Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

HomeNet South Asia, a network of home-based worker organisations across all South Asian countries

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with co-operators from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). On this occasion, the ILO interviewed Ms. Janhavi Dave, the International Coordinator of HomeNet South Asia, a network of home-based worker organisations across South Asia.

Article | 15 juin 2020
Janhavi Dave

Could you tell us a bit about your background?

I am the International Coordinator of HomeNet South Asia, a network of home-based worker organisations across all South Asian countries. I started my career with Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) working with home-based workers and other informal economy women workers building their micro-enterprises of food and catering services while also initiating a thrift and credit cooperative in Delhi, India. Consequently, I went on to play several roles at SEWA, heading projects that supported organising, enterprise building, capacity building and advocacy. I briefly also worked with WIEGO, supporting their work with domestic workers and home-based workers. In 2016, I assumed my current role at HomeNet South Asia.

Apart from being the International Coordinator at HomeNet South Asia, I am also a Director at the Business Enterprise and Employment Support Network (BEES Network) for Women in South Asia, which focuses on cross-border trade and enterprise development for women in South Asia.

Additionally, I am also a member of the Working Group that is building a global network of home-based workers - HomeNet International.

I have a master’s degree in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Science, India, and an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Delhi University, India. Throughout my education, the work carried out by Ela Bhatt, and Renana Jhabvala in SEWA and Martha Chen in WIEGO have inspired me to join the movement of women informal economy workers.

What is HomeNet South Asia? When and how was it born? Who are its members? What are its objectives?

HomeNet South Asia (HNSA) is a network of home-based workers across all South Asian countries. It is South Asia’s first and only network of home-based workers. HNSA was initiated in the year 2000 by SEWA, WIEGO and UNIFEM (now UNWomen).

In October 2000, a conference was organised by SEWA, WIEGO and UNIFEM and was attended by representatives of various South Asian Governments, UN Agencies, Trade Unions and NGOs. During the course of this landmark conference, the Kathmandu Declaration was adopted and it led to the formation of HomeNet South Asia. HNSA was entrusted with the role of organising home-based worker organisations to promote the visibility of home-based workers and to amplify their voice on policy forums and to validate their roles.

HomeNet International Working Group Meeting, 2019, Cape Town, South Africa
The basic tenets of the Kathmandu Declaration and additional new objectives were outlined in the Delhi Declaration that was adopted by 60 networks, associations, trade unions, NGOs and researchers from 24 countries in February, 2015. The Declaration emphasised that home-based work was a critical source of employment for women across the globe. It also and noted thathome-based workers were critical players in global and domestic supply chains. Despite these, they remained invisible and unrecognised in law, policies and practice. The Declaration called for targeted national policies including social protection for home-based workers, , and also for the establishment of an international network of home-based worker organisations.

Currently, HNSA has 60 affiliates, these include unions, cooperatives or producer companies and rights-based NGOs in all South Asian countries.

HNSA aims to:
  1. Build regional solidarity among home-based workers and their representative organisations. HNSA also creates platforms for learning and sharing amongst them.
  2. Advocate for relevant policies that include home-based workers in national statistics, government programmes, and ensure worker rights.
  3. Ensure visibility of home-based workers by strengthening their collective voice.
  4. Create better economic opportunities.
  5. Secure social security.
  6. Develop the capacities of grassroots-level organisations.

What do you think is the role of cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy (SSE) organizations in advancing the rights and improving the livelihoods of home-based workers?

Home-based workers, especially piece-rate workers or homeworkers, as they are often called, generally find themselves at the bottom of supply chains. For instance, in garment supply chains, homeworkers take up a range of activities – from weaving the fabric to stitching whole garments, crafting some parts of the product or, even, using their skills to embroider and embellish garments. Homeworkers, in this industry, work for six to 12 hours a day. But they are seldom recognised as being part of the supply chains. They are paid well-below the stipulated minimum wage and have little access to social security. The brands and companies that employ their services are either unaware of their existence in complex supply chains or conveniently feign ignorance on their presence.

Cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy (SSE) organizations, like producer companies in South Asia, have created direct partnerships with companies and brands, surpassing the long chain of intermediaries. Most importantly, they have been successful in creating recognition for home-based workers in supply chains.

There are many excellent examples of cooperatives and SSEs in South Asia that are advancing the rights and improving the livelihoods for home-based workers. Sadhna in Udaipur, India, for example, has bargained for provident fund (PF) and employee state insurance (ESI) to be included in the piece-rates that its home-based worker members earn. SABAH Nepal, that operates in several districts of Nepal, has created a decentralised production process and has established common facilitation centres in remote parts of Nepal. This makes it feasible for home-based workers to access skills trainings and work orders. SABAH Bhutan has created cooperatives for home-based workers who want to diversify from the garment sector to the food sector. Rangsutra has created linkages between home-based workers in Bikaner, India, with global retail companies.

