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Jane Tate
HomeNet – Organising Homebased Women Workers

HomeNet is a network of organisations working with homebased women workers, set up in 1994. Our experience is with one part of the informal sector, homebased workers, both those working for subcontractors or employers, and those who market their own products, who we call own account homebased workers.

There is a lot of debate about the precise definition of the informal sector; how to define informal; whether it is one sector or whether it is more accurate to speak about informal activities. However, even if a precise definition is not agreed, there is some agreement on who we are talking about and, particularly in the South, the size and importance of this sector.

When we talk about the informal sector, particularly in countries of the South, we mean many millions of poor working people who struggle to earn their living outside the formal, regulated economy. The numbers are vast. One estimate is that there are 1,200 million unprotected workers in the South. Another estimate of the numbers of homebased workers in the world is 240 million. Yet, the numbers of these workers are rarely counted in official statistics and the contribution they make to the economy is not accounted for.

The numbers of informal workers are of course greatest in the South. However, in the North there is a growing informal sector which we can clearly see in the case of homebased work. This is important because it shows that informal economic activities are not simply a function of the lack of development or underdevelopment. In many cases, the work done in informal economic activities is directly linked to the formal sector.

In many countries, and particularly with homebased workers, the majority of informal sector workers are women. In the case of the organisations that make up HomeNet, almost all are organisations of women workers. One exception is a union of homeworkers in the shoe industry in Japan whose members are all men.

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Some Examples

To give some examples of the women organised by groups in HomeNet: In Durban, South Africa, many women work as street vendors. Some of them make the products that they sell, for example, traditional medicine or bead work. Often they have no home but live on the streets alongside the selling place. In rural areas, SEWU (Self Employed Women’s Union) is organising women doing homebased work.

In the North of Thailand, many women have traditionally done silk weaving in their villages. This was done in the slack agricultural season for use by their families. As families have found it increasingly difficult to live from agriculture alone, the women’s silk weaving has become an important source of income for them.

In Ahmedabad, India, one important trade group within SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) are women making aggarbatti (incense sticks). This is very low-paid work, done at home often with the help of children in the family.

In Manila, many people make a living from the waste cloth produced by garment factories. It is estimated that in Manila alone there are 25,000 people, mainly women, who buy this waste cloth

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and make various products from it, such as woven mats, rough gloves and cleaning cloths etc. They market their own products.

In most countries of the North, there has been a growth of homeworkers in the clothing industry. In UK, Canada and Australia, the big clothing factories have closed down and instead, the work is subcontracted out to small companies who often employ homeworkers. These women often work outside the protection of the law.

A similar process has taken place in the shoe industry. In the North of Portugal, rural women in poor mountain villages hand stitch the uppers of shoes with big brand names, for sale in Northern Europe. The same work is going on in Bangkok and in Brazil.

There are many kinds of work done at home, in both the North and the South, in both rural and urban areas. Whether the women are working for employers or are own account, they share many common characteristics and often in fact combine both ways of making a living. The common features can be summarised:

Homebased workers are the poorest of workers, usually earning an income or wage well below any average earnings or minimum legal wage. The own account workers are often as poor as, or even poorer than, those working for subcontractors and should not be confused with self-employed business women. In studies done in Gujarat, for example, it was found that own account rural homebased workers were worse off than those working for subcontractors in urban areas.

The laws on homebased work vary from one country to another. But in general, whether there is a law or not, homebased workers are not covered by any employment or social security protection. This can be for a variety of reasons. It may be that the law is not applied or that there is no law. In many cases, homeworkers have an ambiguous legal status and are not treated as employees. In others, they are simply not seen as workers, but as housewives doing something in their spare time. They have no employment rights and no social security protection for when they are ill, lose their work or too old to work.

In general homebased workers are not organised by traditional trade unions and therefore have no representation. Without organisation, it is impossible for them to influence policy, local or national, or for their voices to be heard. At the international level, when homework was discussed by the International Labour Organisation at its conference in 1995 and 1996, the organisation with the most experience of organ sing homebased workers, SEWA from India, had no official representation but was present as an observer only. Although registered as a trade union, it is often seen as an NGO because it is a women’s organisation.

Official policies, plans and regulations at best ignore homebased workers. In many cases, they are hostile, as is the case for street vendors in particular. When John Major visited Calcutta, there was a big clean up’ and thousands of street vendors were cleared off the streets. And this was not just one occasion but part of a process by which cities are trying to modernise and street vendors are seen as a nuisance and a problem rather than a vital part of the distribution and retail services in the local economy.

For many homebased workers, a major problem is their lack of access to appropriate services. In Ahmedabad, for example, a vital part of SEWA’s work has been their women’s bank which has provided credit to poor women workers to enable them to get free of the money-lenders, increase their assets and improve their livelihood. Similarly, it is difficult for poor women, often illiterate, to gain access to services such as training, management and other more basic services such as health-care, child-care or education.

