As per ILO’s recent estimates about the prevalence of homeworkers, it suggests that globally (before COVID-19) 7.9 per cent of workers (and 11.2 per cent of women workers) were working in their own homes. The Civil Society Organisation (CSO) estimates that there are 37 million homeworkers in India, including around 5 million to 12 million working in textile and apparel supply chains serving both domestic and global markets, of whom 3.5 million are working in the supply chains of global brands.
From decades, these workers are carrying forward the legacy and craft of their forefathers through their variety of fine handwork. But at the same time, these homeworkers are the weakest part of the apparel manufacturing supply chain. Right from top brands to many trade bodies, NGOs are working for these workers and some remarkable steps have been taken by them also but still, overall condition of these workers is not good. The irregular employment of homeworkers reduces labour costs.
Homeworkers generally are paid low piece rates, well below the minimum wage. They are only employed while they are working. Without an employment relationship, they do not enjoy social security or paid leaves for holidays, maternity and sickness, and their employers do not have to meet these substantial components of labour costs as they have to for workers in regular employment.
Highlighting all such aspects and suggestions (tools) to improve their overall life, Homeworkers Worldwide and Cividep India have come up with a report Finding Home Workers: Learning Around Transparency in Apparel & Footwear Chains.
This report is based on 15 semi-structured interviews conducted with key practitioners having many years of practical experience addressing homeworkers’ issues in global supply chains in apparel and footwear sectors and these interviews have referred to sixteen different initiatives, led either by brands, civil society organisations or Multi-stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs), each one seeking to improve transparency and working conditions within supply chains involving homeworkers.
Independent studies and NGO mapping reveal homeworkers in fashion supply chains, producing both for the domestic market, and for global retail brands, yet they are seldom if ever identified in audits carried out by and for the same brands and retailers.
Stakeholders behind this study wish to solve this conundrum and their aim of this study is to identify tools and approaches that increase transparency and visibility in homeworker chains and evaluate their effectiveness, in terms of both transparency and outcomes for homeworkers in subsequent implementation.
Barriers to transparency
There are many barriers to transparency and that too from brands as well as from suppliers’ sides. Some of the major barriers and their reasons have been listed in this report like negative or mixed messages from brands about homeworking; prohibition of homeworking; suppliers failing to disclose; lack of awareness and understanding of what to do by brands and suppliers; informal employment and lack of recordkeeping in homeworker chains; long, complex and distant homeworker chains; cost (increased product prices, and the prospect of expensive implementation); absence/weakness of unions in the sector/homeworkers not being organised.
At the same time, lack of awareness by homeworkers, lack of trust between supply chains,
stakeholders, brands that overlook/do not understand roles played by sub-contractors are also important factors in this regard.
Disclosure and the willingness of factories to open up their sub-contract chains to scrutiny is another key impediment identified in this regard.
The report goes on to add that the major stumbling blocks to transparency are not transparency tools per se, but achieving buy-in from the companies, suppliers and sub-contractors in the informal chains beyond the factory, starting with the most powerful and influential actors within the value chain, who are the retailers and brands at its top.
Some of the brands don’t wish to have homeworkers in their supply chain just to avoid any kind of risk.
Prohibition of homeworking through a no-homeworker policy (or a rigid no sub-contracting policy) acts as an incentive to concealment and a further barrier to transparency. Brands with such policy tell that there are no homeworkers in their chains; that stitching is being done in- house and by machine.
The only solution to this convenient mutual complicity is the adoption of a homeworker policy, which recognises that there may be homeworkers in supply chains and commits to working together with suppliers to raise the conditions of any homeworker whose presence is disclosed.
“The biggest barrier is the perspective of many buyers which has institutionalised a message that homeworking is not tolerated, or a more subtle message that the presence of homeworking will create issues and a lot of work, and these both act as an incentive for suppliers not to mention the presence of homeworkers. Suppliers give the impression that all the production is taking place in the factory, and this is a challenge because it prevents brands from seeing homeworkers making their products,” says Ines Kaempfer, CEO, The Centre for Child Rights and Business.
