It is estimated that there are over 5 million homeworkers in India alone. The vast majority of homeworkers are women – making homeworking a gendered experience. In a study conducted by Save The Children and the Centre for Child Rights, the most prominent reason why women take up home-based work is to be able to fulfil their child care responsibilities. Other reasons why most homeworkers are women, despite being heavily underpaid, include not being allowed to work outside of their homes, limited opportunities for women in the labour market, lack of opportunities for upskilling and absence of alternative sources of income in rural and peri-urban areas.
Even since the pandemic, homeworkers have continued to play an important role in the fashion industry’s global value chains. These sub-contracted women who work on a piece-rate basis, help propel the supply of fast fashion — keeping the production levels high yet flexible, and the costs low. Homeworkers in certain areas of Delhi and many other parts of India are typically married, have children and perform essential tasks by hand such as finishing, sewing embellishments, buttons and eyehooks, inserting drawstrings in trousers, attaching tassels, embroidery etc. Yet since they have no contracts these women are highly vulnerable to exploitative terms and conditions. Deadlines can be unreasonable, wages are well below the minimum wage standards and payments are often delayed. They are frequently not even recognised as workers because social audits conducted by brands generally do not look beyond the first tier of supply chains.
On February 17, 2021, the Hidden Homeworkers project partners organised a webinar in partnership with the Fair Labor Association on “building inclusive supply chains for women homeworkers”. The webinar brought together different stakeholders to discuss some of the best practices available for working with homeworkers in international footwear and apparel supply chains. During this webinar, Pentland Brands shared their journey which began with their desire to understand homeworking within their supply chain in Tamil Nadu, as opposed to simply denying it and keeping homeworkers and their issues hidden. They utilised their long-standing relationship with their suppliers and partnerships with the NGOs Homeworkers Worldwide and Cividep to garner their trust and cooperation towards operationalising a homeworking policy to improve working conditions for women homeworkers and promote greater transparency and therefore accountability in their supply chain.
Record-keeping for homeworkers is an essential part of Pentland’s homeworking policy – homeworkers are issued a job card to record the work done and payment received, which also gives them recognition and visibility as workers.
This policy also gave the brand a much-needed insight into the hours of work put in by homeworkers and the wages paid to them. By engaging in a time and motion study, they were able to calculate the piece rate for homeworkers, linking their pay to minimum wage standards. This new system, introduced by Pentland Brands in late 2018, led homeworkers’ piece rates to rise by 30%. This is a significant achievement and an example set for other brands to follow.
As COVID-19 continues to push people, especially informal workers, deeper into the clutches of poverty, recognising homeworking and improving conditions homeworkers face should be an immediate concern for governments as well as businesses. Making this commitment is in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which states that businesses should recognize and address human rights challenges their workers face: including homeworkers. It is also consistent with the ILO’s Home Work Convention 1996 (No 177) which expects ratifying States to develop national homeworking policies that enable decent working conditions for homeworkers. The OECD too recognises homeworkers as an intrinsic part of the workforce in the garment and footwear sector and calls upon enterprises to identify homeworking in their supply chains and mitigate any actual or potential violations of homeworkers’ human rights.
We urge global brands to make this international women’s day count by joining us as we work towards creating more transparent, sustainable and inclusive supply chains for women workers — especially often-overlooked homeworkers.