Can We Afford To Un-See The Seen?
Updated: Feb 28
Your favourite piece of clothing is not simply ‘Made in some country’, it is put together by thousands of invisible and often exploited hands.
The unsparing impact of COVID-19 has made us witness the existence of this non-transparent supply chain of the apparel industry. Despite years of advocacy, it took a pandemic to bring the voices from the margins to the media.
In unprecedented times we forget that for a large part of the population ‘HOME’ may not be safe and neither is the luxury of social distancing possible.
The lens of Home based workers (HBWs) is one such example we want to discuss.
While it is difficult to get an exact figure of HBWs but it is estimated that there are around 37.4 million HBWs in India and around 5 million in the garment and textile supply chain.
There are two types of HBWs;
a) Own account workers: The ones who have access to raw materials and markets but face lofty challenges in terms of access to finance, raw material and markets.
b) Piece rate workers: The ones who depend on sub-contracts to get them work and are paid based on the number of pieces they finish in a given day.
There is no clear proportion to indicate how many HBWs fall in each category. Moreover, depending upon the availability of work an own account worker can take on the role of a piece rate worker. These workers may be highly skilled embroiders to unskilled thread trimmers.
Majority of HBWs tend to be women and these women lie at the intersection of vulnerabilities.
Is home-based work the same as work from home? NO. Do women usually choose to be HBWs?NO. “Home based work is a ‘feminised’ profession, and it is not necessarily by choice. Unlike men, women cannot just rid themselves of their domestic responsibilities; be it fetching water to performing round the clock household work to being the care-taker of every house member, especially the children and the elderly. There are also severe mobility issues faced by women, imposed by the patriarchal families or because of lack of safe public transport system. So, being a HBW usually is a choice made as a result of circumstances.”(Janhavi Dave, HomeNet South Asia).
Some may say that women being able to work and earn money from home is an advantage but the other side of the coin indicates that she is limited to being a HBW because of the restriction of movement imposed on her due to certain anachronistic norms or simply a lack of proper public transportation.
COVID-19 has made us transform our ways of living especially with the words ‘stay home stay safe’ echoing everywhere. What about HBWs? Is it really a case of ‘stay home stay safe’ for them?
Devastating Impact of COVID-19 on HBWs
For these HBWs working and living in tiny places meant for the whole family, with little or poor lighting, ventilation, locality based (not individual house) common sanitation facilities, the ‘social distancing’, therefore, is a luxury. Against this backdrop, with reduced to no work, the HBWs living condition just got even more fragile “When the lockdown started, there has been a huge urge from HomeNet South Asia and their network members to open up the government helplines and some of the network members opened up their own helplines as well due to increasing cases of domestic violence.” (Janhavi Dave, HomeNet South Asia)
Domestic violence can be any form of physical, verbal or sexual abuse. With the lockdown resulting in family members confined all the time under the same roof, there has been a sharp surge in the cases of domestic violence. With the confinement frustration, worries of money, health, and livelihood acting as triggers, many women locked in with their abusers have, inexcusably so and with nowhere to go, become punching bags.
In India, the National Commission of women has set up receipt of complaints through WhatsApp (+91 7217735372); not many women have access to independent phones nor do they know about the availability of such an aid. With such aid measures not being able to reach and serve each at-risk individual, is perhaps yet another example of the wide gap that exists between the policies made and its target beneficiaries. Exacerbating all of this are the unfortunate societal norms that do not always recognise the abuse as abuse (such as verbal abuse)and some forms of abuse still go unchecked as they are wrongly accepted as normalised behaviour.
Picture source: https://twitter.com/NCWIndia
The HBWs who are aware and do raise complaints, are faced with non-action from the police as they are understaffed and overstretched responding to COVID-19 lockdowns.
Order cancellations and due payments
The HBWs payment is much lower than the mandated minimum wage with the payment being estimated at Rs 86 for women HBWs and Rs 182 for men. However, being the payments can range anywhere from INR 50 to 250 per day as it is a huge range and largely depends on the nature of work which is seasonal. So workers may have work one month, but may not have it for the next two months. Usually March-April is a peak season of work for them that in 2020 is a missed opportunity.
“Work for HBWs started reducing in last week of January and completely stopped in the 1st week of March..(Rakesh Supkar, Traidcraft India, Janhavi Dave, HomeNet South Asia).
It is not just the lack of work but undelivered payment as well. “Any payment due for work finished in the preceding months also came to a sudden stop due to the lockdown. HBWs are by and large paid in cash, and with the restriction of movement due to the lockdown these payments for the previously done work is also blocked.” (Rohan Preece, Traidcraft India).
