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Working from home: From invisibility to decent work

Working from home: From invisibility to decent work

With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers around the world shifted to working from home, joining the hundreds of millions of other workers who had already been working from home for decades.

Yet the laws and policies that govern the labour market have not been designed with the home as a workplace in mind.

Explore this InfoStory to find out what working from home means for workers, employers and societies across the globe.

Report (PDF)

Home work: An invisible form of production

A homeworker is someone who works for pay and who produces a product or service according to the specifications of the employer. 

Home work has always existed, but because it takes place in someone’s private home, it has long been invisible. It encompasses a range of activities – from sewing, embroidery and assembly in goods production, to a wide range of clerical and professional services that can be performed remotely using technology, including telework.

In the developing world, particularly in Asia, homeworking is often part of global or local supply chains in the apparel, electronics and houseware industries. In rich countries, most homeworkers are teleworkers, though some of them are industrial homeworkers. Home-based digital platform workers can be found throughout the world.

Types of home work: Industrial homeworkers

Homeworkers that are engaged in the production of manufactured goods, often in the final stage of production. This can also include artisanal production, such as the making of handicrafts.

What does it look like? Anchara's story

Anchara has been weaving fishing nets from her home in Thailand for 12 years. This allows her to keep a paid job while taking care of her children. However, due to the low piece rate, she earns less than the prevailing minimum wage despite her agility at weaving large nets.

As she is operating in the informal economy, she does not enjoy most labour rights established in the labour legislation, and hopes to have soon the opportunity to get a formal job.

Types of home work: Teleworkers

Teleworkers are employees who use computers and other technology to perform their work remotely from their homes.

What does it look like? Samuel and Jessica's stories

Samuel never liked his long commute to work or office politics. He was happy when he found a job that allowed him to work remotely from home. However, even though he has the same salary and benefits as his office colleagues, he feels isolated and worries that he has been overlooked for promotions.

Jessica shifted to working from home during the COVID-19 lockdowns. While she appreciates not having to commute and seeing her children more, she has also noticed that her working hours have seeped into her family time.

Types of home work: Home-based digital platform work

Many service-sector tasks are performed on online digital platforms, ranging from labelling photographs, writing text for a website to overseeing a Twitter account. The platform or client specifies how the tasks should be carried out and rates the worker’s performance. These workers are often considered to be independent contractors, even when they are not really autonomous or economically independent.

What does it look like? Sameer's story

Sameer has been working on micro-task platforms for five years. When he logs onto the platforms, he selects an available task to complete. The client sets the pay rate, which is usually modest. If the work that he submits is accepted, he will receive a payment in his bank account. However, he spends many unpaid hours looking for available tasks.

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The COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of working from home

There were approximately 260 million home-based workers in the world in 2019 – prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – amounting to 7.9% of total employment.

Most home-based workers were own-account workers and lived in developing countries, while some of them were teleworkers, especially in richer countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic reverted this pattern. Indeed, the ILO estimates that almost  560 million people were working from home in 2020, during the height of the pandemic.

Most were teleworkers who were previously working in an office. Teleworkers were present in all regions of the world, though more in richer countries.

Gender and home work

For many workers, but particularly women – who overwhelmingly shoulder the burden of domestic and care responsibilities – home work is a means to participate in paid work, without having to leave home.

In certain countries, women also face social norms that prevent them from working outside the home, and home work is their only access to the labour market.

This can come at a cost for women. While it allows women to combine paid work with domestic responsibilities, it also reinforces the outdated notion that such responsibilities are solely the purview of women. It thus risks creating a pool of workers that are not able to compete on an equal footing with persons who work outside the home.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s participation in home work was double that of men’s, despite their overall lower participation in the labour market. 

In 2019, 147 million women and 113 million men worked from home. This amounted to 11.5% of all female workers and 5.6% of all male workers.

During the pandemic, as office workers across the world switched to working from home, the number of men working from home increased substantially.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a homeworker?

Access to paid work

Working from home can provide access to opportunities for some workers who otherwise would not be able to undertake paid work. Some workers, mainly women, have difficulty leaving the home because of care responsibilities or social norms. Others may have a disability that makes it difficult for them to have a job outside their home. 

