India's Invisible Workforce: Women Home-Based Workers Paid Little, Have No Legal Protection
In the absence of laws and without any bargaining power, home-based workers in India are often compelled to take up work for extremely low wages, without any social security
Ahmedabad (Gujarat): Twenty-nine-year-old Nazia Ahmed’s economic freedom has been tied to the work of kite-making for the past 10 years. A resident of Behrampura in Ahmedabad, Ahmed has stuck to the job, which pays her a sum of Rs 110 for every 1,000 kites, as it allows her to earn from home; going out for work is not an option with familial responsibilities.
She is not alone. At least 17.19 million women in India are engaged in home-based work, with 12.48 million of them engaged in non-agricultural work, based on data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey, analysed in a 2020 report by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a network of organisations working for the rights of home-based workers in South Asia. This makes up 26.5% of all women employed in non-agricultural work. Women such as Ahmed have limited options for jobs, given cultural norms restricting women’s movement outside the home and their restricted access to skill development.
"Working from home is a good option for me," Ahmed said. "I can support my family without having to leave my house. My in-laws and father would have never allowed me to work outside, but they are supportive of me working from home.”
India’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation defines home-based workers as ‘own-account workers’ and ‘contributing family workers’, involved in the production of goods and services, in their homes, for the market. It also includes paid work at home, resulting in a ‘product or service as specified by the employer’, irrespective of who provides the equipment, materials or other inputs used.
In India, women constitute a significant portion of the home-based workforce, involved as both contractual and informal workers in local industries, such as weaving, beedi-making, embroidery and kite-making, among others, and also for larger companies through subcontractors.
A senior field coordinator at the Self Employed Women Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad, Deepika Rathod, told IndiaSpend that most of the brands that outsource work to home-based workers in Ahmedabad are local, such as papad wholesalers. However, in the incense stick manufacturing sector, several small-scale manufacturers in the city outsource work to home-based workers, and bigger companies--such as Cycle Brand and Mysore Sugandhi--also follow suit.
Rathod, who has been working on various projects in the slums of Ahmedabad, said these manufacturers usually source their raw materials from local suppliers and distribute their finished products through wholesalers and distributors. “In the garment manufacturing sector, which operates at a scale in Ahmedabad, the many prominent textile mills and manufacturers, including Arvind Mills, Ashima Group and Nandan Denim, have a network of small-scale subcontractors who outsource the tasks of cutting and sewing garments to home-based workers.”
IndiaSpend has sent queries to the representatives of Cycle Brand, Mysore Sugandhi, Arvind Mills, Ashima Group and Nandan Denim regarding their employment of home-based workers. This report will be updated when we receive their response.
Despite their meaningful contribution to the domestic economy, home-based workers are devoid of access to training, safety equipment and even social security, unrecognised by both companies as well as the government.
Rural woman painting on a handmade fan made from palm tree leaf in Kolkata.
Lower wages for women, no social security
Women are not seen as primary breadwinners, and families ask that women prioritise housework and care of the children and elderly, said Neethi P., a researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS). Even if a woman becomes a part of the labour force, the decision is often made or influenced by male family members such as the father, brother and husband, she explains. “Even if many women are willing to work, the question arises of who will take care of the household responsibilities. This is where home-based work becomes significant, as it allows women to take care of their families while earning some income.”
Neethi added that the majority of work performed by home-based workers is often perceived or treated as unskilled labour. “When work takes place in one's own living room, kitchen, or home, the line between labour and household responsibilities becomes blurred. There is also no clear distinction between working and non-working hours for women.”
In absence of any laws to protect home-based workers, and with no bargaining power, they are often compelled to take up work for extremely low wages. For women, this problem worsens due to gender discrimination, said Veena Bharadwaj, programme co-ordinator at SEWA-Mahila Housing Trust in Ahmedabad. “They may face challenges such as unequal pay for the same work, limited access to skill development and training programmes, and restricted mobility, all of which contribute to their vulnerability in the workplace.”
The average hourly earnings of male home-based workers is Rs 48 in comparison to Rs 24 for women workers, as per a 2020 report by WIEGO. The average hourly earnings for home-based women is not even half of the recommended minimum wage in India at Rs 46.88. The study also found that a majority of women home-based workers do not have access to social security benefits, such as health insurance or pensions.
The low wages earned by women home-based workers, particularly those living in urban areas, means the inability to afford decent housing and work space. Many of these workers live in overcrowded or substandard housing conditions, which adversely affects both their occupation and well-being.
Poor housing conditions
Sakhiben Dantani’s family of five resides in a two-room house at Patad Nagar in Ahmedabad. The 42-year-old, who works for a local garment company, uses one of the rooms to paste embellishments on blouses and skirts, while the other room remains stacked with household essentials. She earns Rs 15-25 on each piece of clothing, depending on the amount of work the garment requires.
While her three children struggle for space to play and study, she has no designated place to store the garments. However, she told us that on complaining to her contractor about the lack of space and low wage, she is met with the usual retort, “If you can’t do the work, I’ll find someone else.”
Another woman at Ahmedabad’s Vishwasnagar, who works for a nearby garment factory, 40-year-old Rama, said working at her single-room abode becomes especially difficult during summers. “The roof of my house is made of asbestos and it becomes really hot during summers, making it difficult to sit inside and work. In summers, my productivity drops and I am able to do only half of the work that I undertake during the pleasant months of the year. We live in a single room housing and we don’t have a separate space for the stove. It's difficult to cook too.”
