Homes Double as Workplaces for Many Urban Poor, Especially Women

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Meenaben at work in her home
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Globally, pre-COVID-19, 260 million women and men produced goods or provided services from in or around their homes: 86 per cent (224 million) were in developing and emerging countries and 14 per cent (35 million) in developed countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, countless other workers – mainly white-collar workers – began working remotely from home using the internet. 

There are significant differences between the typical “old” and the typical “new” home-based workers: differences by type of work (professional and administrative versus labor-intensive manufacturing and low-end services), by class (middle and upper class versus working class) and by residence (larger homes in middle-class neighborhoods versus small homes in low-income neighborhoods or informal settlements). 

But the key difference is that many “old” home-based workers lost their work and income during the COVID-19 pandemic recession as the demand for their goods and services declined, while the “new” home-based workers could continue to work and collect paychecks. Compared to other informal workers, these “old” home-based workers suffered greater declines in work and earnings and were less able to recover during the pandemic recession. A WIEGO-led longitudinal study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic recession on informal workers – conducted in 11 cities around the world – found that home-based workers suffered the greatest decline in work and earnings during the peak lockdowns/restrictions in April 2020 and were least able to recover by mid-2020, compared to domestic workers, street vendors/market traders and waste pickers. By mid-2021, between 80-90 per cent of the three other groups had been able to resume work, compared to 65 per cent of home-based workers. 

It should be noted that the recovery in earnings was lower than the recovery of work for all four groups in both mid-2020 and mid-2021; and that all groups had depleted their savings and gone deeper into debt.  

The COVID-19 pandemic recession not only had a disproportionate impact on informal workers, especially home-based workers, but also exposed and exacerbated the structural constraints informal workers faced before the crisis. In the case of home-based workers, the key constraints included the small size, poor quality and insecure tenure of their homes which double as workplaces; the lack of basic infrastructure services for their homes-cum-workplaces; insecure access to work orders (if sub-contracted) and buyers or customers (if self-employed); and unfavorable terms of employment or trade.    

To highlight the challenges faced by “old” home-based workers as well as efforts to address these challenges, the WIEGO network commissioned documentation of the work of the Mahila Housing Trust, a sister institution of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India, to secure tenure and provide basic infrastructure services, water, electricity and sanitation, to homes in informal settlements, including homes which double as workplaces; and commissioned a mapping of the clusters of home-based workers in Delhi, India, showing the links to industrial parks and wholesale markets which outsource work to them. 

Documenting the work of the Mahila Housing Trust

The Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) has been working for more than 25 years to improve the quality of homes in informal settlements in Indian cities. MHT’s interventions range from promoting household access to water, electricity and sanitation at scale, improving the design and layout of homes to accommodate specific work and storage needs, advocating for tenure in Delhi’s resettlement colonies and, more recently, advocating for better and safer transport connectivity to poor settlements in Ahmedabad – all of which have wide ranging impacts on the wellbeing and economic productivity of home-based workers. 

MHT uses three interlinked strategies for making home-based environments safer, healthier, and more productive. These are: 1) improving the physical environment, 2) promoting energy efficiency and climate resilience, and 3) incorporating the needs of the home-based workers in city plans and policies. 

One of the home-based workers supported by MHT to improve her living and working conditions is Meenaben. With her family, she lived in a house with little daylight and a tin sheet roof that was hot in summer and leaked when it rained, damaging her raw materials and finished goods, preventing her from taking on more work given the worry that it would get ruined. Over the years, with MHT’s support, Meenaben installed a new roof with solar panels for electricity and built a storeroom for her materials. Having worked with MHT as a community leader since 2004, she now engages with local government to improve the living and working conditions of others in her community. 

Mapping clusters of home-based workers in Delhi

The geography or spatiality of where informal workers live and work in the city is very important for policy advocacy. Under its Focal Cities initiative, WIEGO’s Delhi team has extensively documented how individual homes and the larger informal settlements where workers live double up as their workspaces. Together with the Social Design Collaborative, they highlighted different aspects of home-based work in the mapping of  clusters of home-based work across Delhi – indicating the settlement typologies (slums and bastis, urban villages, resettlement colonies, unauthorized settlements), density of built form, and where the nearest suppliers and buyers (wholesale markets, industrial parks) are located. It also deep-dives to a micro-scale to show the flow of work and goods at the neighbourhood level as well as the many issues that women workers face due to the small size and lack of basic services of the homes where they work. 

An example of the livelihood challenges faced by the poor when they are evicted and shifted from the city’s center to the peripheries, is the story of Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony in the western edge of Delhi. The residents of Savda Ghevra, all urban poor, were suddenly relocated in 2006 to this remote resettlement area, where housing, transport and physical infrastructure had to be built from scratch – with the help of MHT.

HomeNet International is a global federation of 36 organizations of home-based workers from 20 countries with a total membership of over 600,000. These resources are designed to support the affiliates of HomeNet International, and other organizations home-based workers, in advocating for secure tenure and basic infrastructure services, including electricity and other sources of energy, at their homes-cum-workplaces.  

Find more information and the aforementioned resources on our dedicated Home as Workplace web page here

Find the documentation of MHT’s work – as prepared by City Collab, an Ahmedabad-based consulting firm – here.

Find the resources prepared by WIEGO Focal City Delhi and the Social Design Collaborative here: Home as a Place of Work and Building Savda Ghevra: A story of resettlement in Delhi.

Top photo: Meenaben at work in her home. Credit: MHT


Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group
Informal Economy Theme