NEW YORK: The increasing number of people forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to work from home has generated a lot of attention on both the benefits and trials of working remotely.
The UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) has seized on this new awareness to highlight the predicament of what it estimates to be 260 million home-based workers worldwide — 8 percent of global employment — who had for decades prior to the pandemic been working under precarious conditions.
Homeworkers are a heterogeneous group. They include highly skilled teleworkers who work remotely on a continual basis, and a vast number of impoverished industrial workers who are required to produce goods that cannot be automated, such as artisanal goods like embroidery and handicrafts.
A third category, digital platform workers, provides services such as processing insurance claims or copy editing. All, however, must deal with the implications of working from home.
“There are all sorts of labor-intensive work, sometimes at the bottom of the supply chains, sometimes in handicrafts, that continue to be done at home,” ILO senior economist Janine Berg told Arab News.
“But because it’s being done at home, it’s really invisible. Working in very poor conditions, homeworkers haven’t seen the benefit of economic growth or globalization. We can’t magically expect this to trickle down. Action is needed.”
Berg co-authored the report “Working from home: From invisibility to decent work,” a comprehensive two-year study and analysis of conditions worldwide that showed the urgent need, in low- and middle-income countries, for home-based workers to have social protection.
Most work informally and are worse off than those who work outside the home, even in higher-skilled professions.
“There’s what we call a homeworker wage penalty. The difference in earnings for someone working from home is really striking — 50 percent less in India. In the UK, most homeworkers were high-skilled teleworkers on the higher end of the earning distribution, but they were earning 13 percent less than their (non-home-based) counterparts,” Berg said.
“This is to tell you that invisibility, being at home, not being in contact, not having this face time with your employer, can over time affect your working conditions.”
Homeworking is often poorly regulated, and compliance with existing laws remains a challenge. In many cases, homeworkers are classified as independent contractors and therefore excluded from the scope of labor legislation.
Homeworking Convention No. 177 was passed in 1996, with the objective of transforming such work into a respectable source of employment by promoting equality of treatment between homeworkers and other wage earners.
However, only 10 ILO member states have ratified the convention, and few have a national policy in place on working from home.
“In so many countries there are beautiful laws on paper, but they’re completely forgotten,” said Berg. “That’s sad because the work to put legislation forward is a lot of work but it doesn’t end there. The work isn’t over.”
In addition to improving the understanding of working from home, the report also offers guidance for governments to pave the way for decent work for homeworkers, make them more visible and therefore better protected.
For poor industrial homeworkers, the report requires policymakers to undertake concerted action on all fronts — from surveys and mechanisms to first identify these workers, to combating informality by extending legal protection, generalizing written contracts and access to social security, and making homeworkers aware of their rights.
For teleworkers, whose main concern is the blurring between working time and personal time, the report calls on governments to introduce a “right to disconnect,” to ensure respect for that boundary.
However, one last thing remains that legislation cannot solve: Social isolation. Berg said the real remedy to that woe, felt by all who work from home — beyond associations in trade unions — lies in a healthy human exchange between managers and employees.
“There, you have an important role for managers and employers to have contact with their workers in a good way, not in a ‘let me supervise you and make sure you’re doing your hours’ way, but really more to reach out and see how they’re doing,” added Berg, who is also author of “Labour Markets, Institutions and Inequality: Building Just Societies in the 21st Century.”
As working from home is likely to take on greater importance in the coming years, the ILO has renewed calls for governments, in cooperation with trade unions and employers’ organizations, to heed the guidance of Convention No. 177 “and work together to ensure that all homeworkers — whether they are weaving rattan in Indonesia, making shea butter in Ghana, tagging photos in Egypt, sewing masks in Uruguay, or teleworking in France — move from invisibility to decent work.”