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Traditional Union Organising

There are examples of trade unions organising homebased workers at the grassroots. On the whole, these are exceptional. Most trade unions have found it difficult to organise this group for

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a variety of reasons. At one level, homebased workers are often invisible and not seen as part of the workforce because they are women working in their homes. But even once they have become visible, trade unions find it difficult to include them in their organisations. Homeworkers are often seen as undercutting pay and conditions for organised workers in factories. This is the reason why in the past many trade unions have advocated a ban on homework. But it is only in the USA that homework is banned in many industries still. Most trade unions have changed their policy on this and are now in favour of including homeworkers in their organisation.

Many trade unions see their main role as collective bargaining or in a more general way, the defence of pay and conditions for a workforce through negotiations with one employer. One of the problems faced by homebased workers is their lack of a secure supply of work, or alternatively, the risk that the work will be moved away if they get organised. So when working with homebased workers, a key issue is often to ensure a supply of work or look at alternative employment, a role not seen as appropriate by many trade unions.

Employers often treat their homeworkers as self employed and it is often difficult for women to establish that they are in reality dependent employees or workers. Some trade unions are not willing to organise a group that has no clear employment relationship.

Many trade unions are organised by men and find it difficult to adopt working methods or priorities which fit in with women’s needs. Meetings may be held at times and places that make it difficult for women to attend. Child-care may not be provided.

Homebased workers are not working together in one large workplace. They are often scattered and dispersed over a wide area. Women often have their own informal networks but these are not obvious to those from outside and sometimes women are afraid of talking about their work at home.

The framework adopted by many trade unions is based on a Western model of employment law and social security protection which is not always appropriate for the informal sector. A clear example of this is social security protection. Trade union demands are sometimes based on a Western model of full-time, permanent, lifelong work in an organised workplace. This model leaves out increasing numbers of informal or flexible workers in the North, let alone millions of workers in countries without a well developed state social security system. These are some of the factors explaining why trade unions have found it difficult to organise subcontracted homeworkers, let alone the millions of own account homebased workers who need an even broader approach less familiar to trade unions. There are however some examples of trade unions organising homebased workers.

Some of these are a new kind of trade union, such as SEWA in India which is a women’s trade union organising a range of poor women workers, or SEWU in South Africa which was set up based on the SEWA model. I will talk more about these two unions later.

At least one of the international trade union federations, the IUF – International Union of Foodworkers – is also giving priority to organising in the informal sector. This union covers many workers in the agricultural sector as well as food and tobacco industries. One of the ways that the IUF is working is through building links along a chain of production, for example with the tea industry. They are bringing together those working on tea plantations, in the food industry in the North and consumer campaigns working around issues of fair trade. They have also given a lot of support in India to developing organisation among bidi workers – many of whom are women rolling cigarettes at home.

In Australia, the clothing union TCFUA, has organised a major campaign around outwork – or homework. The union fought for laws protecting homeworkers and then organised a major information campaign to make contact with homeworkers. They have also worked with a broad coalition of different groups including church and

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community organisations, to raise public awareness of the extent of outwork in the industry and put pressure on retailers to adopt a Code of Good Conduct, to be monitored by the union.

In Canada, UNITE the clothing union, has set up an association for homeworkers in the garment industry. They have focused on Chinese homeworkers, many of them producing clothes for some of the big retailers. The association organises regular meetings and events for homeworkers and puts out a newsletter in Chinese to inform women about their rights. In Madeira, a trade union has been organising homeworkers in the embroidery industry for the last twenty years and it currently has thousands of members. The embroidery industry there is centrally organised with factories based in the capital city putting out the hand embroidery work to thousands of women many of them living in rural areas. Although the pay is still low, the union has succeeded in gaining official recognition and social security protection for homeworkers, among other gains.

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HomeNet is an international network set up formally in 1994 made up of organisations of homebased workers, some of which are trade unions and others NGOs. The network grew out of links established between people working with homebased workers in different areas. For example, I was working with homeworkers in the North of England. What we found was that there was little useful experience of how to organise homeworkers so when we made contact with people in other countries who had experience of this, we could learn a lot. Contacts were made between groups in UK and the Netherlands, and between UK and India and Canada. Similarly, in Asia, there were exchanges between SEWA and new groups starting under the umbrella of the ILO project in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. SEWU in South Africa was modelled on the SEWA India pattern although of course it has developed in its own way adapting to conditions in their own country.

HomeNet had two fundamental aims:

Firstly, to spread information about homework – its extent and nature and in particular of successful examples of organising homebased workers. We have produced a newsletter and other publications; held workshops and produced photo exhibitions.

