COVID-19 spurs calls to boost protections for millions of homeworkers

Emma Batha, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Posted at Jan 13 2021 09:45 PM

A merchant associate for a financial technology company works from his home in Quezon City on March 18, 2020, amid the enhanced community quarantine for the whole of Luzon at that time. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

LONDON — The dramatic global shift to remote working during COVID-19 lockdowns has underscored an urgent need for greater protections for homeworkers, many of whom are paid far less than those employed outside the home, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

About 7.9 percent of workers - 260 million people - were home-based before the pandemic, but this figure has more than doubled, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

"Homeworkers have been invisible for too long. But the explosion in homeworking during the pandemic has highlighted the poor working conditions experienced by millions worldwide," ILO economist Janine Berg told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Homeworkers earn on average 13% less than non-homeworkers in Britain, 22% less in the United States, 25% less in South Africa and about 50% less in Argentina, India and Mexico, the ILO said in a report.

The UN agency looked at challenges faced by "industrial homeworkers" producing goods such as clothing, electronics and handicrafts, white-collar teleworkers and the growing numbers doing service jobs via digital labor platforms.

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These jobs, where workers are paid by the task, include processing insurance claims, online content moderation, copy-editing and annotating data for artificial intelligence systems.

Homeworkers do not have the same level of social protection as people working outside the home, and are less likely to be part of a trade union or covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the ILO said.

They face greater health and safety risks especially when handling tools or chemicals like glues, and have less access to training than other workers, which can affect career prospects.

Berg, the report's co-author, said a key issue was the classification of many homeworkers as independent contractors, putting them outside the scope of most labor laws.

The ILO called on governments to extend labor and social security legislation to homeworkers in the informal economy.

It also highlighted particular challenges around employment protections for digital platform workers, who are spread around the world and may work in a different country to the online platform and the client.

Many earn less than the minimum wage and if their work is rejected they have no independent arbiter.

The report recommended using data generated by their work to monitor working conditions.

Berg predicted advances in technology and the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to a permanent increase in people working from home using the internet, email and videoconferencing.

"It's not necessarily a bad thing - some people really like it. But it's about being aware of the potential risks," she said. "The pandemic has added urgency to these issues."

One concern for teleworkers is that employers could gradually replace staff working from home with contractors, possibly from countries where labor is cheaper.

Another issue is the blurring between work and personal time. France, Chile, Belgium, Ecuador and Italy have introduced rules allowing workers "the right to disconnect" and ensure bosses respect boundaries between work and private life.