Home-Based Workers

Weaving is a major part of the work done by home-based workers in Laos. Credit: Marty Chen

Home-based workers and COVID-19

NEWS: Home-based workers and their allies launched a global network in February 2021, read about it here. HomeNet International (HNI) unites the voices of membership-based organizations in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and South-East Asia.


Invisible but Vital to Value Chains of Production

Home-based workers produce goods or services in or near their homes for local, domestic or global markets. Some work in the new economy (such as assembling micro-electronics or providing IT services), others in the old (in textiles, garments and weaving, for example).

Home-based work represents a significant share of total employment in some countries, especially in Asia, where two-thirds of the world's 260 million home-based workers are located. Globally, 147 million (57%) are women, who must juggle their income-earning activities alongside childcare and domestic responsibilities.

Across all industries, home-based work is a growing global phenomenon found in rich and poor countries. Yet while this massive workforce is vital to many supply chains, these workers are often invisible. 

Two Types of Home-based Workers

  • Self-employed home-based workers assume all the risks of being independent operators. They buy their own raw materials, supplies and equipment and pay utility and transport costs. They usually sell their goods and services locally, but sometimes sell to international markets. Most do not hire others but may have unpaid contributing family members working with them.
  • Sub-contracted home-based workers (called homeworkers or industrial outworkers) are contracted by individual entrepreneurs, factories or firms, often through an intermediary. To cut costs and maximize profits, firms outsource production to those who work in their own homes. Advances in technology have also facilitated the outsourcing of production (Chen, Sebstad and O’Connell 1999Raju 2013). Homeworkers may not know what firm they are doing work for or where the goods will be sold. Typically, they are paid by the piece and do not sell the finished products themselves. While homeworkers might be given the raw materials to work on, they have to cover many costs of production: workplace, equipment, electricity and supplies. 

Common challenges include irregular and/or cancelled work orders, rejected goods, delayed payments and unreliable supplies of raw materials (particularly for the sub-contracted) and fluctuating demand and rising input prices (particularly for the self-employed). Both groups face challenges related to the fact that their homes double as workplaces, including small size, poor quality, insecure tenure and lack of basic infrastructure services. The net result is that both groups tend to have low earnings. Read more about home as a workplace on this dedicated web page.

Svetla Atanasova Ilieva is a self-employed home-based worker in Pleven, Bulgaria. Credit: Svetlin-Ivanov
Svetla Atanasova Ilieva is a self-employed home-based worker in Pleven, Bulgaria. Credit: Svetlin-Ivanov

Industries and Sectors

Historically, home-based work involved labour-intensive activities in garments, textiles and footwear manufacturing, as well as skilled artisan and craft production. Baking, the cooking of ready food, and brewing, as well mechanical and other repair activities have also historically been common home-based worker activities. Many home-based producers double up as street or market vendors to sell what they produce. 

Today, home-based work is also found in high-end modern industries, including manufacturing of airline and automobile parts, assembly work in electronics, and packaging work in pharmaceuticals. In developed countries especially, clerical and higher-skilled work in information technology, telecommunication, telemarketing and technical consulting may be home-based.

Though home-based workers are employed across all industries and sectors, the majority work in either Services & Sales or Craft & Trades: especially in developing and emerging countries (Bonnet, Carré, Chen and Vanek 2021).

Contributions

WIEGO's Informal Economy Monitoring Study (IEMS) provided critical insight on home-based workers in Ahmedabad (India), Bangkok (Thailand) and Lahore (Pakistan). It found home-based workers make significant contributions to their households, society, and the economy.

