Homebased Workers: The invisible heroes of the economy of Bangladesh

Hasina Begum wakes up at 5 am to finish the decoration on textile and garment products. She needs to hand them over to the contractor by 11 am – they’re part of an important order for a global brand. There are no labels and no way of identifying the brand but according to Hasina, the strict timeline and fine quality garment products are proof that the assignment is for a high-end brand.

She has been doing this work for five years and is paid 5 takas for each cloth, but after workers in the long supply chain have worked on it and a fashion label has been sewed on, the garment item will be sold for at least a thousand times more in the global market.

Hasina works for eight to 10 hours a day, then takes care of her ailing parents and two children. She is one of 20,00,000 homeworkers who are part of the supply chain in the garment manufacturing industry in Mirpur, a busy and densely populated area in Dhaka.

According to labor force survey report-2009 published by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), there are around 2 million home-based workers in the country. This represents an increase of 41 percent in the home-based workforce in Bangladesh since 2005-06. But in 2018 the actual figure might be higher. Though the population involved in home-based work is not clearly mentioned in the latest labor force survey report published on October 2015, there is 1,04,30,345 workforce employed as craft and related trades workers including home-based workers where the female share is 38.2 percent.

According to a study conducted across three cities in India and Nepal by HomeNet South Asia, a network of home-based workers, home-based workers labor for 21-29 days a month and earn approximately Tk 3,000 on a piece-rate basis.

Most of these home-based workers are women who spend six to eight hours a day stitching sleeves, sewing buttons, trimming threads, attaching drawstrings, and crafting embroidery.

Home-based work accounts for a significant share of urban employment in Asia (14 percent in India) and a not insignificant share of urban employment in Africa (6 percent in South Africa) and Latin America (3 percent in Buenos Aires). The available data also confirm that most home-based workers are informally employed (60 percent in Buenos Aires, 75 percent in South Africa), and that the vast majority of home-based workers almost everywhere are women (70 percent in Brazil, 80 percent in Ghana). Finally, home-based work comprises a particularly high share of women’s work outside of agriculture, especially in Asian countries.

Home-based Workers (HBWs) are a category of workers who carry-out remunerative work in their own home or adjacent neighborhood or premises.

In Bangladesh, there are two kinds of HBWs: (i) self-employed or own-account workers and contributing family members; and (ii) sub-contracted or piece rate workers, also refers to as HBWs, engaged in the production of goods and services for the market in their home or in nearby areas.

Male and female both can be HBWs. There is no age limit to move in this profession, anyone can involve in this sector.

Usually, they are being contracted by entrepreneurs, businessman, subcontractor, and middleman or under a business organization. Home-based workers fix their wage through verbal discussion with their employers. As a result, there is no relationship between workers and employers. Even there is no linkage with workers to market and the product they produce.

HBWs are the most vulnerable among all kind of informal sector workers in the country. Generally, they remain invisible; even their contribution is not recognized in the national economy. These workers work in the bottom line of supply chain and exploited by contractors in various ways. Home-based workers are out of existing labor law and social protection scheme.

They work behind the public eyes with low wages, lack of security, and deprived of participating social dialogue. Despite these problems, they are contributing to export various product including readymade garments, artisanal craft, showpiece, sporting goods, pharmaceuticals packaging etc.

Home-based work provides a key source of employment for unprivileged women and contributes to the household, national, and global economics. According to Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), there are around 4 million ready-made garment workers in Bangladesh, who got attention from national and international agencies but in contrast, the 2 million home-based workers in textile and garment supply chain become invisible and cannot get attention like formal workers in RMG industry.

Homebased work in Bangladesh are facing series of the problems which are mostly interlinked and multi-dimensional such as out of legal coverage, no wages structure, wages discrimination between men and women HBWs, lack of visibility and low voice in society, no fixed working hour, selling advanced labour, lack of social dialogue scope, exploitation by middlemen and creditor, no leave facility (earn, festival or sick), no maternity benefits, lack of occupational safety & health protection, natural calamity, absence of social security programs and absence of union and collective bargaining rights.

As a result, Home-based workers in Bangladesh are suffering from acute decent work deficit, like as other types of informal sector workers. The basic characteristics of informal sector in Bangladesh are: no policy and legal framework; absence of employer-employee relationship;lack of supply chain accountability, poor wages; long working hour; high occupational health and safety risks; no social protection or safety-net; lack of fundamental rights of the workers at workplaces, low organizing capacity and initiatives by the trade unions etc.

Country’s existing law does not permit home-based workers to form workers welfare association though Bangladesh government has ratified ILO convention 87 and 98. Until now nationally no initiative has been taken to form an organization for HBWs. There is no effective initiative of national policy to protect HBWs basic rights and provide social security.

Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE) chairperson Saki Rezwana said, the government should ratify ILO’s homework convention 177 as a matter of urgency which will be the crucial step to bring home-based workers to incorporate into the country’s labor laws.

Old laws that do not reflect the current realities, laws that may not be pro-poor or recognizing informal economy workers’ rights or lack of enforcement of existing laws & local regulations that can facilitate access to available infrastructure and services are the major challenges for home-based workers.

There is a need for integrated organizing initiative and policy advocacy actions for having special policy measures and legal framework of protecting workplace rights and minimum social protection measures for the HBWs in Bangladesh, and building capacity of informal sector workers organizations in the area of organizing them under the umbrella of trade union / Membership Based Organization (MBO) through different strategic approaches.

To ensure income security, social dialogue scope and gender-based profiled of the HBWs at textile and garments supply chain, the government should recognize them in labor laws as the existing Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 is being amended recently.

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This article has been posted by a News Hour Correspondent. For queries, please contact through [email protected]

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