Order cancellations from the EU and US based fashion brands due to the economic impact of COVID-19 has resulted in no payment to the tier-1 suppliers who in turn pay the sub agents/contractors through whom finally the payment comes to HBWs. “Lack of payment from the top has resulted in no payment to this bottom most category who have no social security to rely on but on this earned money.” (Rakesh Supkar, Traidcraft India)
Health, housing, safety, food.
For HBWs the preventive measures of social distancing, staying home to staying safe, washing hands frequently are not realistic. “As one of our network member from Dharavi conveyed, the houses in Dharavi are extremely small and not all facilities are inside the house. It is impossible to access toilets, without crossing the road as these are common toilets. With individuals’ movements restricted by Police and even prevented by using means like brutality, how is a person supposed to access anything?” (Janhavi Dave, HomeNet South Asia)
Another sphere of informal work that is plagued by several issues is working from informal locations such as illegal factories with no fire and safety measures or any proper facilities serving as working and living space for many informal workers.
Another concern is food; while the government has put in schemes e.g. allotted fixed amount of food through ration shops, the awareness around exact details of schemes (e.g. if 5 kgs of rice is allowed for one whole family or per person of a family?) have been an issue as well as the adequate supplies in the ration shops. Then, In places like Tiruppur, large number of migrant workers stranded and prohibited from leaving, are dependent on the cooked meals provided by humanitarian and religious charitable organisations and there is no way to predict for how long can this continue for.
The conditions amidst COVID-19 is hard enough for the HBWs; will the future, once this pandemic comes to an end, offer any relief?
Future of Home based workers
Home-based work is usually inconsistent and dependent on a variety of factors, but with COVID-19 it is predicted that HBWs may go without work for 6 months or more. “There are various businesses who use the services of HBWs, of different sizes, including some niche boutiques, but with COVID-19, these are also possibly going to be shut for some time or otherwise operationally very affected, which in turn will cut the source of livelihood for HBWs.” (Rohan Preece, Traidcraft India) “With more than 50% of orders getting cancelled now, future of HBWs is very uncertain for at least next 6 months or so.” (Rakesh Supkar, Traidcraft India)
Future of the HBWs also looks to become even more invisible and their existence pushed underground. “Brands will look to turn their losses around and as a consequence tier-1 supplier will be under pressure and desperate to take on any orders even with drastically reduced margins, which although may push the work to the HBWs but only with reduced piece rates and without any form of security at all. The brands that acknowledge the HBWs presence in their supply chains are also likely to re-evaluate their priorities. Such is the exploitative nature of the supply chains, so the possibility of hidden HBWs becoming even more hidden is a huge possibility.”(Janhavi Dave, HomeNet South Asia).From the perspective of a HBW too, after months of no-work, an opportunity to earn, however a meagre amount, will most likely push them to accept any conditions attached with it. This can mean a grim reality; the invisible HBWs will be pushed into further invisibility and consequently increase workers pledging their services for a pre-acquired debt in these unprecedented times.
Are there no opportunities at all under this threat?
How can the different stakeholders respond to this, especially it is likely that COVID-19 is probably not going to be the last pandemic we are going to face?
Under the ‘Hidden homeworkers’ project, which is a collaboration between Traidcraft (from India and the UK), Homeworkers Worldwide, and HomeNet South Asia they are looking at ways to engage and interact with apparel and footwear brands addressing this vulnerability and making them aware of their responsibilities especially under the ‘United Nations guiding principles on Business and Human rights’. This project further recognises the role of state to be critical and aims to advocate for a national policy for HBWs.“ There are brands that recognise HBWs as part of their core identity, some others are aware of its existence in their supply chains and finally those that completely ban them and deny HBWs existence. Worst is the banning of HBWs by the brands as it results in suppliers hiding details of subcontracting to HBWs. This makes the supply chains even more non-transparent and contributes to the continuation of exploitation of the HBWs.”(Rohan Preece, Traidcraft India).
Rohan Preece (Traidcraft India) further thinks that this is an opportune time to build a case for social security as the consequences of its absence — such as migrant workers walking back to their native places due to inaccessibility to social security — helps put the argument in a firm perspective.
Janhavi Dave (HomeNet South Asia) says that firstly, they (HomeNet South Asia and its member organisations) will keep pushing the efforts for the HBWs not to become even more hidden especially as a result of this crisis. There will be a renewed focus on working on domestic supply chains. Further, she hopes that the government focuses on redesigning urban spaces and finds ways to improve them to optimally deal with crises like these. She also thinks that this is good time to think and act towards the improvement of accessibilities to basic services like water, uninterrupted electricity, better housing conditions for HBWs.
