Home-Based Workers Rights

July 24, 2014
By Jenny Li Fowler

Home-based workers—those who produce goods or services for the market from their own homes—represent a significant share of the workforce and contribute to national economies, especially in Asia, and governments should do more to measure their economic contributions, increase their productivity, and protect them from harm. That is the conclusion of a new research paper authored by Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Martha Chen.

Home-based workers are engaged in many sectors from labor-intensive manufacturing (stitching garments, shoes, and footballs) to more capital-intensive manufacturing (assembling electronics, packaging pharmaceuticals, stitching airplane seats) to trade and services (selling prepared food, doing laundry). In her paper titled, “Informal Economy Monitoring Study Sector Report: Home-Based Workers,” Chen offers several policy lessons learned from a study of home-based workers in three Asian cities.

The report presents evidence on the systemic drivers shaping working conditions for home-based workers in three cities - Ahmedabad, India; Bangkok, Thailand; and Lahore, Pakistan - notably:

  • Inflation, particularly in Ahmedabad and Lahore, where double-digit inflation in recent years has driven up costs for food, health care, and education.
  • Deficits in basic infrastructure - especially supply, quality, and cost of electricity and transport - which limit production and increase costs for home-based workers.
  • The difficulty of bargaining with contractors, suppliers and customers, in part because of the isolation of working at home.

For home-based workers, whose homes are their workplaces, basic infrastructure services are crucial to their productivity, Chen writes. Therefore, she concludes, “if and when-home based workers and their families have to be relocated, efforts should be made to ensure the relocations sites have, from the outset, adequate shelter, basic infrastructure, transport services, and access to markets.”

Another lesson Chen writes, “is that home-based workers need legal rights and protections against unequal, and often, exploitative value chain practices and relationships.” This is particularly the case for home-based workers who work under sub-contracts on a piece rate for domestic and global value chains.

A final policy lesson, Chen reports, “is that home-based workers and their activities are impacted by macroeconomic trends and policies. Efforts should be made to increase the visibility of home-based workers and their output in the official labor force and other economic statistics.”

Martha Chen is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), an affiliated professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and international coordinator of the global research-policy-action network, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). Her areas of specialization are employment, gender, and poverty with a focus on the working poor in the informal economy.

Print print | Email email
Martha Chen, lecturer in public policy

Martha Chen, lecturer in public policy

Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

"Efforts should be made to increase the visibility of home-based workers and their output in the official labor force and other economic statistics.”