success, and what is next for HomeNet International.
Top photo: A home-based worker assembles boxes in Tiruppur, India. Credit: WIEGO