Innovation and unity: How home-based workers are adapting to the COVID-19 world

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HBW in Uruguay sewing masks for COVID-19
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Leslie Vryenhoek, with files from Laura Morillo

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For millions of home-based workers around the globe, their livelihoods didn’t vanish when government-issued lockdowns were announced. Instead, both self-employed and subcontracted workers say those earnings began to disappear weeks, even months, earlier as buyers and markets—especially export markets—dried up. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, home-based producers told WIEGO that orders had stopped coming for their products long before a global pandemic was officially declared.

Home-based workers, most of whom are women, are among the world’s most invisible and overlooked workers, and they are all too familiar with insecure earnings and isolation. Increasingly, however, they have been organizing. This crisis has underlined just how valuable that collective association can be for individuals—and for communities.  

Lucrative and lifesaving skills

television news screenshot making masks in Uruguay
Television news covered the story of SUA members making essential masks during COVID-19.

In Uruguay, home-based workers acted fast to turn their valuable sewing skills into a lucrative venture—one that helps others survive, too. El Sindicato Unico de la Aguja (SUA) in Uruguay has been organizing workers in the clothing sector for more than a century. As soon as the first case of the new coronavirus was announced in Uruguay, the Women's Commission of the SUA, Rosita Iglesias, made the decision to start sewing reusable masks, Flor de Liz Feijoo, General Secretary of the SUA, told WIEGO’s Laura Morillo  in this interview.

After consulting with the Faculty of Medicine and Occupational Health at the University in Montevideo to establish a design and criteria, they went to work. On March 19, SUA announced in a television interview that they had completed the first 30,000 masks for the Montevideo Police Union.

Orders from other institutions soon followed; the Judiciary first requested 6,000 masks to be used in trials and hearings, then increased its order to 20,000. Subsequently, the Montevideo Municipal Intendency asked for 20,000 masks then upped its order to 100,000. The Air Force contacted SUA and asked them to develop 300 kits containing surgical robes, masks, caps and shoes. And the Vice President of the Republic of Uruguay personally contacted Flor de Liz Feijoo to offer thanks and ask that masks be made for all parliamentarians. In addition, the SUA has donated some 3,800 masks for those who do not have the resources to buy one, such as children in shelters and those suffering from cancer or other illness.

The project has received considerable media attention. After SUA’s work was broadcast on television, many home-based workers with the necessary skills called SUA to join in. By April 23rd, 60 homeworkers had been engaged across the country in making both washable and disposable masks. They are organized by geography and the work is spread, with one person in charge of receiving the orders and distributing them among the workers in each location.

Each homeworker makes a minimum of 100 masks per day, Flor de Liz Feijoo says. Since the masks are valued at 15 Uruguayan pesos each, they receive 1500 Uruguayan pesos per day—the minimum wage for the sector.

“Union organization is essential. For us, this crisis marks a before and after for SUA and homeworkers,” Flor de Liz Feijoo says. “Now it is being shown that homeworkers do important work—they can be suppliers of the state and companies, and they can receive fair wages.”

SUA is not the only home-based worker organization to quickly recognize that the world’s hunger for apparel was fast shifting to a need for protective masks. In Ethiopia, home-based workers are also securing orders from the public health system and from NGOs. In India, SEWA Mahila Housing Trust has engaged home-based workers in making surgical masks and medical gowns to help with the medical relief efforts. In Cambodia, home-based workers have been using social media such as Facebook to sell the masks they produce. But as this story of a Thai home-based worker demonstrates, this work is short-term.

The value of organizing in East Africa

In Kenya, where masks became mandatory as soon as the virus entered the country, home-based workers with the requisite skills—most members of self-help groups and cooperatives—have been producing masks for the informal market. Sold by street vendors, they make the required gear readily available in local markets.

That work is particularly important in a region where many women rely on the sale of home-based handicrafts. For these producers, COVID-19 hit fast and hard. Open-air markets closed; hotel gift shop sales disappeared with the tourists. Of course, schools closed too, which meant women had greater care duties to attend to, and less time to create their products.

But organizing of home-based workers has been gaining ground in Africa, too. HomeNet Kenya, a network of organizations, was formed in early 2019. That development was spearheaded by the Kenya Federation for Alternative Trade (KEFAT), which has worked for years in partnership with WIEGO to identify and help strengthen home-based worker groups of all kinds.

Machakos Cooperative Union is one of those strong organizations. Among its affiliates are groups of home-based workers who weave sisal baskets, mats and other products for local markets and for export. 

