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) or 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.
Home-based workers and their allies launched a global network in February 2021. HomeNet International (HNI) unites the voices of membership-based organizations in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and South East Asia. Organizing globally will allow them to respond to common challenges and improve the visibility, working conditions and legal protections. More
COVID-19 crisis: Home-based workers worldwide face devastating loss of income
WIEGO Experts in
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 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 1999; Raju 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, supplies, utilities, etc.
Common challenges include low earnings, irregular and/or cancelled work orders, rejected goods, delayed payments and unreliable supplies of raw materials. Larger economic trends such as fluctuating demand and rising input prices affect both groups, but particularly the self-employed.
Industries and sectors
Historically, home-based work involved labour-intensive activities in garments, textiles and footwear manufacturing, as well as skilled artisan production.
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).
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.
- Homeworkers produce goods at low prices for domestic and global value chains.
- They are economic agents, buying supplies, raw materials, and equipment and paying for transport and 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. Around 30 per cent of self-employed home-based workers in the IEMS sample purchase materials from formal firms; just under 30 per cent of both groups sell to or produce for formal firms.
- Homeworkers in Global Supply Chains: A Review of Literature by Jenna Harvey, 2019
- Myths & Facts about Home-Based Workers by Shalini Sinha, 2015
- IEMS Sector Report: Home-Based Workers by Martha A. Chen, 2014.
- Summary of IEMS findings: The Urban Informal Workforce: Home-Based Worker, WIEGO 2015.
Globally, 260 million women and men produce goods or provide services from in or around their homes:
- 86% (more than 224 million) are in developing and emerging countries
- 14% (more than 35 million) are in developed countries.
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.
Regional and Country-Level Statistics
WIEGO has produced a series of Statistical Briefs that provide details on the numbers, demographics, and sectors of home-based workers.
Almost two-thirds (65%) of the world’s home-based workers are in Asia & the Pacific.
In Thailand, almost 10 per cent of the workforce – some 3.7 million people – rely on home-based work. The majority of them are women, and over 70% work informally (Poonsab, Vanek and Carré 2019).
In Bangladesh, the 3.2 million non-agricultural and 7.4 million agricultural home-based workers (2016/17 Labour Force Survey) represent, respectively, about 5.2 and 12.1 per cent of the employed population aged 15 and older (Koolwal and Vanek 2020).
In India, there were an estimated 49.20 million home-based workers in 2011/12. By 2017/18, the number had decreased to 41.85 million, or 9.1 per cent of employment (Raveendran 2020).
In Pakistan the number of home-based workers increased from 3.59 million in 2013/14 to 4.37 million in 2017/18, while the share of home-based workers in total employment remained constant at 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.
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 (Baah-Boateng & Vanek 2020).
Chart: Distribution of world's home-based workers by country income groups and geographic regions
Issues in counting this invisible workforce
Several 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 “workers".
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.
In 2013, WIEGO compiled existing data on home-based workers and other groups of urban informal workers for Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, 2nd Edition, published by ILO and WIEGO in 2013.
WIEGO's Statistics Programme 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 status in employment, type of contracts, and mode of payment (Vanek, Chen and Raveendran 2012).
In developed countries, home-based work is sometimes defined differently, referring to those who do not commute to a workplace but rather telecommute from home. Self-employed professionals and digital platform workers, for example, 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).
Statistics for the United States show home-based work has been on the rise in recent decades. According to data from the American Community Survey (reported by the U.S. Census Bureau data), the percentage of people who worked most of the workweek at home increased from 3.6 per cent in 2005 to 4.3 per cent in 2010.
Low Earnings and Long Hours
Several factors, including financial need, drive home-based workers to do this work. In the IEMS sample, over three-quarters said their households rely entirely on earnings from informal work. Home-based workers’ earnings play a critical role in meeting basic family needs.
However, home-based workers earn, on average, little – particularly sub-contracted homeworkers, who are paid by the piece and depend on contractors or middlemen for work orders and payments.
