The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has collectively shifted our focus to our house as a place of work, living, and socializing. While this shift came without warning for us, the concept of home doubling as a workplace is not new to 41.85 million workers in India who identify themselves as “home-based workers” or homeworkers. They form a major portion of India’s informal economy, producing goods for the domestic and global markets. They stitch garments, undertake lace-cutting, roll agarbattis, weave textiles, craft kites, and much more. They are distinct from domestic and other informal workers owing to the nature of work that restricts them to in and around their home, barring travel to collect raw materials or deliver finished goods.
As work-from-home has grabbed the attention of the general public, policy experts, and decision-makers, we are now in a position to understand the complexities of home-based workers. The difficulty of overlapping living and working spaces has never before been highlighted to all sections of society. Home, for these invisible and underpaid workers, is not only a shelter but directly related to their economic productivity.
This duality expands their challenges beyond the physical construct of the limited space available to a system that discourages home-run businesses among the poor. The lack of adequate quality of homes coupled with a deficit in housing and infrastructure policies have a direct bearing on their economic condition. Moreover, unlike in a formal setting where the employer supports the cost of production, electricity, and water connections, home-based workers incur additional costs to run their household and livelihood activities.
“We didn’t have water so we had to queue up for 2 to 3 hours. Now that we have it at home it has saved our time and I can do more work.” claims a resident form Sanjaynagar, Ahmedabad while studying the impact of the Parivartan Programme.
Even though home-based work is a source of employment for both men and women, 31.7% of the total home-based workers in India are women as compared to men, who constitute 11%. This data highlights a broader trend of women multitasking household and livelihood activities. When the boundaries between living and workspace blur for labor-intensive work, the occupations’ ill-effects hamper the entire family, including children and the elderly. They face the added issue of inadequate storage of raw materials, finished goods, and equipment. They make-do with available space and tools that result in occupational hazards like strained eyes, swollen legs, and back pain.
“My legs pain and my feet swell. I am not able to do work for at least three-four days in a month and there is a loss of income during those days” — As noted by a garment worker in the Ahmedabad focus group study.
Additionally, home-based work is mostly an isolated profession, with women working as sub-contracted or self-employed workers on a piece-rate basis. The inability to engage with other homeworkers in their community sets them back from mobilizing their needs. The lack of a collective identity handicaps them from advocating for their requirements and aspirations to the governing bodies. It indicates a gap that exists between the home-based worker community and our institutions.
Even in the larger concept of regional planning and development, the home-based workers have remained outside the purview of participatory planning. Our development controls advocate for strict separation of all land uses, ignoring the potential benefits of mixing some compatible uses. Matthias Nohn, an urban economist and development planner, in his paper titled “Mixed-Use Zoning and Home-Based Production in India”, outlines the advantages of promoting a balanced mix of land uses. This reduces the cost of transportation, essential services, and insecurity of home-based workers by encouraging a lucrative living and working environment.
Action Towards Home-Based Work in India
In India, the collective voice of home-based workers is at a nascent stage. It is increasingly gaining momentum through platforms created by grassroots level initiatives. Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is one such organization that empowers women with representation in the policy-making and decision-making landscape. Their integrated approach includes capital formation and creating assets, like a bank account, land, houses, and equipment, in the woman’s name. It thereby provides access to financial services to build up their businesses.
Mahila Housing Trust (MHT), a sister organization within the umbrella of SEWA, further supports the empowerment process by extending technical assistance specific to the livelihood- by building additional rooms, shifting to the energy-efficient system, or designing furniture that meets the occupational requirements.
More recently, in Delhi’s’ roadmap to the future, there has been active engagement to include home-based workers in the city’s Master Plan for 2041. Main Bhi Dilli Campaign, an effort by 40 organizations in Delhi, is advocating for the needs of the underrepresented sections of the community. They have outlined recommendations for home-based workers to increase protection and recognize them as a distinct group whose basic housing needs to be catered immediately. Such initiatives set the stage for developing policies that can protect the poorly-connected community of home-based workers and encourage social actors to build on it.
Conclusion and way forward
To tackle poor housing quality and inadequate infrastructure services, home-based workers need a foundation that enables them to ask for their needs. The action needs to go beyond the State’s ad-hoc grants and schemes, and it should position itself as an efficient facilitator. They should embrace the trust that community-level organizations hold and join hands with them.
With a widespread public health scare, we are in a better position to re-think how and where we work. Now, when we think of work-from-home, let us acknowledge the spectrum of workers and the close connection of labor to the immediate habitat. The way to bring forth the collective voice of this community is by empowering them through schemes that can leverage the existing channels for social and economic improvement. With women forming the majority of home-based workers in India, enabling them and promoting better living and working conditions can improve the female labor force participation (LFPR). Recognizing their role as key to national GDP and the global supply chains will help to fill the void of an overarching policy to safeguard them.