New Delhi/Mumbai: Separated by more than 1,400 km, Shabnam Sheikh from Mumbai and Rupa Devi from New Delhi are unaware of each other's existence. Sheikh's job is to make ripped markings on 'distress jeans' while Devi strings together artificial garlands at home for a living.

Both Sheikh and Devi are home-based informal workers, who carry out paid work from their home or outside of the employer's workplace, and are near the bottom of India's labour chain. Livelihood for home-based workers was already precarious due to low wages (both earned less than Rs 100 a day) and poor access to social security, and the situation worsened as the Covid-19 pandemic struck India two years ago.

The national lockdown and series of movement restrictions meant that supply chains were hit and demand for their labour dried up. It led to job losses and erratic wages, experts and studies say. For instance, while Sheikh did not have any work for more than a year, Devi has struggled for months due to a delay in her wages paid by her contractors.

IndiaSpend spoke to both women over months, and to organisations supporting home-based workers, to document the protracted impact of the pandemic on the sector, to learn how the women coped with irregular income, and long standing challenges of their work.

For millions of women in India, social barriers and mobility constraints limit job options that require them to step out of their homes. In such a scenario, being a home-based worker allows them to earn from the confines of their home.

But "there was no work for months and months since the lockdown in 2020. Then the orders and payments started reducing. However, work or no work, our expenses continued to rise," Devi said. For each artificial garland that she makes, Devi gets paid Rs 4 to Rs 6 and she can make a maximum of 15 such garlands in a day as the rest of the time is spent in care work for her family.

Devi and other women home-based workers in her neighbourhood, have got help from local volunteers of the national trade union SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) to understand how to negotiate with contractors over timely wages and find steady work orders.

Rupa Devi earns Rs 4-Rs 6 for each artificial garland she makes. The pandemic meant a loss in income, and home-based workers like her are still recovering from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns.
Photo credit: Anuja for IndiaSpend

Several workers like these two women have been resilient in dealing with the situation. Devi is now considering taking up a full-time job at a cloth warehouse. Sheikh has begun taking up different kinds of work like making paper folders or tucking in envelopes with glue, still for a paltry sum, but it helps give her an income of her own.

Experts say that while women home-based workers have shown resilience by opting for alternative or supplementary work in the last two years, their overall economic recovery is far from over.

Slow economic recovery

India is home to 41.85 million home-based workers, as of 2017-18, which accounted for 9% of total employment, according to a statistical brief by the global research-policy-action network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing or WIEGO. Of this, women make up for 17.19 million workers.

Home-based workers continue to be one of the most affected, even among informal workers, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a New Delhi-focused report, released in April 2022, by WIEGO found. Domestic workers, street vendors and waste pickers were the three other informal sector workers that the report included.

Home-based workers in cities such as Ahmedabad in Gujarat, and Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, have faced similar challenges in the past two years, WIEGO's reports have shown.

"The markets that the home-based workers produce for, both global and local, have been impacted," said Shalini Sinha, India country representative of WIEGO. Millions of women are employed in home-based work, but "receive absolutely no support for what they are doing. It is almost as if they have been left to manage by themselves," she added.

Sinha added that the lack of availability of work and the slow pace of recovery was the "most alarming" concern about women-home based workers two years after the pandemic. "Contribution of women home-based workers to their family is critical and the absence of work impacts the overall well-being and health of such women," she said.

There are two types of home-based workers: self-employed or own account workers, who have direct access to markets, and self-contracted or piece rate workers, who are employed by intermediaries. Workers belonging to the second category, like Sheikh and Devi, are considered to be more economically vulnerable as contractors often split work into numerous hands to ensure maximum profits at low labour costs.

Shabnam Sheikh makes rips on 'distressed' jeans to earn a living. The pandemic impacted her income and she is worried that she does not contribute enough to her children's education.
Photo credit: Anuja for IndiaSpend

Sheikh feels that by not having enough work at hand, she is unable to contribute to the family's expenses, particularly towards the education cost of her two school-going children. "My husband is the only earning member. And I often think that if my work was not disrupted, I could have helped with whatever little that I earned," she said.

The poor economic recovery of home-based workers comes in the backdrop of a steep gendered impact of the pandemic on the female workforce. Overall, women were much more likely to lose jobs and much less likely to recover, according to a study by Azim Premji University.

