NEW DELHI, June 9 (IPS) — Practitioners of the exquisite
medieval north Indian craft of Zari embroidery living in the
crowded ghettos of Lucknow City have much in common with slum
dwellers in Klang, Malaysia who make a living by sewing barbie doll
Both are mainly women who work out of home to support their
families. Work hours are unfixed, with no social security, laws or
unions to protect them from middlemen who supply garment and toy
They are prone to eye and back strain from long hours of
intricate needlework in dim light and bending over sewing machines.
For the same work, they earn less than men. The Lucknow women get
a third of male Zari worker wages.
“In most countries these workers are generally unprotected. They
remain unorganized and hence are not able to make their voice
heard. As a result there are rarely any laws to safeguard their
working conditions, nor are there social security schemes,” says
India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, popularly known by its
The International Labor Organization (ILO), trade unions and
governments agree they have not done much for such workers who make
up a large chunk of informal sector hands in poor nations.
Representatives of employers, employees and governments at the
ongoing international labor conference at the ILO head office in
switzerland are debating a global treaty to protect home-based
In September, a world conference on women in China will debate
ways of improving the lot of informal sector workers, specially in
developing nations, the bulk of whom are women.
The ILO has authored the still-to-be-agreed text on informal
sector employment in the main document to be adopted in Beijing,
says Anita Kelles-Viitanen, senior specialist on women’s employment
at the ILO’s India and Bhutan office here.
Kelles-Viitanen is part of the world labor body’s south Asia
multidisciplinary team advising south Asian nations on informal
sector employment which accounts for more than 90 percent of the
Since 1981, the ILO New Delhi office has run schemes for the
country’s informal sector workers. “The ILO programs have targeted
the poorest of the poor,” says Kelles-Viitanen. The poorest
informal sector employees are casual hands, followed by home-based
and contract laborers, she says.
“We have found that in many female-aided households, the
breadwinner is a homeworker,” she adds. However, there is still
not enough data on home-based workers in south Asia. The ILO office
here has just finished a study on rural home workers in India’s
western Maharashtra state and southern Andhra Pradesh.
A decade ago, the ILO’s New Delhi office joined hands with SEWA
to study work conditions and ways of providing social security to
Sewa is well known worldwide for its cooperatives of home-based
women workers in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, Lucknow and
other towns. The SEWA groups run self-financing and marketing
schemes for traditional garment embroidery, food processing and a
range of home-based income-earning activities.
The scheme also studied the health risks and the ergonomics of
home-based work. The women were found working in cramped quarters
and often in unsafe conditions. “I have seen loose electric wiring
lying around. Sometimes they also deal with chemicals,” says
The study also showed that sewing machines with attached work
stools used by the home garment workers were still based on
European designs unsuited to south Asian women, resulting in
physical strain. SEWA has since persuaded the leading Indian sewing
machine manufacturer to modify product design.
The ILO will use its experience from the SEWA project which
ended last year, in an “employment promotion and social protection
of homework” scheme for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and
Vietnam, due to start in September.
The labor body is scouting for non-governmental organization
(NGO) partners like SEWA in these countries, but will rely more on
trade unions, says Kelles-Viitanen.
In India, the oldest union, the Indian national trade union
congress allied to the ruling congress party and the hind Mazdoor
Sangh are already working with home-based garment workers.
“We want to involve the employers too,” she says. But adds this
is tricky as the employer-employee relationship is often disguised
in the case of home-based workers. This also makes it difficult to
invoke existing informal labor legislation to protect home-based
India’s SEWA has petitioned law courts claiming its members are
employees of subcontractors in order to gain access to protective
India is one of the few developing nations with laws for
home-based workers. The bidi (tobacco rolled in a slow-burning
leaf) and cigar workers act protects one of the largest segments
of home-based workers in the country.
A special levy on sales of bidis which are the most popular form
of smoking in India, is used for a social security fund for bidi
workers. The minimum wages act guarantees a living income to many
types of home workers.
Indian authorities have asked the ILO to retrain bidi workers
to take on the challenge of foreign manufacturers of small cigars
who are planning production in the country.
The Indian government subsidizes home-based workers’ groups. Its
handloom, handicraft and cottage industries corporations and
specialized state rural marketing bodies provide skill training,
new designs and marketing support to home-based workers.
Copyright 1995 IPS