The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Neither seen nor heard: South Asia's millions of home-based workers

Home-based workers in South Asia number in the tens of millions and are essential to many industries, yet remain invisible and disregarded in urban planning. In the final sector study in our series with WIEGO on urban livelihoods, Shalini Sinha argues that housing upgrades and zoning regulations must be reconceived with a focus on home as workplace.

Cities: Dhaka, Kathmandu, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Islamabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi

Topics: Integrated planning, Housing, Participatory governance, Labour and livelihoods, Community organisation

Shakantala adjusts her loom while weaving an exquisite design in her house in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Photo: Sanjay Kumar
Fareeda embroiders a detailed pattern in the half-light of her home in Delhi. Photo: Sanjay Kumar
Rukan rolls bidis while taking care of her children in her home in Murshidabad, West Bengal. Photo: Sanjay Kumar
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Occupationally diverse, isolated, scattered and virtually invisible, home-based workers barely cast a shadow in the minds of urban planners. Yet addressing their needs is of vital economic importance, especially in South Asia where there are an estimated 50 million home-based workers, 80 per cent of whom are women. In most South Asian countries home-based work accounts for a majority share — 60 to 90 per cent — of selected key export industries such as garments in Bangladesh, footballs in Pakistan, and agarbati and bidi industries in India.

Given the immensity of this labour force and its economic significance, it is vital these workers emerge from the shadows. There are good reasons for policymakers to pay attention to home-based workers: their work has a direct impact on poverty alleviation, and the organised sector is experiencing jobless growth. Most home-based products, such as handicrafts and textiles, have significant employment and export potential.

There are good reasons for policymakers to pay attention to home-based workers ... most home-based products, such as handicrafts and textiles, have significant employment and export potential.

The burdens on home-based workers

Whether they embroider fabrics or assemble micro-electronics, home-based workers occupy the lowest links of value chains, earning little while paying for space, utilities and equipment. Their isolation from other workers makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation by contractors and subcontractors. Irregular work orders, arbitrary rejection of goods and delayed payments are common. And because remuneration is erratic and insufficient, it is difficult to save money to invest in new machinery or training, so productivity suffers.

Compounding these employment challenges are urban infrastructure and housing issues. Many home-based workers toil seven days a week in homes-cum-workplaces that are small, overcrowded and in poor condition. They have little storage space (for raw material or finished goods), natural light or fresh air, and the roofs leak. There is no individual water connection, no drainage, no proper garbage collection, but there are rodents, insects and foul canals. Struggling with these problems can take hours away from productive work. A lack of urban services — electricity, water, sanitation, transportation, etc. — impacts not only the living environment but also the livelihood potential of the home-based worker.

HomeNet South Asia (HNSA), a regional network of home-based worker organisations, recently conducted a study of urban home-based workers in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. In Bangladesh, where home-based workers account for 71 per cent of the non-agricultural female workforce, nearly half of the study respondents in the cities of Jamalpur, Tangail and Dhaka report living in a single room with husband, children and sometimes parents or other relatives. Cramped dwellings mean there is no division between the workspace and the family's living area. This can pose family-wide health concerns when the work involves chemicals or dust, putting children especially at risk.

The supply of electricity, so necessary for home-based work, is often missing, insufficient due to frequent load-shedding (rolling blackouts planned to manage excessive demand), or costly. Illegal connections and arbitrary pricing creates high overhead costs that eat into the earnings of home-based workers. In the HNSA study most respondents in Bangladesh had access to electricity, but these were reported to be primarily illegal connections administered by the vested interests who control the slums — a situation that arises when electrical companies won't supply power to slum dwellers who lack ownership papers. As a consequence electricity bills can vary tremendously, and be unnecessarily exorbitant.

Similarly in Pakistan the study — conducted in Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi — highlighted that interruption of electricity due to load-shedding required workers to use candles. It was reported that the cost of candles skyrocketed when load-shedding gripped the country. In Nepal, similar issues with load-shedding left home-based workers unable to fulfil orders; in some cases orders were cancelled.

In Pakistan, respondents reported poor roads creating a backflow of dirty, contaminated water into homes, damaging goods, tools and supplies and disrupting production. Some respondents complained that this is a chronic theft of income, and workers must devote time to salvaging goods and cleaning. Again, Pakistan's national-level data indicates a high incidence of home-based work among women — 65 per cent of women working in non-agricultural employment are home-based workers.

The home as workplace, as vital economic unit, must be recognised by urban decision-makers. Mixed use zoning regulations should facilitate home-based work.

Finally, occupational health and safety was a critical issue in all countries. Unlike many other poor urban informal workers, home-based workers do not leave for work, so their exposure to slum-related health and environmental threats is unrelenting. Many are also overworked and must maintain uneahlthy postures. Poorly ventilated housing was identified as a serious issue. In Bangladesh, nearly all respondents reported respiratory and other chronic or acute health problems. It is difficult, however, to track home-as-workplace health issues or injuries, since incidents in the home are rarely categorised as workplace incidents.

Policies for improvement

In South Asia, as elsewhere, home-based workers are organising and collectively advocating for their rights, entering into productive dialogues with city officials, urban planners, media and other concerned agencies and institutions. Some are getting real results. In India, for example, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a national labour union of informal women workers, has been a key partner with the city of Ahmedabad in implementing a slum upgrading programme for its members, many of whom are home-based workers. A significant triumph of SEWA's involvement, through its sister organisation Mahila Housing SEWA Trust, has been overcoming property ownership issue by convincing the municipality to create a 'no objection' document that permitted residency without conferring ownership.

When cities turn a blind eye to slum dwellers' need for basic infrastructure services — or worse, clear sums — these practices are a double-edged sword for home-based workers, ravaging both their homes and their livelihood. Powerful stakeholders who have a strong influence on urban public resources, such as corporations and real estate deveopers, further tilt the scales against home-based workers.

The home as workplace, as vital economic unit, must be recognised by urban decision-makers. Mixed use zoning regulations should facilitate home-based work. Accessible, reliable and affordable basic infrastructure services are also critical for home-based workers, particularly women. These workers need a more efficient and equitable approach to regulating land use that provides for their inclusion within the formal policy framework. They need in-situ upgrading of home-workplaces and upgrading of informal settlements as well as targeted, good quality, low-cost housing schemes. Home-based workers also need affordable and accessible transport services. But overall, to gain the right kinds of official support, home-based workers must organise and participate in the formulation of policies and implementation of programmes that affect their lives and work. 


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