The Ethical Trading Initiative has produced comprehensive guidelines to help homeworkers

The Ethical Trading Initiative has produced comprehensive guidelines to help homeworkers

Homeworkers are an integral but often invisible part of the apparel supply chain. However, this does not have to be the case, according to speakers at a recent event, which aimed to build awareness of the opportunities, risks and realities of using homeworkers.

Speaking at a recent Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) event exploring what brands can do to help improve the lives of homeworkers in their global supply chains, Alok Singh, the ETI's representative in India, noted it can be hard to understand where homework is done, and difficult to know what issues they workers face.

India, for example, has around 20m homeworkers - skilled artisans that make the fine embellishments found on both high street and high end garments.

Yet while their handiwork is much admired, the workers themselves are often not visible to the eyes of the consumer. They often work in long and complex production chains with several intermediaries and are paid on a piece-rate basis.  This presents considerable challenges to brands committed to responsible sourcing. 

That said, despite these challenges homeworkers are emerging as an "important, but hard to reach" group.

For many retailers and brands the prospect of having homeworkers in their supply chain is a scary one, a shadowy presence that exists outside the auditing system, with concerns of unmonitored child labour, low pay, and low occupational health and safety levels.

Yet homework is making increasingly good business sense for many factories, particularly in countries like India, Singh said. In India, the cost of manufacturing is going up, but the amount being paid to factories is not, which is leading to rising levels of outsourcing.

Worker issues
Workers in this sector face a unique set of issues, including irregular payments and work, which affect bargaining power; deferred payments of up to 90 days; while Singh says some retailers sourcing from India say that homework can't take place more than 50km away from Delhi, but many workers are more than 200km away.

"Longer and changing supply chains make them invisible," said Singh.

Despite this "invisibility", homeworkers make up a significant part of the supply chain in certain regions. Nesta Holden, a homeworking project worker at Homeworkers Worldwide, says that up to a fifth of those employed in the apparel sector in Tirupur in India are homeworkers.

Holden emphasised that the use of homework is far more prevalent than most people assume, and is not just used for sequins and finishing.

"Homeworkers are an important part of the Tirapur cotton jersey industry," said Holden, with homeworkers in jobs like checking, stitching and recycling waste clothing.

Improving standards
Homeworkers Worldwide ran a programme in the region in partnership with Women Working Worldwide and Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), which included setting up groups of homeworkers and teaching them how to help themselves.

The aim was to empower them to bring about change, helping to give them tools to understand their rights, rather than just telling them their rights were being violated.

Holden said that of the 105 groups set up, 67 attempted some kind of informal collective bargaining, with 37 groups getting better rates of pay. Meanwhile, one group went directly to the retailer, negotiating a commitment to send a more sustainable supply of work.

Having a sustainable supply of work is an issue that was also highlighted by Monsoon Accessorize's head of corporate responsibility, Olivia Lankester.

Lankester said that homeworking is "part of Monsoon's heritage", and is something that is "not as complex as it sounds".

Admitting that it is difficult to maintain continuity, particularly when trends move away from craft rich products, Lankester emphasised the retailer is doing its best to support workers in rural regions.

The retailer also works on open costing and time and motion metrics to ensure that piece workers get minimum wages. This works by calculating a piece-rate using 3-5 samples, which generates a rate based on different skill levels.

Lankester said the homeworker-made products sold by Monsoon Accessorize create wider benefits, including opportunities in rural areas, particularly for women. The products also help preserve traditional crafts, a sector which is in decline.

"There is a nervousness among retailers about working with homeworkers. It can be done, and it's not that difficult," said Lankester.

While Monsoon has embraced the homeworker model, there is still a lot of nervousness among other brands about the risks of using homeworkers. Yet for Holden, brands need to take responsibility for the less visible elements of their supply chain.

"The risk already exists, as there are probably already homeworkers in your supply chain," she emphasised.