  • Their earnings keep their households out of extreme poverty.
  • While working from home, they can care for children and the elderly and maintain the quality of family life.
  • They are important to the social cohesion of their communities.
  • Since these workers do not commute daily and often rely on bicycles, walking or public transit, they reduce emissions and congestion.
  • Self-employed home-based workers provide goods and services at a low cost to the public.
  • They are economic agents who leave their homes to buy supplies, raw materials, and equipment, and who pay for transport and basic infrastructure services.
  • They pay taxes on raw materials, supplies and equipment they purchase.
  • Firms up the chain that sell their finished goods often charge sales taxes, adding to the public coffers.
  • Many informal home-based workers have links to formal firms: buying their supplies from, selling goods to or producing for formal firms. 

Statistical Snapshot

Based on data drawn from the ILOSTAT Database of over 100 countries from 2000-2019, these global estimates demonstrate the recent improvements in collecting official data on home-based workers (see Issues in counting this invisible workforce, below). This is crucial to bringing visibility to this massive unseen workforce. 

Globally, 260 million women and men produce goods or provide services from in or around their homes:

  • 224 million (86%) are in developing and emerging countries
  • 35 million (14%) are in developed countries.

Global, Regional, National and City-Level Data

WIEGO has produced a series of Statistical Briefs that provide data on the numbers, working arrangements and characteristics of home-based workers. A statistical brief based on ILO data for over 100 countries provides global, regional and sub-regional statistics on home-based workers. A set of statistical briefs for four countries in Southern Asia present detailed data on home-based workers at national, urban and rural levels. In addition, a set of statistical briefs on all informal workers in several countries include data on home-based workers at the national, urban and city levels.

Almost two-thirds (65%) of the world’s home-based workers – a total of 168 home-based workers – are in Asia & the Pacific.

In 2017 in Thailand, almost 10 per cent of the workforce – some 3.7 million people – are engaged in home-based work. The majority of them are women, and over 70% work informally (Poonsab, Vanek and Carré 2019). 

In Bangladesh, the 10.6 million home-based workers (2016/17 Labour Force Survey) represented 17 per cent of total employment (Koolwal and Vanek 2020).

In India, there were an estimated 49.2 million home-based workers in 2011/12. By 2017/18, the number decreased to 41.9. million. This reflected a drop from 10.5 per cent, or 9.1 per cent of total employment (Raveendran 2020).

In Pakistan, the number of home-based workers increased from 3.6 million in 2013/14 to 4.4 million in 2017/18, while the share of home-based workers in total employment remained at around 7 per cent. The number of women home-based workers increased, while the number of men declined. (Akhtar 2020).

Over 14% of the world's home-based workers are in sub-Saharan Africa: a total of 38.3 million home-based workers 

In Ghana, there are nearly 1.4 million home-based workers – over one million of whom are women in their prime earning years. Virtually all of them are informal workers, and the vast majority work on their own with no employees (Baah-Boateng & Vanek 2020).

Chart: Distribution of world's home-based workers by country income groups and geographic regions

ILO calculations based on labour force survey (or similar household survey) data from 118 countries representing 86% of global employment.
Source: ILO calculations based on labour force survey (or similar household survey) data from 118 countries representing 86% of global employment. See WIEGO Statistical Brief No.27 (2021).

Issues in counting this invisible workforce

Challenges to collecting reliable data remain. Some countries do not include questions on "place of work" in labour force surveys and population censuses; this question is key to determining who is a home-based worker. And often, enumerators are not trained to count home-based workers, so they list these workers as doing only (unpaid) household work. Also, home-based workers may not perceive and report themselves as “employed".

The 2018 recommendation of the 20th International Conference of Labour Statisticians on the International Classification of Status in Employment introduced a new category in the classification: dependent contractor. This is an important step in improving data on home-based workers, especially homeworkers. See Understanding the Statistical Term Dependent Contractor: Frequently Asked Questions for more about the concept and its importance.

WIEGO's Statistics Programme has developed guidelines for estimating home-based workers and other groups of informal workers. To develop a full statistical picture of home-based workers, information must be gathered on place of work, status in employment, type of contracts, and mode of payment (Vanek, Chen and Raveendran 2012).

