Labour Behind the Label



All over the world, thousands of mainly women workers are working at home or in small workshops to produce goods for the UK high street.  Although for some homeworking can be a positive choice, the hidden nature of their work, their precarious employment status, lack of legal protection and isolation from other workers means they are often the most exploited workers in the industry. Their invisibility means organising to defend their rights or speak with a collective voice is even more difficult for homeworkers than for factory workers, and few, if any, codes or audits have led to positive changes in their working conditions.

Homeworkers in global supply chains

Homeworkers work in their own homes (or small workshops) as opposed to factories.  Homeworkers in global supply chains are likely to work to order on a piece-rate basis.

Globally, homeworking is on the increase as part of growing shift towards ‘flexible’ labour as businesses like the flexibility homeworkers provide. The vast majority of homeworkers across the world are women, and they are often vulnerable to exploitation, with few employment rights and irregular and insecure work.  They are also unlikely to be organised in trade unions or other worker organisations, and therefore lack formal recognition.

Many people do not realise that the items they buy in high-street stores may have been produced in someone’s home.  In fact, many of the items in your wardrobe could have been worked on by homeworkers – examples include shoes stitched by women in Eastern Europe, tops embroidered at home in India, or tights packed by homeworkers in the UK.

The positive aspects of homeworking

Homeworking can be a positive choice for many women – giving them the independence of a wage they may not otherwise be able to earn.  However, most women work from home because it is the only way they can earn some cash income for basic family costs.  Globally, there are more and more women who are the main earners for their family.  They often combine homework with childcare or other family responsibilities or with seasonal agricultural work. 

The challenges of homeworking

Homeworkers face many similar problems to other workers in global supply chains, such as low wages, long hours and health and safety concerns.  Their situation is however, usually far worse than other workers – wages are often about one third or one quarter of the legal minimum, work is irregular and they usually have no social security or employment rights.

There are specific issues relating to homeworking that make homeworkers particularly vulnerable to exploitation:

* Complex supply chains: Homeworkers often appear at the bottom of immensely complex supply chains.  Work is often subcontracted by suppliers, and there can be several levels of subcontractors below them, before the work actually reaches homeworkers.   These levels of subcontracting or ‘middle-men’ not only reduce the amount of money that actually reaches homeworkers from the top of the chain, but can also make it difficult for homeworkers to find out who is responsible for their pay and conditions.  The arrangements are often informal, from casual workers in the factory, to small workshops and finally to home workers.

* Invisibility and isolation: Homeworkers are often isolated and less able to access support – by joining a union or other worker organisation for example.  Homeworkers are also often ‘invisible’ to society at large, because their work is done behind closed doors rather than in conventional factories.  They are often working ‘informally’ so are not recognised in official labour statistics or surveys.  This means governments, as well as suppliers and retailers, are often ignorant of the issues affecting homeworkers, and may fail to take the steps necessary to protect them.

* Irregularity and insecurity of work: One of the benefits of homework is the perceived flexibility it provides. Homeworkers can, they hope, fit work around other commitments and employers can benefit from a more flexible workforce who can accommodate shifts in demand.  However, too often this flexibility is one-way.  Employers don’t have to pay their homeworkers when there is no work available, but can rely on homeworkers to do long hours at short notice when there is sudden demand.  Irregularity of work, leading to periods of no – or very little – income, alternating with the frantic long hours of a rushed order are common concerns raised by homeworkers.

Organising homeworkers

Traditionally trade unions have not been good at addressing the issues that affect homeworkers, or reaching out and recruiting them. The vast majority of homeworkers across the world are not unionised, or represented by other worker organisations. However, there are many counter examples of homeworkers becoming organised and finding ways to support each other and improve their situation.

In some cases an existing union has consciously extended its reach to incorporate homeworkers and promote their demands. In other countries some homeworkers have created their own organisations such as cooperatives, associations, self-help groups or new trade unions. A co-operative in Turkey, for example, has been able to increase the piece-rates its members earn by cutting out the sub-contractors and getting the work direct from the supplier. In Tamil Nadu, South India, a homeworkers federation has established a savings and life insurance scheme, offering members greater security and access to loans.

What improvements do homeworkers want to see?

The solution to any problems homeworkers face is for retailers and suppliers to work together to find out more about the conditions homeworkers work under and how to improve them.  Trying to eliminate homeworkers from supply chains is NOT the answer.  This would only result in homeworkers either losing much needed jobs, or becoming even more vulnerable to exploitation as their existence in supply chains will continue ‘underground’.

In March 2006 homeworkers organisations from across the world met to form an International Federation and discuss common issues. Certain demands were common to homeworkers across the world, despite the different situations in their home countries:

* Being recognised as workers

* The right to organise (in unions, or other forms of organisation)

* Social protection (access to pension schemes, health insurance etc)

* Decent pay and recognition of the value of their work

There is also an ILO Convention on Homework (177) which explains how international labour standards should be applied to homeworkers. The Convention has only been ratified by 4 countries so far, but the campaign for ratification continues amongst homeworker organisations world wide.