Tracking Home-Based Workers in Ethiopia and Kenya

Local textile and garment industries in various African countries are poised for export-oriented growth and home-based workers are likely to be included somewhere along the value chain. Therefore, a strong home-based workers’ movement in the region is necessary to ensure that workers are organized in the struggle for recognition and worker rights.

Through forming national, regional and global organizations, home-based workers around the world are organizing to improve their livelihoods and amplify their calls for recognition and worker rights. In Africa, a regional network of home-based workers is emerging as local worker groups in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda are coming together for greater visibility and to build a collective voice. National networks, both formal and informal, are taking shape with active working groups already established in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.

As a first step in supporting the emergence of an African regional network of home-based worker organizations, WIEGO undertook mapping of home-based workers’ organizations in Ethiopia and Kenya in the garment and textile industry. The research was part of WIEGO’s Home-based Workers Organizing for Economic Empowerment project funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO, formerly DFID)s Work Opportunities for Women Program. The objective was to identify home-based worker groups or organizations in the garment and textile industry and any organizations supporting home-based workers, to document how these groups organize, the key issues affecting them as workers, and their relationships to the global and domestic garment and textile supply chains.


“Invisible” workers


Home-based workers are often “invisible”, as they are hidden in the confines of their homes. They are involved in activities such as garment stitching, weaving, food processing, automobile and mechanical repair, and clerical and professional work.

Our mapping research focused solely on workers in the garment and textile industry in two categories: First, there are self-employed home-based workers who buy their own raw materials, supplies and equipment, pay utility and transport costs, and sell their own goods—they thus bear all the financial risks of production themselves. Second, there are many home-based workers who produce under sub-contracts for domestic and global value chains and get paid by the piece—they are referred to as homeworkers. To cut costs and maximize profits, firms outsource production—often through an intermediary—to those who work in their own homes. While the homeworkers do not have to pay for raw materials, they do cover the costs of production. While each of these two basic categories of home-based workers have different challenges that require specific policy interventions, many fall into both categories depending on whatever work is available to them.


Lessons Learnt from Mapping Home-Based Workers in the Garment and Textile Industry in Ethiopia and Kenya


In Ethiopia and Kenya, as is the case in various countries across Africa, the concept of home-based work is only just emerging and most workers instead view themselves as micro-entrepreneurs or producers. This makes mapping these workers and their links to supply chains a challenge. Most micro-entrepreneurs in Ethiopia are involved in spice and food production from their homes or rented sheds. The majority of home-based workers are women who consider their work an extension of their domestic chores through which they can make some money to either support their families or supplement the family income.

However, this does not mean that the groups are not organized. They are often organized as self-help groups, community-based organizations and savings and credit cooperatives. They are mainly organized for joint savings and internal credit, not around their work, and they view the government as a networking partner to achieve their economic goals rather than as an ally in negotiating for recognition and worker rights.

Tracking the most vulnerable home-based workers at the entry-level of local and global supply chains—who are dependent on several levels of intermediaries—is even harder. There appears to be no local terminology that adequately captures their work. However, as national, regional and global networking increases, local groups of home-based workers are increasingly aware of a worker identity.

On top of that, the researchers found that individual home-based workers and small self-help groups of home-based workers were difficult to track through formal research methods. There is limited data about these groups and, when approached by researchers unfamiliar to them, they are reluctant to share information for fear of compromising their livelihood. Instead, it is easier to track individuals or groups of home-based workers through informal networking.

Also, some informal actors or designers have established economic relationships with large-scale clients, while workers further down the chain are dependent on these intermediaries for access to work. This creates a reluctance to reveal this relationship—out of fear of losing it—and thus protects effectively hidden employment relationships. In these hidden employment relationships there is no social protection or respect for basic worker rights—a reality that has hit home-based workers very hard in the current COVID-19 crisis. When they lost all their work, there was no social net to protect them.


What the research found


In Ethiopia, the research found that while some workers’ networks exist, they were created predominantly for savings, internal loans and income security—working together on big orders—rather than for advocacy purposes around pay or health care. This is despite garment and textile workers in Ethiopia being paid around $26 a month; the lowest wage for this sector in the world. Sub-contracted home-based workers (homeworkers) are likely to be earning close to the bottom of the scale for in-factory workers. Workers collectively identified deteriorating health conditions due to the nature of their production processes, but did not organize around those.

Some workers in a government-arranged premises—known locally as a “shed”—for new micro and small enterprises and a group of traditional weavers in Addis Ababa are in the process of forming a union and private limited company respectively. Their aim is to tackle market problems and input challenges collectively. The enterprise membership commonly comprises women who are engaged in production from their homes in the village, and men who are responsible for buying raw materials and selling the finished products in the city. The costs of raw materials and nominal rental for the sheds are shared by all members.

In Kenya, researchers previously found the concept of home-based workers to be non-existent—the workers viewed themselves as producers at the lowest end of the value chain—and found no organization (WFTO and KEFAT, 2013). It was only through the network of the Kenya Federation for Alternative Trade (KEFAT) that the WIEGO researchers found that some self-help groups, associations and cooperatives existed as organizations of home-based workers. Of the 74 home-based workers in Nairobi and Nakuru who were interviewed as part of the research, more than half were not members of any group. Those who did belong to a group belonged to a community-based organization (CBO), self-help (welfare) group or investment club. While workers joined the groups for different reasons, financial empowerment and employment were the most important reasons.

This shows that workers in Kenya and Ethiopia are currently mainly concerned with improving their economic situation. Yet, some groups are beginning to see the advantages of developing a collective voice to approach local authorities for anything from access to trading spaces to basic services in the community that would make their work from home easier. Cross-regional and global networking is important for learning and exchange of experiences for such emerging groups; to learn from others who have made significant headway through organizing.

While the number of home-based workers groups is still small, government ministries for trade, industry and culture (concerned with preserving and promoting traditional skills such as weaving in Ethiopia and the use of indigenous materials for crafts in Uganda) should step in to protect home-based workers, especially those who are unorganized and therefore most vulnerable to exploitation.

Home-based workers’ main challenges are the burden of bearing production costs and the need for direct access to markets on fair terms and conditions. When more home-based workers in Africa realize that they are also workers, they will be better able to organize for recognition, worker rights and social protection.


Article by Vanessa Pillay, Edwin Bett

Republished from WIEGO







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