Developed Countries

In developed countries, home-based work is sometimes defined differently, referring to those who telecommute (“work remotely”) from home for all or part of their work time as well as those who base their business at home. Self-employed professionals, freelancers, employees as well as digital platform workers who work from their homes are more common in higher-income countries. COVID-19 restrictions have led to a dramatic increase in working from home. For some, telecommuting ("working remotely") is a job-related benefit that provides flexibility. For others, however, home-based work may be associated with precarity, lower-quality conditions of employment, or a different employment arrangement (e.g. own-account self-employment). 

The prevalence of home-based work is likely to grow. In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, large numbers of the world’s workforce started working from home and joined the 35.4 million workers in developed countries who had already been working from home as of 2019. As the ILO has noted: “Working from home will undoubtedly take on greater relevance in the future.” (ILO 2020, p. 13)

A home-based worker wearing a mask in adherence to COVID-19 protocols in Ahmedabad, India. Photo courtesy of SEWA
A home-based worker wearing a mask in adherence to COVID-19 protocols in Ahmedabad, India. Photo courtesy of SEWA

Driving Forces & Working Conditions

Low Earnings and Long Hours

Several factors, including financial need, drive home-based workers to do this work. Home-based workers’ earnings play a critical role in meeting basic family needs.

However, home-based workers earn very little, on average – particularly sub-contracted homeworkers, who are paid by the piece and depend on contractors or middlemen for work orders and payments. See IEMS study for a table on piece rates for different types of sub-contracted home-based work.

The WIEGO statistical brief on home-based work globally found that those in poorer countries generally worked longer hours than those in developed countries. In fact, while only 15 per cent of women and 28 per cent of men in developed countries worked 49 or more hours per week, in developing countries, 31 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men worked such long hours. In emerging countries, the percentages were even higher at 32 per cent of women and 54 per cent of men (Bonnet, Carre, Vanek and Chen 2021). (It is important to note that the data looked at only remunerative work; in most instances women also have the responsibility for child care and domestic responsibilities.)

In the IEMS study sample, many home-based workers reported that they suffered body aches and pains due to their long working hours.

Impact of Global Pandemic and Economic Crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has devastated many traditional home-based workers, leaving them with no income for months. A WIEGO-led study in 11 cities around the world found that most home-based workers were the least able to work during the peak lockdowns and restrictions in April 2020 and the slowest to recover by mid-2020: compared to domestic workers, street vendors/market traders and waste pickers in the sample. Read more about home-based workers during COVID-19 here or in WIEGO Working Paper No.42: COVID-19 and Informal Work: Distinct Pathways of Impact and Recovery in 11 Cities Around the World.

COVID-19 was not the first crisis to hit home-based workers hard. The global economic crisis that began in 2008 made it harder for home-based workers to make a living. In 2009 and 2010, home-based workers producing for global value chains experienced a sharp decline in their work orders. The self-employed home-based workers faced increased competition; many reduced their prices to remain competitive. Expansion of retail chains has also created serious competition for local enterprises. See Informal Economy/Links with Economic Crisis.

Homeworkers in Global Value Chains

Many multinational firms based in the global North outsource production to factories and homeworkers scattered across countries. Links between the homeworker and the lead firm are usually mediated by suppliers and their contractors and, thus, remain obscure. This can make it difficult to negotiate rates or receive payment for completed work. This case offers an illustration:

When a trade union organizer in Canada tried to help one immigrant Chinese garment worker get her back wages, she found that the garment worker did not know whom she worked for … the man who dropped off raw materials and picked up finished garments drove an unmarked van. When the garment worker eventually found a tag with a brand label on it among her raw materials, the trade union activist was able to trace the “label” from a retail firm in Canada to a manufacturing firm in Hong Kong to an intermediary in Canada: in this case, the global value chain began and ended in Canada.

When the local intermediary was asked to pay the back wages due to the garment homeworker he replied: “Put me in jail, I cannot pay. The manufacturer in Hong Kong who sub-contracted production to me has not paid me in months.