The report claims that very few brands or auditors go beyond Tier-2, because they don’t want to see the homeworkers. Brands are afraid of finding homeworkers, afraid that if they are present, they won’t be able to ensure compliance with labour standards. They think that keeping track of all the homeworkers, fixing their problems, making sure they are all accounted for is a difficult task.
Steps taken so far in the favour of homeworkers
There are already many tools for homeworkers, especially under the auspices of the ETI Homeworking Project which has a comprehensive range of resources on homeworking.
These tools have been widely adopted, including the Homeworkers Worldwide Child Labour Toolkit; value chain tool for sub-contract homeworker chains; setting fair piece rates for homeworkers (ETI briefing); model homeworker passbook; model product costing spreadsheet; purchase order between sub-contractor & supplier.
Some progress was made both in monitoring piece rates and in raising wages, but several initiatives reported that piece rates to homeworkers had not (or not yet) been raised to the equivalent of the minimum wage.
Following brand-led implementation, many distribution centres are set up by factories for ease of homeworkers and at the same time, common places are identified/managed near to the areas of homeworkers where they can work comfortably.
An organisation like Self Employed Workers Association (SEWA) also has a homeworker-owned distribution centre sub-contracting to factories. Similarly day centres offering schooling and training run by a local NGO are also provided in some clusters to the homeworkers and for their family members.
Community-based ‘bottom-up’ approaches, such as the mapping undertaken within the Hidden Homeworkers project by HNSA and other Hidden Homeworkers partners, by SAVE in Tirupur, and by Cividep, a Bengaluru-based NGO and Homeworkers Worldwide (HWW), UK at the start of their work in the South Indian leather footwear sector, have been successful in accessing homeworkers in global and domestic value chains.
Bottom-up approaches are well placed to provide training and support to homeworkers and to document working conditions, but they often face considerable challenges in identifying the respective brands at the top of the value chain, as homeworkers are often unaware even of the factory that provided their work.
Sub-contractors need to be brought on-board
The roles played by sub-contractors are often overlooked, for example in transporting work, training homeworkers and quality control. They can act as gatekeepers to access the factory’s homeworker chains and need to be reassured that disclosure and implementation will not affect their income. So, sub-contractors are one of the most important parts in the supply chain and it is a must to bring them on-board. At the same time, many vendors are also not on-board, so they also have to be on one track.
The need for substantial investment in building trust is required as the supplier may not trust the intention of NGOs or even the brand, and the same applies to sub-contractors. Strong trust relationships are needed right along the supply chain, to overcome barriers to visibility; these are most convincing if underpinned by long-term and stable commercial relationships.
Guidelines for engaging and trust-building with suppliers, engaging and trust-building with sub-contractors, facilitating conversations and needing assessment from homeworkers, mapping where production is taking place, matching order volumes against factory production capacity, informing and organising homeworkers are some of the suggestions to make new tools as per the report.
At the same time, it insists to ensure functioning IT/digital tools to improve transparency, independent homeworker supply chains as currently more or less it is missing. It may include digital payment to homeworkers, hotline or app for homeworkers to report grievances, digital registration of homeworkers, a pilot to push information to, and get feedback from, homeworkers via mobile phones or blockchain and an app that shows the supply chain of brands, their product and people involved in making those products.
It is worth mentioning here that in remote areas of Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh), digital methods of tracking orders and payments to homeworkers are most helpful as 30 per cent of homeworkers have access to mobile phones. But one should not forget that the literacy level of homeworkers across India is very low and the majority of them are middle-aged women.
All in all, homeworkers are counted but not involved and there is a strong need to completely involve them. As this report says, a small but growing number of the leading fashion and footwear brands, four of which have contributed to this study, have significantly improved both transparency and working conditions for homeworkers within their chains, why can’t others?