Covid-fuelled surge in homeworkers calls for better protection, says ILO

A teleworker in UAE in March 2020 (EPA/Mahmoud Khaled)

A sharp rise in the number of people working from home worldwide due to the pandemic has fuelled the need greater protection and recognition, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said on Wednesday.

The number of homeworkers has increased sharply during the pandemic as many countries imposed lockdown measures and restrictions to stop the spread of infection. Yet even before Covid-19, nearly eight per cent of the global workforce were based at home, with many of them “invisible” or not properly recognised.  In low- and middle-income countries for instance, almost all home-based workers (90 per cent) work informally.

As well as teleworkers, homeworkers also include those involved in producing goods that cannot be automated, such as embroidery or handicrafts. It also includes digital platform workers, who provide services, such as processing insurance claims or copy-editing.

Across the globe, 7.9 per cent of workers were home-based in 2019:

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Source: ILO

Main findings. According to the ILO’s report, “Working from home: From invisibility to decent work”, many homeworkers experience poor working conditions, face greater health risks, and often do not have the same level of social protection as other workers. They also have less access to training, which can affect their career prospects.

In many cases they are usually worse off than those who work outside the home, even in higher-skilled professions. For example, homeworkers earn on average 13 per cent less in the UK; 22 per cent less in the US; 25 per cent less in South Africa and about 50 per cent in Argentina, India and Mexico.

The sector is often poorly regulated and compliance with existing laws remains a challenge, the ILO said. In many instances, homeworkers are classified as independent contractors and therefore excluded from the scope of labour legislation.

“Many countries around the world have legislation, sometimes complemented by collective agreements, that addresses various decent work deficits associated with homework,” said Janine Berg, ILO senior economist and one of the report’s authors.

“Nonetheless, only 10 ILO Member States have ratified Convention No.177, that promotes equality of treatment between homeworkers and other wage earners, and few have a comprehensive policy on homework.”

Women homeworkers outnumber men. More than half (56 per cent) of the world’s 260 million home-based workers are women, with that figure rising to 65 per cent in low-income countries.

“The fact that women are a majority among home-based workers is strongly related to gender roles that result in women shouldering most of the burden of unpaid care work, as well as other cultural norms that make it hard for women to leave the home for work,” the UN agency states in its report.

Surprising fact: India’s largest employer of women homeworkers is not the garment industry, but is, in fact, the rolling of beedi cigarettes, accounting for nearly one quarter of women’s home-based work. Since the 1970s, beedi manufacturers have increasingly shifted the work into households. In 2017–2018, there were an estimated 2.96 million workers employed in the beedi industry, of which 90 per cent worked from home and 2.5 million were women.

Beedi rolling is a particularly problematic occupation due to the occupational safety and health risks of handling tobacco, the ILO highlights in its reports. It is also plagued by abysmally low earnings, estimated at approximately 17 per cent of the annual wages of workers in other manufacturing sectors.

Improving the future of homeworking. While it is still unclear how permanent some of the working patterns adopted during the pandemic will be in the long term, figures for 2020, once released, are expected to show a significant rise. Already, in the first few months of the pandemic, the ILO estimates that one in five workers found themselves working from home.

The organisation’s recommendations for improving conditions for the world’s growing cohort of coworkers include extending legal protections for those in industrial jobs, as well as improving compliance, and providing access to social security.

For teleworkers, the report calls on policymakers to ensure work-life balance is respected and introduce a “right to disconnect”.

Governments, in cooperation with workers’ and employers’ organizations should work together to ensure that all homeworkers – whether they are weaving rattan in Indonesia, making shea butter in Ghana, tagging photos in Egypt, sewing masks in Uruguay, or teleworking in France – move from invisibility to decent work.