When you picture a garment worker, what image comes to mind? Most of us would think of a woman in a factory, working at a sewing machine, surrounded by hundreds of otherss doing the same.
We rarely consider the people producing clothing out of their home, yet, homeworkers make up around 30% of garment workers in the fashion industry today. Their job may be identical to work typically done in a factory, or it may be a specialised skill that factories subcontract the homeworker to do, including embroidery, sewing intricate buttonholes and pockets, or delicate lace and thread.
These workers are part of the informal (often invisible) workforce which, according to the ILO, represents 90% of total employment in low-income countries. Many turn to informal work to earn an income and escape poverty, but their wages rarely make this possible – instead perpetuating exploitative conditions in vulnerable communities.
Ensuring the rights and safety of homeworkers is extremely difficult, as work takes place inside homes, with people working in isolation or with a small number of other workers. Homeworkers often work for even lower pay than those working in factories and are employed without formal contracts, making them ineligible for legal protection of their labour rights. Because of this, homeworkers have almost no power to negotiate their working conditions or wages.
Women comprise the majority of those employed in homeworking situations. Also found in the informal workforce are children, migrant workers, informal or temporary workers, and workers trapped in modern slavery or human trafficking. Because of the nature of informal employment, oversight is minimal, meaning these more vulnerable types of garment worker are easier to exploit.
The coronavirus crisis has only served to exacerbate these issues. If there is a downturn in available work, the owners of these informal businesses are under no obligation to continue to pay wages or to provide any sort of protection for their workers. If they continue to be able to work, homeworkers are unlikely to be able to social distance themselves or to access personal protective equipment. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, homeworkers were already extremely vulnerable to contracting illnesses, with a high likelihood of either dying due to a lack of healthcare or being forced into deeper situations of poverty from medical bills. As coronavirus continues to spread around the world, those employed in the informal workforce face even higher risks to their own health, and to the health of their families and communities.
What can fashion companies do?
Homeworkers are often the invisible element of a fashion supply chain as they are difficult to trace, and, therefore, difficult to monitor. Homeworkers are not typically a clothing company’s main supplier and are more likely to be subcontracted by a factory to produce part of an order or be subcontracted by a subcontractor of the main factory. They are hidden from view.
For this reason, companies need to be extremely vigilant – where a supplier makes a promise to deliver a clothing with a cost, timeframe, or quantity that seems too good to be true, then it probably is! This should signify to the clothing company that their supplier is likely contracting some of the order to another facility with lower labour rights standards.
Where factories are unable to produce one part of an order, or organise (with the brand’s knowledge) for another facility or skilled worker to deliver it, subcontracting can be a helpful and productive way to produce clothing… but where it is completed without a company’s knowledge, for too cheap a cost or too quick a turnaround, it is likely that exploitation is occurring somewhere in the fashion supply chain.
What can I do?
We all have a part to play in striving to improve conditions for garment workers, including you! While working within your means, advocate with your wallet and try to purchase clothes from brands you know have strong systems in place to protect and support the labour rights of garment workers.
And now that you understand the issues homeworkers face, share your knowledge with someone else! As we advocate for companies to support all workers in their supply chain, we need to broaden our understanding of what a typical garment worker might look like. Together, we can ensure the issues faced by homeworkers are considered, as we advocate for labour rights progress in the fashion industry.