Yet a global analysis of home-based work found 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 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. For more:
- Home-based workers face a new kind of isolation
- Sewing the Seams: Cape Town Homeworkers Pull Together as COVID-19 Halts Earnings
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, WIEGO and its Inclusive Cities partners conducted studies on how informal workers were affected by the economic crisis. Home-based workers who produced for global value chains experienced a sharp decline in their work orders. The self-employed home-based workers reported 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
Multinational firms based in an industrialized country will outsource production to homeworkers scattered across countries. Links between the homeworker and the lead firm can be 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.
The theme of the 2016 International Labour Conference was global supply chains. WIEGO participated with a delegation of homeworkers and organizers from Africa, Latin America, South Asia and South-East Asia who aimed to raise the issues of decent work and rights for homeworkers in global supply chains.
- How can international brands ensure that homeworkers are treated fairly? (ETI's Leadership Series) by Marlese von Broembsen, WIEGO’s Law Programme Director (2018)
Home as Workplace Issues
For home-based workers, the 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 and eye strain.
Some home-based work generates dust or uses 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. In all three IEMS cities, women reported that monsoon rains force them to suspend or reduce production.
- 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.
Studies in seven countries, conducted by HomeNet South Asia, found that many home-based workers are trying to earn their income in cramped, crowded and inadequate slum housing. High rents, high utility bills, poor infrastructure and lack of space were major hindrances (Sinha 2013). In an article for the Global Urbanist, Shalini Sinha argues that housing upgrades and zoning regulations must be reconceived with a focus on home as workplace in Asia.
In some cases, home-based workers involved in the IEMS study were relocated with no concern for their livelihood activities.
Capital, Technology and Infrastructure Deficits
Productivity is negatively affected by the low levels of technology used by home-based workers. Irregular and low pay mean they lack the ability to save. Most lack capital to build their businesses, invest in new machinery or in training.
Basic infrastructure deficiencies such as electricity shortages further hinder productivity, while utility costs eat into available income. In Lahore, 78 per cent of the IEMS sample cited costly, unreliable electricity as a problem.
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 reduce earnings. Among the IEMS sample, around one-third of business costs was on transport; among those who spent on transport, one-quarter operated at a loss.
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.
- How can international brands ensure that homeworkers are treated fairly? (ETI's Leadership Series) by Marlese von Broembsen, WIEGO’s Law Programme Director (2018)
- The European Union’s Commodification of Bulgarian Homeworkers: Regulating Informal Labour in Global Production Networks by Marlese von Broembsen (WIEGO Working Paper [Law]) by Marlese von Broembsen, 2019
WIEGO's page on Garment Workers has more.
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. Slum clearance schemes destroy not only homes but also workplaces and livelihoods, undermining their contribution to the local economy. And slum dwellers 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 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.
- Nohn, Matthias. 2011. Mixed-Use Zoning and Home-Based Production in India. WIEGO Technical Brief (Urban Policies) No. 3.
- Sinha, Shalini. 2013. Housing and Urban Service Needs of Home-Based Workers: Findings from a Seven-Country Study. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 15.
Home Work Convention (C177)
An international Home Work Convention (C177) was adopted by the International Labour Conference in 1996. C177 (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 it. Home-based workers are organizing. Across the globe, celebrated they anniversary and used it to raise awareness about their ongoing struggle for decent work.
Legal Protection in Thailand
HomeNet Thailand, with support from WIEGO and other partners, campaigned for more than a decade to win legislative protection for homeworkers. 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).
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.
- Supporting Women Home-Based Workers: The Approach of the Self-Employed Women's Association in India (2013) by Shalini Sinha. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 13.
Because they work in isolation, organization is crucial to home-based workers' empowerment. But because they are isolated and often scattered, they are difficult to organize. Despite the challenges, a growing number of organizations and national/regional networks have formed. When home-based workers organize and have collective voice, their ability to bargain increases.
In 2021, the launch of HomeNet International marks another significant step in gaining 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).
Related reading: Bangkok home-based workers find strength in numbers by Carlin Carr, 2016
Home-based workers in Eastern Europe are increasingly networking their organizations, and have recently formed and registered HomeNet East Europe. The Association of Home-Based Workers in Bulgaria was registered in 2002.