India’s garment sector employs at least 12 million people in factories, but millions more work from their homes. Most of them are women and girls from minority or marginalised communities and the garment sector is not alone in using the labour of home-based workers.
Four out of five Indian women of the working age are neither working, nor seeking employment. The paid work that is available to India's time-poor women is often precarious and exploitative, and falls within the category known as informal work.
Home-based work falls in this category and it is marked by very little remuneration, irregular incomes, unregulated hours of work, no social security, and poor conditions of health.
Like other types of informal work, there is no formal relationship of employment with a single identifiable employer and workers have little or no legal protection.
Trade unions, which had originally emerged to represent the interests of men working formal jobs, often failed to recognise these special barriers that informal workers (and women in particular) faced, and were in many cases, unable to adequately represent their interests.
In law too, most labour protections are only available to formal workers who earn wages. There are hardly any laws that protect the wages of informal workers or the piece rates that are paid to home workers. This was true of the ILO's international standards as well.
That was the case at least, until 1996, when the International Labour Organization adopted Convention 177, an international convention on home workers. Under Convention 177, ratifying states are obliged to formulate, adopt and implement a national policy on home work, aimed at improving the conditions of home workers. Such a policy had to promote the equality of treatment between home workers and other workers in relation to their collective bargaining rights, wages, health and safety, social security, maternity benefits, and so on. The states also commit to implement such a policy through laws.
The story of how this convention came to be, is one of remarkable civic action that resulted in an international network that campaigned for votes at the international labour conference in Geneva.
61% of the world's workers earn their living in the informal economy. In South Asia, over 80 per cent of women in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment. Along with the ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (known as Recommendation 202), the Home Work Convention may be seen as a pillar of the international strategy to make visible, the undervalued work in the informal economy.
While it remains a powerful tool in the hands of groups of informal workers, the networks and institutions that emerged from the campaign for Convention 177, are perhaps just as important as the convention itself.
Today, membership-based organisations of home-based workers are more formally networked through the Homenet networks. WIEGO, or Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, which emerged through an urgent need felt during the campaign for a better understanding of informal workers in policy spaces, is today the premier organisation working to increase the voice and visibility of the working poor, especially women.
Such networks and institutions offer informal sector workers a strong alternative to federations of traditional labour unions.
In this episode of the Nagrik Podcast, you will receive an insight into the work that went into the adoption of these standards, and the networks and associations of informal workers that emerged from that campaign.
This episode features interviews with:
- Renana Jhabvala the national co-ordinator of SEWA, the Self-Employed Womens' Association of India
- Martha Chen, a Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, an Affiliated Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and one of the founders of WIEGO, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing
- Marlese von Broembsen, the Director of WIEGO's Law Programme
- Eileen Boris, a professor at the Department of Feminist Studies in University of California Santa Barbara and the author of Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919-2019
- Dev Nathan, a professor at the Instutite for Human Development
C 177 – Home Work Convention, 1996
R202 - Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012
R204 - Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015
Kathmandu Declaration for the rights of South Asian home-based workers
SEWA, the Self-Employed Womens’ Association of India
Support Informal Workers, Reduce Poverty – the WIEGO manifesto
Homenet International, Homenet South Asia
WIEGO, “Informal Workers in India: A Statistical Profile”
Homenet South Asia, “Impact of Covid-19 on women home-based workers in South Asia”
Homenet South Asia, “Working in Garment Supply Chains: A Homeworker’s Toolkit”
Homenet South Asia, “Empowering Home-based Workers in India: Strategies and Solutions”
Eileen Boris, (OUP: 2019), Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919-2019
Who Makes Cents?: A History of Capitalism Podcast, “Eileen Boris on the Construct of the Woman Worker”
UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, “Informality: How to Approach the Elephant in the Room”
Shiney Chakraborty, The Wire, “Women Informal Workers: Falling Through the Cracks in the Pandemic”