However, there is an important risk of informality, particularly in the case of industrial home work. In low- and middle-income countries for instance, 90% of all home-based workers work informally.

Earnings

There are wage penalties associated with working from home. Statistical analysis reveals that when attributes such as age, sex or education are taken into account, all types of homeworkers earn less than their counterparts who work in an office or factory.

 

Working hours

Teleworkers appreciate having the flexibility to organize their paid work around their domestic and family responsibilities. But working from home can also lead to a blurring between work and private life.

In industrial homework and online digital labour platforms, there are often periods of intense work, with tight deadlines, followed by periods of little or no work. In consequence, only 34% home-based workers work “normal hours” between 35 and 48 hours per week, against 42% of those who work outside the home.

Safety at work

Even with home work, the responsibility of creating a safe work environment rests on the employer. Yet the homeworker’s lack of knowledge about safe practices and improper equipment can lead to safety and health risks. In work involving chemicals, explosives or other hazardous materials, important risks exist for other family members and sometimes even for the local community.

Teleworkers may also face physical risks, due to the lack of ergonomy of their work environment, possible intensifications in the workload and excessive working hours. There are also psychosocial risks due to the blurring of work-personal boundaries and social isolation.

All these risks lead to higher occupational safety and health risks among homeworkers. In the United Kingdom, for example, homeworkers miss 50% more days of work due to illness than those who work outside the home.

Social security

Many homeworkers lack adequate social security, and only have access to benefits if a non-contributory system, such as a universal health protection scheme, exists in their country.

Industrial homeworkers and home-based digital platform workers are often classified as independent contractors and thus do not benefit from employer contributions into social security. Some industrial homeworkers are not even formally recognized as workers.

Representation

Homeworkers often face barriers – in law or in practice – to establishing or joining a union and are not always covered by collective bargaining agreements. Lack of representation makes it more difficult for them to access other rights at work. 

For example, union density in the United Kingdom was 24% for employees who did not work from home, whereas for homeworkers it was far less, 13.2%. In Indonesia, the numbers were even more dramatic: less than 1% for homeworkers as compared with almost 13% for other employees.

The right to join a trade union and to negotiate collectively is a fundamental right at work – all workers regardless of where they work should be able to exercise this right.

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Why do enterprises use homeworkers? What are their responsibilities?

People call my factory big not because I have 20-some workers. It is because I can manage to produce 20,000 pieces of jewellery boxes every month by using others’ labour

Factory owner, Taiwan, China

Firms use home work for various reasons. For industrial home work and online digital platform work, homeworking can be a way for enterprises to have greater flexibility in responding to fluctuations in demand for their products, including seasonal variations. Using homeworkers can also be a source of cost savings.

Telework can be a means for enterprises to retain talented employees by offering them greater flexibility in their working time to better balance work and family life, while eliminating commuting time. Telework can also enable firms to save on the cost of office space.

Productivity benefits

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most teleworking was occasional and often in addition to the hours already worked on site, serving to extend working hours. Enterprises that allowed employees to telework on a permanent basis often used it as a perk to attract and retain workers, while remaining unsure about the productivity benefits.

Yet there have been convincing studies published about the productivity benefits of home work and teleworking.

Ensuring fair pay and working conditions

Many companies strive to treat their homeworkers fairly. The ILO has been supporting governments and employers in designing good practice guidelines for the employment of homeworkers.

As many industrial homeworkers and digital platform workers are paid by the piece (or task), it is also important to ensure that they earn at least the minimum wage and are not paid less than similar workers paid per hour. Time and motion studies are an integral tool for setting fair piece rates or production quotas.

Towards decent work for homeworkers

Decent work for homeworkers is an achievable goal. But it requires the collective effort of governments, employers’ organizations and trade unions, as well as homeworkers and their organizations.

From invisibility to decent work

All homeworkers – whether they are weaving rattan in Indonesia, tagging photos in Egypt, sewing masks in Uruguay or teleworking in France – should have access to decent work.

Given that working from home is likely to become a prominent feature in the world of work in the years to come, it is essential that governments, in collaboration with workers’ and employers’ organizations, work together to design and implement laws and policies that support decent work for homeworkers.


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