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Home-working rises sharply in apparel, footwear industries: ILO

Monira Munni | January 14, 2021 00:00:00

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, working from home has increased notably in the countries, including Bangladesh, with their increased size of apparel and footwear industries, according to a report of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The sharp rise in working from home amid the pandemic has highlighted the poor working conditions experienced by many workers, who, prior to the crisis, numbered an estimated 260 million people worldwide.

In the first months of the pandemic in 2020, an estimated one-in-five workers found themselves working from home.

The ILO in its latest report - 'Working from home: From invisibility to decent work', published on Wednesday - said those working from home need better protection.

"The countries that have increased the size of their apparel and footwear industries - such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Turkey and Viet Nam - have also increased their use of home working," noted the report.

Industrial home work is most associated with the production of clothing, and much of the literature on home work is on the apparel industry.

In 2019, the global apparel industry was valued at over US$ 1.0 trillion, with world exports amounting to $0.5 trillion.

Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Viet Nam are the world's top apparel exporters, directly employing 15 million (registered) workers, the report mentioned.

Home-working is a highly flexible form of production that allows enterprises to respond swiftly to shifts in product demand and reduce costs.

"But this flexibility can come at a high price for home-workers, who bear the brunt of decisions made by employers to reduce or suspend production," according to the ILO report.

When retailers in the United States were forced to temporarily close their doors as a result of the Covid-induced lockdowns, many of them cancelled orders with suppliers in Bangladesh.

The abrupt cancelling of orders has meant that home-workers are no longer receiving tasks. Besides, there are reports of home-workers not being paid for their completed tasks, it noted.

Continued importance of home-working in the apparel industry stems from the labour-intensive production process, which imposes limits on what can be automated.

The constantly evolving nature of fashion and the consumer desire for uniqueness mean that there will always be a need for someone to hand-stitch beads or embroidery, and to do so quickly, the report opined.

These production requirements, coupled with short product cycles and lead times for the ordered goods, mean that clothing manufacturers, whether big or small, must rely on networks of subcontractors, including home-workers, to fulfil orders on time and to the required specifications.

The report also showed that home-workers do not have the same level of social protection as other workers. Besides, they face greater safety and health risks, and have less access to training than non-home-based workers, which can affect their career prospects.

They are also less likely to be part of a trade union or to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

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

They are usually worse off than those who work outside the home, according to the ILO report.

The growth of home-working is likely to continue in the coming years, the report added, bringing renewed urgency to the need to address the issues faced by home-workers and their employers.

"Many countries around the world have legislation, sometimes complemented by collective agreements, that addresses various decent work deficits associated with home-working," said Janine Berg, the ILO senior economist and one of the report's authors.

Nonetheless, only 10 ILO member states have ratified the Convention 177, which promotes equality of treatment between home-workers and other wage earners, and a few have a comprehensive policy on homework, she added.

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