A homeworker in Malta, a remote village in north-eastern Nepal knits a scarf made from Himalayan Nettle or Allo for SABAH Nepal – an enterprise whose decentralised production centres makes it possible for homeworkers in far-flung areas to access work.
During the ongoing crisis, when home-based workers are out of work because of the economic disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns, it is the cooperatives and SSEs who have solely managed to ensure work to home-based workers. Many have procured orders to make masks and coveralls. They are also working towards diversifying their supply chains, for example, from garments to food and other essential items, to ensure home-based worker livelihoods.

In the current context of the changing world of work, and unfolding risks (pandemics, natural disasters, conflicts, technological changes), what are some of the challenges and opportunities for cooperatives and other SSE organizations of home-based workers?

Over the past two decades, HNSA has observed that the value offered by home-based worker cooperatives and SSEs is not only in the creation of access to work but also in their ability to shelter workers from unfolding risks and in being able to adapt to changing trends. For instance, when the Central Indian Government demonetised specific currency notes in the country, in 2016, and also with the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), it was the cooperatives and SSEs who were able to provide home-based workers with work and were also able to make cash payments. With COVID-19, cooperatives and SSEs are able to secure contracts for home-based workers and are engaging them in producing PPE for frontline workers.

These entities are also more adaptable. The change in technological innovations have led many home-based worker cooperatives and SSEs to procure machines – like ZUKI sewing machines, large cutting technology or metal detectors for packaging – and are also skilling home-based workers to operate these machines.

However, home-based worker cooperatives and SSEs face constant challenges.

While they eliminate the long chain of intermediaries, cooperatives and SSEs have to bridge many gaps. They have to take on various roles – from procuring orders to the production of goods. For instance, a garment-sector cooperative can’t simply produce part of a garment. It has to be involved in procuring orders and raw materials, in cutting and dyeing, in ensuring that the raw materials reach the workers, in quality control, packaging, delivery and a whole host of other operations. All this requires trained and highly-skilled personnel along with investments in training home-based workers to take on managerial roles as the enterprise evolves. It is a challenge to create the right mix of professionals and home-based workers.

When home-based workers work individually, the production risks too are borne individually. In a cooperative, the risks are still borne by the home-based workers but as a collective. In order to remain competitive, these cooperatives – especially when working with large brands – are bound to strict timelines and have to adhere to demanding quality controls. Any errors made could easily translate into the rejection of produced goods, cancellation of contracts, and reduced payments. Here, it becomes imperative that cooperatives and SSEs work with those brands who have a shared ethos and understand the value of what the cooperatives are offering.

Access to finance is another key challenge. While loan products are easily available, cooperatives and SSEs often need a combination of equity and grant funding. The equity funding needs to be supported by grants so that it is well-suited to an enterprise of home-based workers, who are one of the most vulnerable categories of workers.

While there are many challenges for cooperatives and SSEs, I feel that they may be the only way forward for home-based workers to access work. COVID-19 and the lockdowns have disrupted supply chains and the unorganised find themselves unable to access work. Cooperatives and SSEs may be among the only institutions that allow home-based workers to be linked to global and domestic markets.

What are the plans around strengthening global solidarity for home-based workers?

SADHNA, in Udaipur – India, has, since the 1980s, linked homeworkers to global and domestic garment supply chains and has now successfully negotiated for brands to include social security contributions in the piece-rates that are offered to members.
Home-based work may be diverse across the world, however, the issues faced by home-based workers are similar. In most countries, home-based workers lack recognition as workers, earn low piece-rates, have little or no access to social security, and are not backed by policy and legal instruments. These universal issues and a commitment to seek solutions to them have brought together various regional home-based worker networks, including, HomeNet South Asia, HomeNet South East Asia, HomeNet Eastern Europe and, nascent networks in Africa and Latin America supported by WIEGO. These networks are now working towards the establishment of a global network of home-based workers – HomeNet International.

The networks have been working together since 2018 and have built a representative and democratic Working Group, coordinated by WIEGO. The role of the Working Group is to lay HomeNet International’s foundation. It aims to achieve this through the drafting of HomeNet International’s Constitution – that is inclusive of inputs from grassroot home-based worker organisations - and also looks to recruit the global network’s first set of members. HomeNet International hopes to have its first Congress in early 2021.

Some of the key campaigns that will be undertaken by HomeNet International will be around ILO Instruments, in particular ILO Conventions on Home Work (C177), Violence and Harassment (C190) and around Recommendation 204 - Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy. The creation of ethical supply chains and access to markets, social protection and organization building will be important focus areas for HomeNet International.