Homeworkers are people who work for money in their own homes. Home-based work (also known as homework) takes place all over the world and most home-based workers are women. Many women from migrant communities work as homeworkers in London and in the major cities of Northern England and Scotland.
There are two main types of homeworkers in the UK:
- Dependent homeworkers who receive components from a main contractor and then add further processing, finishing or packing, eg sticking together the uppers and soles of shoes; hand embroidery on garments; ironing and finishing shirts;
- There are also own account workers who make goods like handicrafts or soap and try and sell it to other people or who cook food such as samosas or chapattis for local restaurants or shops in countries other than in the UK. There is also a growing demand for white-collar home-based work including telesales or data compilation.
In the UK there has been a long struggle for homeworkers to be recognised as workers and to have the benefit of labour protection law, such as minimum wages or health and safety regulations. However, this has been difficult to achieve since homeworkers are usually in a precarious position, particularly if they are dependent on an employer for their work: if they complain, they may find that they have no more work.
Instead, homeworkers are treated as “self employed” and the government assumes for the purposes of working out tax credit or benefits that such workers earn the minimum wage for a full week’s work in spite of the fact that most work on piece rate and are paid according to how much they produce.
Home-based workers are often not able to join trade unions but there have been important organisations of homeworkers in the UK such as Homeworkers Worldwide.
In 1996, the International Labour Organisation adopted a Convention and Recommendation on Home work (No. 177). This marked a successful end of a long international struggle for recognition for homeworkers and set minimum standards of their employment. The UK has not ratified this convention.
Homeworkers in the UK are in theory treated as ‘employees’ if they are receiving work from an employer and not marketing their own products. In practice, however, it is difficult for them to assert that they are employees with normal workers' rights. Whether an employee or not, however, they are entitled to be paid minimum wages: the piece-rate that they are paid is supposed to work out as equivalent to the hourly minimum rate of pay.
Many of the other workers’ rights such as annual leave, are however dependent on the status of being an employee. Homeworkers are in practice excluded from this status and therefore find themselves in limbo with no clear legal position.
Limitations and directions for the future
Although there is in theory some legal protection for homeworkers, in reality this is difficult to achieve. Their work is often irregular and informal, in the sense that there is no contract and they rely on friendly relations with customers, intermediaries or employers. They have no health and safety protection and all members of the family can be affected, for example by dust from cloth or toxic glues.
It is unlikely that home-based work will go away. On the contrary, it has been expanding all over the world. In times of economic crisis and high unemployment we can expect that more and more women find new ways to earn money at home to meet the basic living expenses of their families. But because they work at home they are often seen as “only housewives”!