Source: Stephanie Tang of UNITE, personal communication.

Home as Workplace Issues

For home-based workers, their home doubles as their workplace – and inadequate housing is a major challenge. Taking bulk work orders is not possible when there is no storage space. Work is frequently interrupted by the competing needs of other household activities. Many home-based workers meet other household demands during the day and work long hours at night, leading to exhaustion, back aches and eye strain.

Some home-based work generates dust or involves use of hazardous chemicals. However, there is often no separation between the work space and living space. This can endanger both the home-based worker and other family members, including children.

Poor quality housing leads to damaged goods and raw materials. Monsoon rains force workers to suspend or reduce production for various reasons:

  • Equipment, raw materials or finished goods get damaged when roofs leak or houses flood.
  • Products (e.g. incense sticks and plastic) cannot dry due to leaks and humidity.
  • Work orders are reduced due to decreased demand and/or difficulties associated with transport during the rains.

Read more about home as a workplace on this dedicated web page. 

Capital, Technology and Infrastructure Deficits

Most home-based workers not only provide their own workplace, but also pay for the equipment and electricity they use. These business costs plus their irregular and low pay means that most home-based workers lack the ability to save and to invest in improved technology, working capital or training.    

Basic infrastructure deficiencies such as electricity shortages further hinder productivity, while utility costs eat into available income. Home-based workers must travel to markets or to pick up raw materials and drop off finished products. Many must walk long distances or rely on public transportation or other forms of transport such as rickshaws. The costs of transport further reduce their earnings. All of these factors undermine their productivity. 

Home-Based Workers and the Law

The legal regulatory environment for home-based work is uncertain. In most countries, the self-employed are not recognized as independent operators, while sub-contracted homeworkers are not recognized as dependent workers. WIEGO's page on Garment Workers offers more details.


Policies & Programmes

Urban Issues

Since the home doubles as the workplace, houses are an economic asset. However, too often dwellings are inadequate – too small with no storage and prone to leaking or flooding. Informal settlement clearance schemes destroy not only homes but also workplaces and livelihoods. And residents of these settlements often pay more for basic infrastructure services per unit than middle-class consumers and formal factories.

Urban Planning Imperatives

Attention needs to be paid to current and potential livelihood activities during design and upgrading of low-cost housing schemes. Zoning regulations must consider the value of home-based workers by allowing commercial activities by residents in residential areas.

Affordable and reliable basic services – especially water and electricity – are crucial to the livelihood activities of home-based workers. Some positive developments in policies have been achieved in the past two decades. 

Home Work Convention (C177)

An international Convention on Home Work (Convention 177) was adopted by the International Labour Conference in 1996. Convention 177 (full text) calls for national policies to promote equality of treatment between homeworkers and other wage earners. It also specifies areas where such equality of treatment should be promoted, including inclusion in labour force statistics. 

Around the globe, home-based worker organizations are advocating to have their national governments ratify and implement C177. But more than 20 years later, only 10 countries have ratified itHowever, some countries have adopted national legislation to protect home-based workers and the regional plus global networks of home-based worker organizations, and their affiliates, continue their struggle  for decent work.

For the impact of Convention 177 after twenty years, see similarities and differences between 1996 and 2016 for homeworkers.

HomeNet Thailand, with support from WIEGO and other partners, campaigned for more than a decade to win legislative protection for homeworkers based on Convention 177. Both the Homeworkers Protection Act B.E.2553 and a social protection policy came into force in May 2011. The law mandates fair wages –including equal pay for men and women doing the same job – be paid to workers who complete work at home for an industrial enterprise. Read Winning Legal Rights for Thailand's Homeworkers (WIEGO 2013). 

Kathmandu Declaration

The Kathmandu Declaration addresses the rights of South Asian home-based workers. It was adopted in 2000 by representatives of South Asian Governments, UN agencies, NGOs and Trade Unions from five countries at a regional conference organized by UNIFEM and WIEGO and supported by the International Development Research Centre. WIEGO provided the research findings on which the Kathmandu Declaration was based. 

