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This One Stat Reveals the State of South Asia’s Home Workers

Largely invisible and unprotected by regulatory oversight, tens of millions of home-based workers in South Asia, most of them women, are hanging by a thread because of high indebtedness and flagging earnings, a new report says.

The financial stresses brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated what was already a fraught situation, a study led by HomeNet South Asia, a regional network of home-based worker organizations, found.

Across Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, 42 percent of home workers were unemployed as of mid-2021, compared with 0.8 percent before the outbreak began.

The fashion industry relies not only on the output of traditional factories but also on the informal labor of workers who sew, weave, embroider or embellish garments from home-based workshops. Usually outsourced by subcontractors, home workers are also among the worst paid. In some countries, they can toil for as little as 15 cents an hour making or finishing clothing destined for the United States and Europe.

Due to the dearth of census data, pegging the total number of home workers, let alone those who specialize in apparel, is a challenging task. Some 67.5 million home workers, 53 percent of whom are women, are believed to reside in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, according to Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The International Labor Organization estimates that roughly 2 billion workers, or more than 60 percent of the world’s adult labor force, perform informal work at least some of the time.

The irregular and piece-rate nature of their work was a problem even before the coronavirus crisis hit. Post-pandemic, many saw their work and income dry up, “escalating their economic vulnerability and pushing them dangerously close to poverty,” Chandni Joshi, enforcer at HomeNet South Asia, wrote in the foreword of the report. Home workers’ lack of visibility in national law and country statistics meant most of them did not qualify for social protection, income security or other forms of critical aid when it was available.

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Funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the study examined how nearly 450 women in 12 cities coped between February 2020 and August 2021. In none of the locations did home workers earn as much as they did before Covid-19. Instead, the vast majority of the respondents—81 percent—saw their weekly household incomes plummet, and more than 20 percent admitted to skipping meals.

“This severe and sustained depletion of earnings, across a prolonged period of time, has resulted in women home-based workers and families struggling to survive,” Joshi said. “Even essential goods have been rendered unaffordable, resulting in an alarming increase in hunger and debt.”

To get by, many home workers turned to alternative and supplementary work. Some skilled knitters in Kathmandu, for instance, began making velvet slippers, while others turned to agriculture work as an interim measure. A number of home workers in Dhaka sold cooked food and tea to supplement their incomes. In the absence of intermediaries, several piece-rate workers pursued work on their own, tailoring for individual customers or selling vegetables from home.

But even that hasn’t been enough to restore incomes to pre-crisis levels. India’s Mumbai and Tirupur, in particular, stood out for their very low earnings recovery, the report noted, blaming draconian movement restrictions for extended periods of time and an “almost complete” reliance on global garment chains that scuppered production for much of 2020.

As vaccinations gained precedence and limited and scattershot government relief took a back seat, home workers saw their debt levels balloon, the study added. In five locations, the average unpaid debt, as a percentage of estimated annual income, rose by between 50 percent and 90 percent. Home workers in three of them reported debt levels of between 200 percent to 300 percent, while those in Mumbai were overwhelmed by a “very high” 650 percent increase.

“The survival of women home-based workers, in South Asia, has largely depended on their own resilience along with the resilience of their representative organizations,” Joshi said. “Home-based worker organizations, across the region, have stretched their capacities and resources to ensure livelihood opportunities for workers, have linked them to relevant government programs and aid, have skilled them in digital tools, have educated their members on the necessity of being vaccinated, and have also relentlessly advocated for the rights of the workers.”

Still, the future of home workers cannot depend on resilience alone, the study said. Governments need to promote the rights of home workers by identifying and registering them in national social registers so they can access social protection entitlements, relief and assistance that are “effective and universal.” They could offer interest-free loans and easily accessible working capital or prioritize business support services such as upskilling and reskilling. Policymakers can also work in collaboration with worker organizations to design and implement home-worker-friendly policies and systems, including ethical buying practices and better occupational health and safety standards.

“An economy of our own making—where even the most vulnerable worker receives her due and whose life and livelihood is protected during a crisis—will require country governments to take decisive action,” Joshi said. “[After] the aftershocks of the second wave of the pandemic, many governments in South Asia have been quick to declare that economies are now on the path to recovery. However, it would be short-sighted to celebrate recovery that is not holistic and sustainable.”

No global recovery without informal workers

Brands can help, too. In October, nonprofits HomeWorkers Worldwide and Cividep India published a best practices “tool kit” to help fashion firms not only improve their visibility of home workers in their supply chains but also their labor conditions.

“Progress can be made to address these issues if brands recognize that homeworkers may be present within their supply chains, and commit to seeking collaborative solutions to the issues they might face,” Lucy Brill, director of HomeWorkers Worldwide, wrote in a recent post on the Ethical Trading Initiative’s blog. “By working constructively with their suppliers, brands can map homeworkers within their supply chain, jointly documenting and resolving the issues identified.”

Brands need to “accept the reality” that home workers are here to stay, whether authorized or not, Brill said. It’s therefore critical for them to develop processes to understand and manage the role home workers play, proactively mitigating any risks while “contributing positively” to their livelihoods and rights.

“Engaging proactively with homeworkers, overcoming the challenges of dispersed locations, lack of documentation (and often low literacy rates in rural areas) and lack of collective organization (in many but not all cases), requires specific skills,” she added. ”The good news is that several businesses have made great strides in developing systems that recognize and value the contribution that homeworkers make. There is already a body of knowledge and a suite of proven tools out there to use and adapt, as well as specialist organizations that can advise and support businesses on this journey.”

The Ford Foundation recently announced a five-year, $25 million grant to help WIEGO tackle the problem of securing livelihoods in the informal economy. Without the safety nets of healthcare, income or social protections, the percentage of informal workers who fell into poverty doubled from 26 percent to 59 percent during the first month of the pandemic alone, the philanthropic giant said.

“We know there can be no global recovery without informal workers,” Sarita Gupta, director of the Ford Foundations’s Future of Work(ers) program, said in November. “This grant recognizes the importance of ensuring billions of informal workers have a seat at the table to have their voices, demands and needs heard at the national and global levels, so policymakers and business leaders recognize their contributions and value. We are proud to support these women-led informal worker networks that are generating a global demand for social and labor protections for more than half the world’s workers.”