Burden of unpaid care work and lack of time for home-based workers
Homeworkers remain invisible to state policies, programs and the public eye. They figure nowhere in the popular understanding of productive labor. Since most home-based workers work away from home, their work, effort, and time spent go unnoticed. Moreover, since the workplace itself is the home, escape from unpaid care work is inevitable.
Homeworkers remain invisible to state policies, programs and the public eye. They figure nowhere in the popular understanding of productive labor. Since most home-based workers work away from home, their work, the effort and the time they put into it are not noticeable. Moreover, since the workplace itself is the home, escape from unpaid care work is inevitable.
Who are homeworkers?
The Independent Group defines homeworkers as (a) own-account workers and contributing family workers assisting own-account workers involved in the production of goods and services at home for the market and (b) workers engaged in work from their home for pay, resulting in a product or service as specified by the employer(s), regardless of who provides the equipment, materials or other inputs used, and family workers assisting such workers.
Homeworkers are engaged in labour-intensive manual economic activities and capital-intensive or information-intensive professional or administrative services. Homeworkers are near the bottom of the labor chain in India, but are not a homogeneous group. Examples of these activities are the sewing of clothes, the preparation of shoe uppers, the manufacture of incense sticks, the rolling of beedies, laundry services, the assembly of electrical outlets or electronic components, professional and technical consulting and data entry, processing and analysis services offered to individuals and businesses.
Although labor market participation rates for women are lower than for men in most countries, more women than men work from home globally; the share of women is 57% against 43% for men. Social restrictions do not prohibit women from working, but they prohibit them from working outside the home. The sexual division of labor leads to unrecognized and precarious jobs.sexual division of the workspace‘.
Homework is primarily piecework; therefore, every minute spent working is essential to earning a substantial income. According to a statistical note by WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, a global research and policy network focused on improving the conditions of workers in the informal economy), in 2020 more than half (53%) of women home-based workers worked up to 36 hours per week working from home alone; more than a quarter (29%) of women work 43 hours or more. The average working week of women working from home is significantly lower than that of men in both urban and rural areas: an average of 38.5 hours for all women and 55.5 hours for all men.
Feminists have long challenged the public-private bifurcation of work, where wage labor within a defined workspace is accorded higher value. Recognizing the importance of unpaid housework and women’s care work, without which the productivity of wage labor would suffer, feminists sought to redefine concepts such as ‘work’ and ‘labour’. Historically, workers attempt to maintain the 8x8x8 (work x leisure x rest-sleep) division of a day, while capitalists attempt to steal workers’ leisure and rest time. For women who work from home, there are no such divisions; at least they are not obvious.
Sitara’s working day
Sitara is a 32-year-old home-based worker from Ahmedabad. She sews garments from a nearby industry on a piece-by-rate basis. Sitara’s husband is a day laborer who earns an income of 5000 to 7000 per month. Working as a home worker for Sitara is not just a hobby but a powerful way to contribute to her household income. She receives a payment of 5 to 7 rupees for each play she completes. “I don’t have a stable income. Sometimes I earn more, sometimes less. It depends on how much time I can get out of housework.”
Sitara wakes up at 6 a.m. and later sends her children and husband to work. She cleans the house, washes the dishes and prepares breakfast; later, when she has time (usually around 11 a.m.), she sits down to work on her sewing machine. She bought her machine six years ago for 18,000 rupees when she started working from home. Later, when her children are about to arrive from school (around 2 am), she prepares lunch for the family.
After sending the children to school, she sits in her sewing chair. This time she works until 6:00 p.m. and prepares the food for the household. Dinner is the only time she can be inside the bedroom and eat her food while watching TV. Later after her dinner, she comes to her veranda (where her machine is placed) and continues working until 11-12 p.m. Afterwards, she goes to bed before starting the process again the next day at 6 am.
Sitara structures her work from home around the domestic care work she does. How she starts a day varies according to the daily conditions of their children and husbands. This leaves her working 17 to 18 hours a day. Meanwhile, she either does the care work for her household or saves every moment to complete the paid work. She added, “If I don’t push myself through the night, I won’t complete my order. To get a substantial amount on hand, I need to complete more pieces of clothing. I can’t waste my time chatting or taking an afternoon nap.”
Part of the urban working poor, homeworkers live in informal settlements, characterized by overcrowding and poor infrastructure. Acquiring basic amenities such as fetching water for the family could be an additional burden for women.
Most women in the Sitara neighborhood do similar work. They also mentioned that initially they received 8-9 rupees per piece for the same amount of work, which has now been reduced to 5-7 rupees. These pay rates made women work more overtime. The concept of temporal poverty fits well here. As Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, puts it,At its most mundane level, it is the lack of time available to devote to purely personal needs, including leisure and social activities.“
The burden of lack of time
Lack of time and the workload of homeworkers pushes them into longer work cycles, leaving women lethargic and restless. Fulya Alikoc, in her article on homeworkers in Ghazi, applies the Marxian theory of “time wages”. She argues that piece-rate payments and the discontinuous nature of the work make it difficult to establish how many hours are spent on necessary surplus and domestic labour, respectively.
Fulya quoted:The concept of a gendered workday for homeworkers in which women’s wage labor and domestic-maternal labor are inseparably intertwined through the spatial and temporal unitary structure of commodity production and social reproduction.” To thrive, homeworking needs more effective unions. A fair piece rate is calculated for homeworkers.
Fighting to be paid minimum wage is often the only legal tool for many workers in the unorganized sector and an issue around which workers are organized. Organizing homeworkers is also necessary when women do not identify as workers. Fair compensation for work can reduce women’s excess labor time in the production of paid goods. But ultimately, it is essential to remember that the struggle of homeworkers is against the capitalist system and patriarchy.