Tripartite Welfare Boards in India

The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has helped improve circumstances for home-based workers by representing workers on tripartite boards with government and employer representatives. Over the past four decades, policy advocacy has led to various sectors of home-based workers, including stitchers, bidi (cigarette) rollers and agarbatti (incense stick) workers, being included in the state schedules of the Minimum Wages Act. This has increased incomes. Also, Acts such as the Bidi and Cigar Welfare Fund Act, implemented in the 1980s, provide social security schemes such as health care, child care and housing for home-based workers.


Organization & Voice

Because they work in isolation, organization is particularly important to the empowerment of home-based workers. But because they are isolated and often scattered, it is difficult for them to organize. Despite the challenges, a growing number of organizations and national/regional networks have formed. When home-based workers organize and have a collective voice, their ability to bargain increases. Some home-based workers also collectivize their economic activities by forming cooperatives. 

Key demands of organized home-based workers include access to social protection and child care provision; secure housing tenure and affordable water and electricity services to support productive activities; inclusive urban planning and mixed use zoning regulations; and a safe and conducive working environment. For sub-contracted homeworkers in supply chains, additional key demands are regular work orders and fair piece rates and, most fundamentally, that the ultimate brand should take responsibility for working conditions throughout the chain.  And the self-employed need support in accessing markets and fair prices..

The launch of HomeNet International in early 2021 marked an important milestone in gaining global voice and visibility.

National and Regional Networks

The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India is the world’s largest trade union of women informal workers. It has about 2 million members, about one fifth of whom are home-based workers, and has been instrumental in achieving higher wages and better working conditions for home-based workers in many industries. 

HomeNet South Asia, born out of the 2000 South Asia regional conference on home-based workers, organized by SEWA, UNIFEM and WIEGO, is a network of 60 member-based organizations (MBOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are based in eight countries in South Asia. These include trade unions, cooperatives, producer companies, social enterprises, and NGOs that engage with home-based workers.  

HomeNet South-East Asia organizes homeworkers to democratically manage self-sustaining organizations and networks at the national and sub-regional levels that will help them achieve better working conditions and standards of living, steadier employment, and access to social protection.

PATAMABA in the Philippines is a grassroots organization run and managed by women home-based workers. It has a membership of more than 19,000 informal workers (98% women).

HomeNet Thailand represents informal workers in Thailand, including a large population of homeworkers. HomeNet Thailand was instrumental in winning legal rights for millions of homeworkers.

Home-based workers in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are increasingly networking their organizations, and have formed and registered HomeNet Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Association of Home-Based Workers in Bulgaria was registered in 2002.

In Africa, a regional platform of home-based worker organizations in five countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, exists. The Africa Regional Platform includes established and emerging organizations across the five countries. The platform is supported by WIEGO’s Organization and Representation Programme. 

HomeNet Kenya was launched on 10 December 2020. A Ugandan home-based workers network is in the process of registering under the name Remunerative Work Uganda.

In Latin America, a network of home-based worker organizations in Peru, Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay was established in 2017 with the name COTRADO-ALAC. COTRADO-ALAC is in communication with home-based worker organizations in Argentina and Mexico. COTRADO-ALAC is supported by WIEGO’s Organization and Representation Programme.

The African network and COTRADO-ALAC are associated with HomeNet International, whereas HomeNet Eastern Europe and Central Asia is not.


WIEGO Specialists

Marty Chen
Senior Advisor

Marlese Von Broembsen
Director, WIEGO Law Programme

Shalini Sinha
India Country Representative

Vanessa Pillay
Organization & Representation Programme Coordinator for Africa

Laura Raquel Morillo Santa Cruz
Organization & Representation Programme Officer, Latin America


Related reading


Top photo: Weaving is a major part of the work done by home-based workers in Laos. Credit: Marty Chen
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