Home-Based Workers Are Workers! 5 Demands From HBWs In South Asia That Should Be Included In Recovery Plans

“We are struggling for our basic meals and are under a lot of stress.”

These words by Shabnam Shaikh, a home-based garment worker from India’s Ahmedabad, resonate with the lived experience of over 61 million invisible home-based workers from across South Asia. Since the beginning of 2020, when the novel coronavirus started to grab headlines across the globe, home-based workers have had to face monumental struggles to simply ensure survival.

As nation after nation, in the region, declared lockdowns and the sealing of borders, home-based workers – vulnerable players in global and domestic supply chains – lost access to work and the wages that help run their homes and contribute to the education of their children. Their non-recognition as workers meant that they have stayed firmly in the margins, without access to critical social assistance and social protection.

What has this translated to? It has contributed to increased vulnerabilities and inequalities, pushing home-based workers and their families dangerously close to the grips of poverty. It has increased the invisibility of these workers as nations focus wholeheartedly on fulfilling the interests of big businesses on the road to recovery. And it has cast a heavy shadow on the futures of these workers – on their access to decent work, on their ability to keep their children in school, and, most importantly, there is now a question on whether they will survive the pandemic given the inadequate healthcare facilities and the lack of livelihood support.

In South Asia, the odds continue to weigh against vulnerable women home-based workers. Currently, their struggles have only grown as many parts of South Asia are now being ravaged by a second, deadlier wave of the virus.

On the occasion of International Workers’ Day, in May 2021, home-based workers (HBWs) across South Asia joined voices with their sisters and brothers from other the world to share their experiences almost one year after the start of the pandemic and in putting forth their most urgent demands in order to survive the pandemic. Here are five key demands:

“Recognise Us As Workers And Include Us In Decision Making Processes.”

Simply put, there can be no true recovery without recognising every worker and their needs. The pandemic has shed a harsh light on the glaring inequalities in the modern world. It has shown that those at the bottom of the pyramid – home-based workers, waste pickers, street vendors, and domestic workers – are, in fact, essential workers and are a lifeline to the functioning of our daily lives and our economies. During the COVID-19 crisis, home-based workers have been involved in producing PPE for frontline workers and masks for the general public.

Yet, they linger in the shadows. Home-based workers – a majority of whom are women – are particularly disadvantaged, as they have no formal recognition as workers. Governments, across South Asia (except two provinces in Pakistan) have failed to recognise women home-based workers as economic contributors and have also not addressed the vulnerabilities that they face. In the post-pandemic phase, this has only contributed to the aggravation of the challenges faced by home-based workers. Their low wages have either completely dwindled to a naught or have gotten lower, they faced increased violence in supply chains, and they have next to no government support. For this to change, it is important the governments recognise home-based workers as workers whose labour rights are non-negotiable. Governments also need to work with home-based workers and their representative organisations, including them in decision-making and implementation processes. This will not just prove to be effective but will ensure that COVID-19 aid and interventions swiftly reach those at the bottom of the pyramid.

“Provide Us With Adequate Livelihood Support.”

A study conducted by HNSA on the impact of COVID-19 on home-based workers in South Asia has shown that 80% of home-based workers completely lost their incomes during the lockdowns. Even after lockdowns eased, only a small percentage of workers were able to access work at all. Homeworkers – who are one category of home-based workers - operate in domestic and global supply chains. With the breakdown of these supply chains, these workers are facing grave uncertainties. Global markets will not recover in the immediate future, leaving homeworkers without access to work. In this scenario, governments will have to throw their weight behind local supply chains – stimulating the domestic market – and supporting homeworkers in these supply chains.

Pre-pandemic, South Asia has also led the way – creating cooperatives and producer companies that link homeworkers directly to markets. During the pandemic, these cooperatives and producer companies have reimagined their supply chains to ensure continued work. However, in the face of an enormously crippling crisis, even these cooperatives and producer companies are facing challenges. On one hand, work orders have dwindled and, on the other, stockpiles are increasing because of the lack of market. Governments will have to prioritise these organisations, ensuring their access to markets by helping them procure work orders or by providing them with work orders. They will have to be boosted with soft loans that help them sustain themselves while also skilling their workforce to take up new work opportunities.

Own-account workers, the other category of home-based workers, face lack of access to markets and raw materials that have no become more expensive. Here too, Governments will have to boost these workers with soft loans, reduced taxes on raw materials, and by opening up marketing avenues.

“Social Protection Is A Must.”

Even though they are one of the most vulnerable categories of informal workers, home-based workers, in most South Asian countries, are not extended social protection as home-based workers. They are, however, included in the social assistance programmes that are directed towards the poor and vulnerable. But often, these programmes are poorly implemented, are not easily accessible (often involving a lot of paperwork) and do not adequately address the needs of home-based workers. States need to acknowledge that social protection is a right of home-based workers, given their immense contributions to industries, big and small. Governments will also have to increase pressure on employers to cover home-based workers under their social security stipulations. The onset of the pandemic saw governments scrambling to protect those in need and also making huge expenses from exchequers to cover these workers. However, governments need to realise that extending social protection to its most vulnerable workers from the get-go can not just help mitigate a humanitarian crisis but will also prove to be less of a burden on the government in the long run. Social protection is merely an investment that helps guard national interests when a crisis like a pandemic erupts. Building back better, undoubtedly, means universal social protection that offers the most assistance to those in need!

“Help Us Access Reliable Healthcare.”

When it comes to social protection, universal healthcare – that is of quality and is accessible - is a key ask by South Asia’s home-based workers. With the second wave, it has become amply clear that in countries, like India, the increasing privatisation of healthcare has led to thousands being cut off from medical care. Governments need to realise that home-based workers are particularly susceptible to the disease since they often live in crowded settlements and while they work from in and around their homes, they also use public transport and move around when sourcing work. Additionally, vaccinations for home-based workers – who are part of the vulnerable populations in South Asian countries – should be prioritised. They also need to be provided with free testing, PPEs, hospital beds, oxygen and medical facilities.  Currently, due to the pervasiveness of misinformation about the vaccines, home-based workers are often hesitant to get inoculated. It is up to governments to work with organisations on the ground along with medical professionals to address the concerns of its citizens and ensure they have free access to life-saving vaccines.

“Engage With HBW Representative Organisations”

In country after country, across South Asia, organised home-based workers have managed to brave the pandemic better than those who have not been organised. Representative HBW organisations, including, trade unions, cooperatives and producer companies, and rights-based NGOs were quick to lead from the front and have been instrumental in supporting home-based workers. In many countries, it is the organisations who have delivered where governments failed. While rebuilding, Governments need to engage with these organisations and build partnerships with them to ensure that no one is left behind in the post pandemic world.

The demands put forth by marginalised home-based workers are neither new nor outlandish. They merely ask that the States enforce rights and remedies that are already owed to them as citizens. Recognition of workers, the nurturing of worker-led enterprises, access to social protection, and the right to organise are all the building blocks of a just world and lead the way to a bright future for nations across South Asia.