Women home based-workers were "doubly disadvantaged", said Mridulya Narasimhan, project head of STREE (Solutions for Transformative Rural Enterprises and Empowerment) at LEAD at Krea University. Even in the pre-pandemic phase, structural barriers like low wages, lack of formal training and physical constraints of work space existed, she explained. "With the onset of the pandemic, new market shock barriers came in. There was no stockpile as the industries they produce for, work on very low margins."

Resilience by workers

Despite the barriers home-based workers face, there were a few silver linings in the pandemic, and one of them was the grit and adaptation shown by the clear and sudden shift towards a survivalist mode, like garment workers making masks and other essential items, Narasimhan of STREE said.

While individual workers are largely on their own, those who are organised under a collective or union were able to adapt faster to the post-pandemic markets, experts say. For instance, those associated with SEWA Ruaab, a women-owned artisans' producer-company, were quick to upskill themselves by learning mask-making.

In the last two years, several turned to technology to train themselves. Anohita, chief executive officer at Ruaab, who goes by one name, said that in March 2020 they realised that sales could face a slowdown as most people would avoid buying luxury or expensive hand-made products. "People had started talking about cotton masks but our women workers did not know how to make them. That is when we decided that we should focus on production of cotton masks and train the women in making it."

At their head office in the national capital, the result of the transition is evident. On a warm April morning, the top floor of the building was buzzing with activity as women home-based workers were getting trained or were engaged in stitching and embroidery work before they took the work order at home to finish it.

Shalu Upadhyay, a home-based worker associated with Ruaab, recalled how she learnt to make a mask. "During the second wave of the pandemic last year, my husband lost his job and the work orders we got from here helped me run the home. I had never thought I would learn how to make a mask, let alone by getting trained on video," she said, while showing a cloth pouch that she was stitching.

The pandemic was the first time that workers like Upadhyay took the aid of video tutorials to upskill. She said that till 2019, she used her mobile phone only to make and receive calls. Workers at Ruaab said they now also extensively use the audio message feature on WhatsApp to coordinate work orders and bypass typing long messages.

Masks, made by home-based workers, affiliated to Ruaab. The pandemic meant that the women had to learn to make masks through training videos, the first time many of them used phones for anything other than making calls.
Photo credit: Anuja for IndiaSpend

In the last two years, several home-based workers were "forced to start considering alternative and supplementary work", found a study done between February 2020 and August 2021, in seven South Asian countries, including India, by Home Net South Asia (HNSA), a regional network of groups representing home-based workers.

Navya D'Souza, regional coordinator of HNSA, said that workers who were organised were able to upskill themselves through support from such networks. She added that those engaged in stitching work diversified into embroidery work and even food-related business but there were some who completely dropped out and became domestic workers.

"These are examples of resilience but it has overstretched their capacities and resources. It is the only means of survival," she said. "In terms of long-term impact, debt is a critical one as families have borrowed from relatives and informal lenders in the last two years. So, we really need to think what is the cost of the resilience they have shown."

Need for a policy intervention

Home-based workers are overlooked by policy makers as they continue to remain "invisible and undervalued" and are not covered by most labour laws, said a policy support document by HNSA published last year. India currently does not have any overarching policy in place for home-based workers.

All the experts that IndiaSpend reached out to were unanimous in saying that the Covid-19 pandemic and its protracted impact over the last two years has once again put the spotlight on the need to have a specific national policy to protect home-based workers.

Narasimhan of STREE said that a national policy for home-based workers "which recognises that this sector makes a substantial contribution to the female workforce and the economic growth of the country", was the need of the hour.

HNSA, in consultation with groups like WIEGO, has made a draft national policy for home-based workers, which says that its key objectives are to recognize them as 'workers' which will means they will be covered by labour legislation on working conditions, social security and also create and manage tripartite mechanisms between employers/contractors, government and workers for addressing their issues.

The challenges faced by home-based workers have long been out of the mainstream labour discourse, according to organisations working with home-based workers. India needs a more concerted effort, including policy interventions and specific schemes for home-based workers. There should also be more collaboration between stakeholders, such as the government, organisations working in the sector and labour rights groups to address issues faced by women home-based workers.

Lekha Chakraborty, an economist and professor at New Delhi-based National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), said that a targeted cash transfer, even if only one-time, is needed to overcome the immediate livelihood crisis. "When we talk of long-term policy intervention, creating an enabling environment is the key," she added, suggesting measures to reduce the pressure on women for house and care work, improving access to credit and ensuring proper markets for them.

"There is no silver bullet solution when it comes to home-based workers."

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