Secondly, in 1993 it was agreed that homework would be discussed at the ILO Conference in 1995 with a view to proposing a Convention on home work. SEWA had been campaigning for many years for homework to be recognised at the international level and this decision was an important landmark in the campaign for recognition and visibility of homeworkers. As you know, decision-making at the ILO is tripartite; so the campaign for the Convention involved working with a wide range of organisations, particularly the trade unions and governments.

HomeNet aimed to co-ordinate international campaigning around the two discussions at the ILO Conferences in 1995 and 1996. It became clear in the discussions of the Convention, that trade unions and governments in countries where there had been active groups organising homeworkers, played an important role in the eventual adoption of the Convention, supplemented by a Recommendation, in 1996.

Members of HomeNet consist of grassroots organisations working with homebased workers. For example:

SEWA, based in Gujarat, in India now has over 200,000 members in three states. SEWA is a registered trade union and has been organising poor women workers for 25 years. Included in their membership are three main groups of women workers: homebased workers, street vendors and contract labourers. Among the homebased workers, there are two main groups: those working for employers, traders or subcontractors, such as the bidi (cigarette) rollers; garment workers; and aggarbatti workers and those doing own account work such as embroidery, block-printing etc.

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SEWA carries out two main types of organising with homebased workers. On the one hand, they organise the women in trade groups and negotiate and lobby at local and national level for employment and social protection for these workers. On the other hand, they organise women into co-operatives as a way of improving their employment and enabling them to gain access to a range of services. SEWA itself provides a number of services, most importantly the women’s bank but also child-care, health-care and insurance.

SEWU is another women’s trade union set up in Durban, South Africa organising women workers in the informal sector. Their membership is now over 4,000. When they started the major group that they organised were street vendors but as they are now expanding into rural areas, they are coming across more homebased workers. Most homebased workers in South Africa are own account, for example, dress-making or making reed mats. Some of the women make jewellery from beadwork, others make traditional medicines. SEWU’s work with street vendors is an important example of the fact that it is not only employees who can benefit from collective organising. Even though they have no employer, the street vendors can benefit from collective organisation and negotiation, for example, with the city council for spaces to sell or for accommodation as many of the women are homeless.

Another example of the organisation of homebased workers is a national network in Thailand. This network brings together different groups working with homebased workers both subcontracted and own account. For example, in Bangkok there are groups working with garment and shoe homeworkers, whereas in the North and North East, many of the women do own account work such as silk and cotton weaving and many other kinds of craft work. The organisation of groups of women silk weavers again demonstrates the need for collective organisation for own account workers. Even after there has been successful development and training for the women, collective or-ganisation enables the women to ensure that they establish minimum prices for their products and no one undercuts the others.

In the North, there are fewer examples of organised homeworkers and their numbers are smaller. Nevertheless, in Toronto, the homeworkers’ association now has several hundred members and has done successful work claiming back wages for homebased workers. The union has worked with the association to ensure that there is legal protection for homeworkers and then to inform them of their rights. As a result, the women are aware of what they are entitled to and agree a minimum level of wages below which they are not prepared to work.

As with other groups in the North, alongside the organisation of homeworkers, there have been campaigns working with consumer groups to put pressure on retailers to take responsibility for conditions of homeworkers even when they are not directly employed by the retailer but work through subcontracting chains. These chains now stretch across the world, from Thailand to Europe and from the Philippines or Latin America to North America.

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These are just a few examples of work that has been going on with homeworkers. HomeNet would like to encourage the development of grassroots organisation among homebased workers, whether in trade unions or through NGOs. It is important that membership organisations are set up in which homeworkers can participate and organise themselves. The lessons from existing groups can be passed on:

Poor women homebased workers can be organised when flexible methods of organisation are adopted. Both subcontracted and own account homebased workers can benefit from collective organisation and find ways to improve their own livelihoods and those of their families. Organising can include both those with and without a clearly defined employer and some of the methods can include both groups.

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Homebased workers often need organisation to improve their supply of work as well as improvement of pay and conditions. Organisations of homebased workers need to look at increasing opportunities for employment and issues such as marketing as well as more traditional trade union issues.

Issues of minimum wages and employment rights are important for homeworkers. Lobbying and campaigning at national level needs to take place to bring in specific protection for homeworkers. At the same time, the broader issues of social security including insurance, health-care, children’s education, housing, pensions and other issues are of great importance in improving the lives of the women.

Through collective organisation, women can gain access to a wide range of services both relating to social security and other services such as housing, training, marketing help, credit and savings, insurance etc.

At the same time as developing membership organisation and democratic representation at the grassroots level, we need to strengthen international links. At one level, we can learn from each other and from the examples of organisations like SEWA who have most experience. At another level, the chains of production and marketing for which homebased workers work now stretch across the world, from North to South and our organising also needs to be international.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Oktober 2001

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