Rakesh Supkar (Traidcraft India) is keen on addressing the issue with some immediate measures like connecting the HBWs with businesses that are manufacturing masks and protective gears so that there is some relief in offer but not without first addressing the safety of the workers with protective measures (wearing masks, social distancing) and ensuring they are not overworked and underpaid.
Lakshmi Bhatia (Strategic advisor, Business and Human Rights and Facilitator, Women in Value Chains working group) feels as a result of loss in business from overseas market and a possible low global demand post crisis, there might be an increased focus on the domestic market revival but this could take time. As a result, there is going to be a lot of joblessness which the government and other stakeholders must collectively address in the most urgent manner. In the immediate terms, the pressure has to be maintained on the global brands and retailers to honour their ongoing contractual obligations and support the first tier suppliers with work and timely payments. The suppliers must then ensure that the wages and payments down the supply chain are met.
One way forward may be bringing HBWs into the policy space, enabling engagement with labour courts where the homeworker and her conditions are heard, by extending the social , even looking at the possibility of a universal basic income, they are looking at probable ways to safeguard them especially in crisis situations like the one we are facing right now.
As we conclude, we would like to bring back your favourite piece of clothing with the neat ‘made in some country’ label. Post Pandemic, brands will most likely focus on enticing the consumers to buy much more than before as a means to turn the losses around. One of the ways to do so is through competitive retail prices, which may also sit well with the then consumer spending ability.
However, the efforts put in to make the fashion industry fair, transparent and traceable has been largely made possible due to the consumer response to various awareness campaigns.
Consumerism is most likely to be a huge factor in countering with the global economic repercussion as a result of COVID-19 and, it may even be natural for some, that after months of lockdown, all of us are going to be tempted to indulge a little. Fashion as always will have some of the best options to offer for us to indulge in; But, how do we plan to respond as consumers? Do we plan to indulge and consume blindly? Will we easily accept the “unbelievable prices” on offer and forget all about the ones who suffered in making that possible?
Picture source: https://www.tedxubud.com/blog/147742155305
Or, When we eventually do step back to normalcy (or the ‘new normalcy’), could we not only be the indulging but also the responsible consumers in-turn urging the brands to be responsible producers? So, that next time your favourite piece of clothing is not made by invisible HBWs instead comes with a tag that says ‘Made by [worker’s name] from [country]’ and perhaps even with a picture.
THANK YOU: This piece would not have been possible without the insightful interactions with experts, Janhavi Dave (International Coordinator, HomeNet South Asia) Rakesh Supkar (India Business Head, Traidcraft India), Rohan Preece (Business and Human Rights Manager, Traidcraft India) and Lakshmi Bhatia (Strategic advisor, Business and Human Rights and Facilitator, Women in Value Chains working group).
HomeNet South Asia- Learn here; https://hnsa.org.in
With their presence in all 8 South Asian countries and efforts focused especially on betterment of women home based workers, HomeNet South Asia leads the way in showcasing the challenges as well as the solutions that can be implemented to improve the lives of women home based workers.
Traidcraft — Learn here; https://traidcraftexchange.org/what-we-do
Traidcraft India, part of the UK-based international NGO Traidcraft Exchange, works with and on behalf of vulnerable workers in a range of supply chains, including the textiles sector, agriculture, and homeware and hard goods. We focus in particular on informal workers, small producers and have a strategic priority on women’s empowerment. Traidcraft India recognises the enormity of the challenge surrounding the informal workers and has been actively investing in creating relations with CSOs who especially work with women workers in the supply chain, local NGOs and organisations like the ILO.
Hidden homeworkers project - It is an active project with the objective of “Improving Transparency and Traceability to Improve Working Conditions of Homeworkers in Apparel and footwear chain”. The project is spread over different locations around the world with multiple stakeholders and aims to benefit 21,000 home workers directly. HomeNet South Asia, Traidcraft Exchange along with Homeworkers worldwide are the lead implementation partners of this project. And, this project is co-funded by the European Union.
Women in Value Chains (WIVC)- The Women in Value Chains Working group was set up in 2017 as a platform for civil society and other multilateral agencies who are genuinely interested in issues relating to gender and livelihood, in the formal & informal parts of the apparel, footwear & agro value chains. The challenges facing women workers are complex and vast in a country of India’s size and population and the lack of transparency in most global value chains is another additional challenge. The WIVC working group focuses on these issues thru research & advocacy, programmatic partnership opportunities, and is a robust support group for each of its members in terms of knowledge sharing and capacity building.
We, Humanrights solutions under its pillar of Ladylike, support the cause of spreading awareness about the impact of COVID-19 on the invisible workforce especially the impact on women workforce to help generate human centric solutions. Contact us for more details.
This article can also be read on our Medium page.