Working From Home: Homeworkers need to be better protected, says the ILO

The dramatic increase in working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the poor working conditions experienced by many homeworkers who, prior to the crisis, numbered an estimated 260 million people worldwide.

(ILO News) – Those working from home, whose number has greatly increased due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, need better protection, says the International Labour Organization (ILO) in a new report.

Since homeworking occurs in the private sphere it is often “invisible”. In low- and middle-income countries for instance, almost all home-based workers (90 per cent) work informally.

They are usually worse off than those who work outside the home, even in higher-skilled professions. Homeworkers earn on average 13 per cent less in the United Kingdom; 22 per cent less in the United States of America; 25 per cent less in South Africa and about 50 per cent in Argentina, India and Mexico.

Homeworkers also face greater safety and health risks and have less access to training than non-home-based workers, which can affect their career prospects.

The report, Working from home. From invisibility to decent work, also shows that homeworkers do not have the same level of social protection as other workers. They are also less likely to be part of a trade union or to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Renewed Urgency
According to ILO estimates, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, there were approximately 260 million home-based workers worldwide, representing 7.9 per cent of global employment; 56 per cent of them (147 million) were women.

They include teleworkers who work remotely on a continual basis, and a vast number of workers who are involved in the production of goods that cannot be automated, such as embroidery, handicrafts, electronic assembly. A third category, digital platform workers, provide services, such as processing insurance claims, copy-editing, or data annotation for the training of artificial intelligence systems.

In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 an estimated one-in-five workers found themselves working from home. Data for the whole of 2020, once it is available, is expected to show a substantial increase on the previous year.

The growth of homeworking is likely to continue in the coming years, the report says, bringing renewed urgency to the need to address the issues facing homeworkers and their employers.

Poorly Regulated with Lack of Compliance

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

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.”
Janine Berg, ILO senior economist and one of the report’s authors

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

Recommendations
The report includes concrete recommendations to make homeworking more visible and thus better protected.

For industrial homeworkers, the report underlines the importance of facilitating their transition to the formal economy by extending legal protections, improving compliance, generalizing written contracts, providing access to social security and making homeworkers aware of their rights.

For home-based, digital platform workers, whose activities raise particular challenges for compliance as they cross multiple borders, the report advocates the use of data generated by their work to monitor working conditions and tools to set fair wages.

For teleworkers, the report calls on policymakers to put in place specific actions to mitigate psychosocial risks and introduce a “right to disconnect”, to ensure respect for the boundaries between working life and private life.

Homeworking is likely to take on greater importance in the years to come, the report says. 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.


Philippines

NOTE: The ILO commissioned country studies including the Philippines on which most of the chapters from the report draw (see bullet points below).

