By Gayathri Krishna, Ph.D. Student, School of Labour Studies, McMaster University
January 5th, 2022
Imagine a 200 square-foot one-window room with a view of the garbage pile at the dumping ground a few kilometres away, a railway track on one side, and a road bustling with traffic on the other. This single room with a kitchen in one corner turns into a workplace for women in the seven-member household and a place for all day-to-day activities of the family. This is the reality of many homeworkers who engage in piecework for national and global retailers in the urban centres of India. While the exodus of migrants from cities during the COVID-19 lockdown in India made it to international news, the plight of women migrants plight of women migrants who stayed back in the cities has gone unnoticed. Most of these women belong to the lowest links of global labour chains. Since they did not have prospects in their villages, they were forced to stay back in the cities hoping for work from their contractors.
Homeworkers are ignored by global value chains and local legislative systems alike. The International Labour Organization (ILO) calls this workforce "invisible", but how and why has this invisibility come about? What causes their vulnerability and lack of recognition? A humanizing approach to research on working conditions in supply chains could lead to answers to these questions and situate homeworkers’ role in the supply chain. This approach arises from critique of the sustainable supply chain management perspective which focuses on the production process instead of labour relations (1). The three dimensions used in this approach to unpack the working situation of homeworkers are context, actors, and issues.
The discussion of context in the humanizing approach assesses more than the working condition and the physical attributes of the workspace. It is significant to ponder the socio-cultural and economic reasons that have forced the women’s choice of livelihood as it would help to situate the precarity of their work. Most of the women who engage in homework are from socially disadvantaged caste– an identity attributed at birth in South Asia which is based on intergenerational transfer of occupation and allows no room for social mobility – groups who moved to the city after marrying their husbands (2).
These women have taken up homework to sustain their household as it is risky to depend only on the informal and erratic jobs of their spouses. Alchoholism and domestic violence are also rampant in the community. Homework becomes attractive for married women because of cultural reasons that restrict the mobility of women, and the pressure to fulfil their role in taking care of the family (3). Their migrant status, combined with the rigid, hierarchical caste system and a lack of education, ensures that women retain very low socio-economic capital in the cities. These very reasons make it easier for subcontractors to engage homeworkers in piecework without formal contracts.
In addition to the physical overlap of home and workspace, the socio-cultural realm of production and social reproduction are also intertwined. Homeworkers produce goods in their homes that are incorporated into global supply chains, highlighting the simultaneous pressures shouldered by the women. The nature of homework enables women to adjust their production activities to the needs of gendered social reproduction responsibilities; however, this strategy limits women to the domestic sphere (4). Thus, the meagre income, gendered responsibilities, and the informal nature of their work make it difficult for them to break out of the vicious cycle of deprivation they are in, reinforcing their position as a cheap workforce that can be easily exploited.
Positioning the homeworkers as the primary stakeholder, let us consider the associated actors who impact their position in the labour chain and discuss their involvement. The transnationality of the supply chain makes the lead firms and primary contractors untraceable and devoid of accountability. Subcontractors cut down both wage and non-wage costs and avoid risk by putting out the labour-intensive assembly work to homeworkers (5). The responsibility of buying machinery, other production-related accessories and their upkeep are shifted onto the homeworkers, thus reducing their actual wages (6).The subcontractors intensify the precarity and informality of the arrangement by not providing formal contracts and transferring their risk and loss to the homeworkers. The existing social vulnerability of these women skews the power in supply chains in favour of the contractors.
Family members are intricately woven into the production sphere due to this overlap. Women often recruit their mothers and daughters-in-law and children to assist with production activities to produce more pieces to supplement their household income (7). Thus, homework acts as a means for the reproduction of a caste-like identity based on livelihood. The reasons for social backwardness are reproduced due to the menial economic returns and informality, thus making the families doubly vulnerable. Additionally, these spaces become hidden avenues for use of child labour in the supply chain which often go unidentified by the labour regulation frameworks of global retailers and corporations.
The issues faced by homeworkers, like the homeworkers themselves, are invisible, to public policy as they are obscured by prevailing social norms. Humanizing the issues would mean focusing analysis on social inequalities that exist in addition to the difficulties induced by production networks. Hence, the social vulnerability of homeworkers brought about by context and actors, as discussed above, is at the core of the issues faced by homeworkers.
The absence of formal contracts alienates the homeworkers from local labour legislation and legal recourse. The supply chain regulation most often leaves out the homeworkers because they are dispersed across the globe and do not work in factories or workshops which can be directly linked to the global production network. The women’s location in their homes diminishes the possibilities of organizing and collective bargaining. Further, women's migrant status raises issues of proving their domicile, thereby hindering access to public policy provisions and social protection. Since their home doubles as a workspace, the labour risks associated with homework are most often ignored. The privileged viewpoint of a house being seen as a haven limits the understanding of risks in the labour process of home workers. The privacy of the space makes it difficult for it to be brought under the scrutiny of labour regulations.
The precariousness of homework results from the layering of unreliable labour processes on top of pre-existing socio-economic and gendered vulnerabilities. The invisibility of homeworkers can be addressed only through their organization. The avenues for collective bargaining and organization of homeworkers to voice their opinion and raise demands, not only to the global retail supply chains but also to governments are gaining strength. Organizations such as HomeNet South Asia, WIEGO, SEWA, centre informal women workers in the process of advocacy and collective organization.
The humanizing approach to the labour process of homeworkers offers important pointers for the integration of labourers as stakeholders in the labour regulation process. Workers’ experience needs to be at the centre of such endeavours. Researchers have begun to develop methods for humanizing research in supply chains and placing homeworkers are the centre of their studies (8).
(1) Blackett, A. (2001). Global Governance, Legal Pluralism and the Decentered State: A Labor Law Critique of Codes of Corporate Conduct. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 8(2), 401–447 (2) Delaney, A., Burchielli, R., Marshall, S., & Tate, J. (2019). Homeworking Women: A Gender Justice Perspective. Routledge. (3) Raju, S. (2013). The Material and the Symbolic: Intersectionalities of Home-Based Work in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 48(1), 60–68 (4) Carr, M., Chen, M. A., & Tate, J. (2000). Globalization and home-based workers. Feminist Economics, 6(3), 123–142. https://doi.org/10.1080/135457000750020164 (5) Sudarshan, supra note 3. (6) Blackett, supra note 1. (7) Soundararajan, V., Wilhelm, M. M., & Crane, A. (2021). Humanizing Research on Working Conditions in Supply Chains: Building a Path to Decent Work. Journal of Supply Chain Management, 57(2), 3–13.
This project is supported by the LIUNA Enrico Henry Mancinelli chair in Global Labour Issues at McMaster University, held by Judy Fudge, and by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.