Sisal handbags in various colours
With borders closed during the global pandemic, the sisal baskets sold by Machakos Cooperative Union in Kenya cannot be exported to markets -- and the home-based workers who weave them cannot come together to dye fabric or ensure quality.

Now, however, that production has halted, says Edwin Bett, HomeNet Kenya coordinator. However, it isn’t the disruption in supply chains but rather restrictions on gathering that pose the problem. Traditionally, women have worked in groups to dye the sisal and weave it into products. Working together is key to achieving the uniform colour and quality that export markets want, Bett explains, so for now the work is suspended.

Many producers, Bett says, went back into farming—either in the cities or by returning to their rural villages—because they knew food security would quickly become an issue.

Nonetheless, Machakos Cooperative Union continues to play a crucial role for these women workers and their households by helping them receive necessary relief. In fact, the cooperative’s registration system for its 81 primary societies and their thousands of members has been used to help the Kenyan government distribute emergency funds.

Organizing has proven just as critical in Uganda, where home-based workers say orders were already declining by the end of 2019, and they have been told orders might not resume when the pandemic is controlled; groups that have joint savings initiatives used those savings to stock up on basics when the lockdown was announced. Solidarity among members means the savings and stocks are shared to help those who are most in need. In Ethiopia, the organization Women in Self Employment (WISE) has augmented the government distribution of basic food and sanitation products to the most vulnerable households among its 19,000 credit and savings cooperative members.

Collective voice and innovative vision in Eastern Europe & Central Asia

Since the onset of this crisis, home-based workers in several countries have advocated for low-interest loans and a reduction in payments. This was true in Bulgaria. But when business began to decline precipitously, the Association of Home-Based Workers adopted an unusual strategy: they sent their demands to governments accompanied by gifts of their members’ wares, to remind officials of just how important their products are to people, local economies and traditions.

It worked.

The Council of Ministers, the President, and the mayors of municipalities soon agreed to provide small interest free loans with a five-year grace period as well as larger loans from the Development Bank to the self-employed. In addition, the government funded an initiative that would distribute basic food to the most vulnerable—with food provided by small-scale farmers—and legislated that large food chains stock items from local Bulgarian small producers. Since many home-based workers are also small-scale farmers, they can now earn extra income by selling their produce in this scheme.

"Unfortunately, COVID-19 had to appear for events and laws to occur, for which we have been (advocating) for years," said Violeta Zlateva, President of the Association of Home-Based Workers, part of the Union of Self-Employed and Informal Workers ("Unity") since 2014.

The association is also an affiliate of HomeNet Eastern Europe and Central Asia (HNEECA), a growing network of national organizations that is part of the global movement of home-based workers. Another HNEECA affiliate is Hunarmand, an association of artisans in Uzbekistan. They share their Bulgarian counterpart’s predilection for innovative solutions.

In Central Asia, home-based workers and artisans have been working together to revive traditional crafts. During the Soviet rule, they lost their identity. Now, with the help of local and central government, they are returning to these traditions to help create a livelihood for women.

In May, an annual Silk and Spices International Festival would have brought artisans from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Turkey, Mongolia, Russia and Europe together in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. But the event’s organizer, Matluba Bazarova, regretfully announced that COVID-19 has cancelled the festival, which was to include bazaars, processions, demonstrations and round table discussions about the development of tourism and handicrafts.

Artisans works are displayed on the walls of a museum in Uzbekistan
In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, the work of home-based artists and artisans is on display to keep interest and spirits high during the lockdown.

But this group is undaunted, because they long ago secured support at the highest levels of government. The country supports those who produce crafts by giving them a 20-year tax exemption and Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, offered financial support to help Hunarmand create an Art Center in Bukhara.

That support and the group’s innovative thinking has helped them shift from cancelled festival to spectacular public display. Bazarova has arranged artists and artisans to place images on the exterior walls of the museum through May.

Looking forward

The pandemic will end, businesses and borders will open, and supply chains will resume. But not all things should return to how they were before.

In this crisis, home-based workers and their organizations have proven to be inventive and adaptable. Their fast, forward-looking thinking has benefitted their livelihoods and made them invaluable partners in their communities. With sustained recognition and increased organizational strength, home-based workers globally could play a vital role in building a more vibrant, more just economy in the future.

An international network of regional home-based organizations is currently being developed. In April, the HomeNet International (HNI) Working Group produced a statement of demands

Occupational group