  • The ILO commissioned four country studies – covering Brazil, Ghana, the Philippines and Turkey – of industrial and service-sector home work, on which most of the chapters draw. (page 26)
  • In October 2020, the top ten countries with workers on the five largest English-language online labour platforms, in order of importance, were India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, the United States, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the Philippines, Egypt and Indonesia. (page 121)
  • An ILO survey of 300 online home-based workers in the Philippines found that 14 per cent worked directly for clients, often as “virtual assistants”. The top countries of origin of their clients are the United States, the Philippines, Australia and Canada. Forty per cent of online direct workers surveyed had one client, 42 per cent worked for 2 to 3 clients at the same time and the rest had more clients. Workers are able to handle multiple clients by combining part-time and full-time clients; clients who require different schedules; and clients who do not require a fixed schedule or track working hours. They also subcontract to another person to accomplish some of the tasks or outputs, as is sometimes done in industrial outwork. The job is usually time-based and may be full-time (usually 40 hours a week, 160 hours a month) or part-time, with either fixed or flexible hours. However, even with flexible schedules, there is generally agreement on the minimum hours to be devoted to the job or minimum outputs to be produced daily. (page 123)
  • Online workers in the Philippines surveyed were found to be subject to different forms of monitoring from all or some of their clients. What is ironic about such monitoring is that digital platform workers are classified by online labour platforms as self-employed, who in principle have independence in work processes.  (page 124)
  • Case studies shed light on homeworkers’ working hours as well. A recent study of industrial homeworkers in the Philippines showed that they devote variable hours a day to completing a job order: some work 2–3 hours daily, others 4–6 hours. These hours are distributed between the time spent preparing meals, sending children to school, doing housework and going to church, as well as after the family has gone to bed. When the job order is big and turnaround time for delivery is short, women work through the night with little rest, sometimes for several nights in a row. They may also delegate household chores to their older children and/or spouse. This occasional overload of work may be followed by several months without any work at all. (page 148)
  • In the Philippines, homeworkers are covered by the national social security and health insurance systems only if employers actively register their workers, which in many cases they fail to do. Other workers have to pay voluntary coverage themselves, unless they are entitled through a government-sponsored programme as indigenous people or under the conditional cash transfer programme. Among the 85 homeworkers interviewed for an ILO-commissioned study in 2019, only 22 per cent were currently covered by the national social security system – mostly because they were covered through a spouse, parent or child. A bigger proportion (60 per cent) were covered by PhilHealth (the national health insurance system). The rest were covered by the Government under a conditional cash transfer programme or other schemes. To pay for emergency needs and in some cases just to make ends meet, homeworkers in the Philippines tend to rely on local microcredit schemes, as well as on loan sharks. More than half of the online homeworkers who responded to the ILO survey were voluntary, paying members of the Social Security System, the state national insurance system for workers in the private sector, and PhilHealth, the state health insurance system. In February 2019, the Universal Health Care Act was adopted to cover all Filipino citizens, but it has yet to be implemented. (page 166)
  • Workers’ fear of retribution makes it difficult for unions and NGOs to openly bring homeworkers together.  Moreover, worker awareness regarding labour rights, especially trade union rights, has been found to be low. Fear of organizing has also been found by researchers in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (page 168)
  • The data suggest that if homeworkers need training to complete their tasks or expand the possibilities of what tasks they can take on, they will search for this training on their own.  In the Philippines, more than 40 per cent of the online homeworkers who participated in a survey in 2019 said they had themselves paid to take training courses to better equip themselves for online work. (page 174)
  • Digital homeworkers in the Philippines work on a great variety of tasks, primarily those related to data entry, general virtual assistance, IT and micro-tasks. They are generally more highly educated than the broader population: 61 per cent of online workers hold a bachelor’s degree, versus only 16 per cent for the working-age population. (page 175)
  • All workers, including homeworkers, should benefit from freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Homeworkers’ right to organize is expressly recognized in the Philippines. (page 194)
  • Several countries have established a minimum age for performing home work. In the Philippines, the provisions of the Labour Code and the Child and Youth Welfare Code govern the employment of minors as homeworkers. (page 198)
  • The performance of certain types of home work that entail particular risks for homeworkers may be prohibited (Algeria, France, Italy, Haiti, North Macedonia, the Philippines, Slovenia). (page 200)
  • Time and motion studies may also constitute a way of avoiding excessive workloads – and more importantly, of ensuring that piece rates are not set below the applicable minimum wage. Directives to ensure they are properly conducted have sometimes been established, for example in the Philippines. (page 204)
  • A first approach is to ensure that a minimum floor of remuneration is in place for piece-rate workers. In certain countries, such as Canada (New Brunswick), Indonesia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Madagascar, Morocco and the Philippines, homeworkers’ wages may not be lower than the applicable minimum wage. (page 207)
  • Several countries have legislation that seeks to ensure the fixing of adequate piece-rate wages. In the Philippines, it provides for the establishment of standard output rates through any of the following procedures: time and motion studies, individual or collective agreement approved by the labour authorities or consultation with workers’ and employers’ organizations in a tripartite conference convened by the labour authorities. (page 208)
  • The main requirement is to ensure that wages are paid on time. In the Philippines, Portugal and Thailand payment must be immediate upon delivery of work. (page 209)
  • In the Philippines, the employer may request the homeworker to redo work without any supplementary payment if it is improperly executed. In Mexico, Peru and the Philippines, legal restrictions apply to wage deductions in case materials provided by the employer are lost, destroyed or damaged. (page 209)
  • According to available information, social security protection is provided to homeworkers notably in the following countries including the Philippines (page 212).
  • In the Philippines, legislation only requires the provision of technical assistance to registered homeworkers’ organizations, employers, contractors and subcontractors on skills training. (page 213)
  • Joint liability provisions are also included in the legislation of Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Philippines. (page 217)
  • Numerous legislations on home work provide for penalties in case of breach of their provisions. This is the case, for instance in the Philippines. (page 218)
  • In the Philippines, the best known national homeworkers’ organization is the Pambansang Kalipunan ng mga Manggagawang Impormal sa Pilipinas (PATAMABA). (page 247)
  • The Mariveles Bagmakers Multi-Purpose Cooperative in the Philippines represents a successful example of how industrial homeworkers can, as a collective, remove their economic dependence on subcontractors and intermediaries and forge a direct line to their markets. (page 249)
  • Several governments, including the Philippines and the United Kingdom, have published guidelines on the setting of piece rates (page 257)
  • Homeworkers’ organizations and governments have, on their own or jointly, trained industrial homeworkers in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. (page 266)


Press Release from the International Labour Organization. For more information visit their website at https://www.ilo.org.

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