The lack of ventilation and proper insulation in such houses exacerbates the effect of summer heat, leading to not only a decrease in productivity but it also has implications for health.
Radha, 32, living in the same colony, who also works for a garment manufacturer, has switched from working on sewing machines to cutting threads because of the strain on her eyes from working in a dim-lit room at her 17-sq-metre house.
"Even though thread-cutting pays less, I cannot continue working on a sewing machine for long periods because of my eyesight," Radha said, adding that the contractors would not provide work regularly if the task is not completed on time. Her monthly income has plunged from Rs 1,500-3,000 to Rs 700-800.
Rama, a resident of Vishwasnagar in Ahmedabad, who works for a garment factory.
A garment worker at Bhagwati Nagar in Ahmedabad, Bindya (35) lives in a low-lying area which is water-logged during monsoon. “The rains last time were so heavy that my sewing machine short-circuited twice. Each time, I had to spend around Rs 2,000 on repairs, which is about half of my monthly earnings. There have been times when my material also gets damaged for which the contractor cuts from our wage.”
Bindya earns about Rs 2 for each piece of garment she works on and earns Rs 3,000-4,000 a month. “It helps me support my family. But the damages brought by rains can be frustrating. I am already earning so little, and spending on repairs means I have even less to support my family,” she said, adding that the dampness in her house during the monsoon shrinks her storage space and limits the area where she can work.
The issue of dampness, lack of proper ventilation and lighting also leads to additional energy expenses on installation of an extra fan or light bulb. The absence of basic amenities such as tap water or an anganwadi for childcare also add to the woes of women home-based workers. There is no anganwadi centre in the vicinity of Bindya’s house, compelling her to travel 2-3 km every day by an auto or walk to take her child to the nearest anganwadi.
Moreover, as a significant number of home-based workers live on rent, without any legal contracts, this informal setting makes them more vulnerable to the threat of eviction. “Many home-based workers live in houses of 12-18 sq m. Women have to adjust their work times according to family members' convenience, which further pushes them to sometimes work odd hours or even take less work,” said Veena Bhardwaj, a housing and land rights activist based in Delhi.
A woman home-based worker sewing beads at her house.
“Unavailability of secured land titles adds to the precarity of their labour. For instance, in resettlement colonies such as Bakkarwala and Gokulpuri in Delhi, the licence for the plots was given for a duration of 10 years. It’s been more than 20 years now and they don’t know what will be the status in future. What if they are relocated again and they lose this constant supply of work," Bharadwaj said.
Many of the raw materials supplied to home-based workers, especially involving plastic, incense sticks, e-waste and tobacco, bring along hazardous pollutants and toxins. Surekha Ben, 45, who lives in Odhav, has been packing plastic spoons at her home for the past six years. She complains of irritation in her eyes and burning sensations in her hands “because of the exposure to so much plastic”.
She said, "It's very difficult to work inside, so I prefer to work on the streets in the evening. For each sack I pack, I get Rs 35. Because of my limited working hours, I can only earn between Rs 800 and Rs 1,200 a month.” In Ahmedabad, as per SEWA officials, most women home-based workers are paid on piece-rate basis or for each unit completed.
Making a case for legal protection
The 2019 edition of the India Exclusion Report found that many of the women who undertake home-based work remain oblivious of their rights, view their work as ‘timepass’ and do not count themselves as part of a productive labour force despite adding value to the economy. In addition, as we mention above, home-based workers suffer from low incomes, have little or no legal and social protection, poor working conditions and minimal or no workers benefits.
Thus, a fair piece-rate should be calculated for such workers keeping in account the issues faced by them. It is also crucial to consider housing for the marginalised as not only a place to live but also to work, which should be otherwise compensated for with community level infrastructure, such as working centres in residential areas.
As home-based workers are affiliated with more than one employer, and might be engaged in several different activities over a year, it becomes challenging to trace the employers and calculate women's working hours, said Neethi, the IIHS researcher. As such, it might be helpful for city governments and planning departments to identify specific areas, especially industrial belts, where the majority of work is outsourced to slums or low-income neighbourhoods, she suggested. “One effective solution could be providing suitable community workspaces, which could be run by civil society, for these populations…In cases where workers face issues related to lack of storage or material damage, authorities can consider providing community-level storage units.”
“Governments should also plan childcare facilities, particularly in areas where home-based work is prevalent, especially as some work activities pose hazards to children,” Neethi added.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) in a 2021 report has emphasised the importance of effective national policies for home-based workers.
India adopted the Kathmandu Declaration of 2000, which advocates for the rights of South Asian home-based workers. Subsequently, the labour ministry presented a draft national policy in 1999-2000. However, more than 20 years since, India is still awaiting a national policy in this regard.
HomeNet South Asia, a regional network of home-based worker organisations across South Asia, in 2017, developed a draft ‘National Policy for Home-Based Workers in India’, and presented it to the Ministry of Labour and Employment. No such bill has yet been passed.
IndiaSpend has sent queries to the office of Bhupendra Yadav, the Union Minister for Labour and Employment, on the draft national policy and will update the report on receiving their reply.
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