Impact of Covid-19 on home-based workers

Home-based workers are not covered well by the existing social assistance schemes targeted at the poorest

Home-based workers are a significant part of our economy. They are engaged in many sectors and are integrated into both domestic and global supply chains. The Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected the lives and livelihoods of informal workers across South Asia. Organisations of HBWs in the region have been constantly monitoring the situation for their members through their grassroots leaders since March 2020.

Thirteen organisations from 12 locations, including HomeNet South Asia (HNSA) in seven countries in the region, participated in the study to evaluate what women HBWs are experiencing during the Covid-19 crisis and released the study titled, Impact of Covid19 on Women Home-based Workers in South Asia.

The study investigated whether there had been an increase in care and other household responsibilities due to the pandemic and lockdowns. The study touched upon the incidence of domestic violence and confirmed an increase.

The three periods chosen for comparison were pre-crisis, lockdown and post-lockdown. The study found that the lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 led to an immediate and widespread reduction in access to food in the region. This lack of access eased as a result of relief efforts and reduced restrictions. Loss of livelihoods and the anxiety produced by the health scare was prominent.

“Women HBWs bore the brunt… while shouldering the increased load of household work and, in all likelihood, also facing greater domestic violence. Supported by their community cadres, organisations of HBWs — trade unions, cooperatives and producer companies — ensured that members were able to access essentials such as food, cash, sanitary kits, and health information,” the study says.

The study reports that soon after Covid-19 started spreading beyond China, work days decreased for HBWs. Buying companies, including global garment brands, cancelled or suspended orders as supply disruptions affected production and health-related mobility restrictions affected the regular functioning of markets.

Participating HBWs felt the ripples of the negative economic impact on supply chains even before the virus was anywhere close to them; for instance, while about 75 per cent of the 502 respondents across South Asia reported no work at all during the lockdown period, amongst the smaller set of 394 respondents interviewed in August, three HBWs reported no work even in February.

By August, only 33 percent of respondents had regained work and many could find only a smaller number of work days per week than they were used to before February. The uncertainty related to protection from Covid-19 has affected production plans across many supply chains that continue to operate below the usual capacity in response to the reduced demand.

The study revealed that soon after Covid-19 started spreading beyond China, work days for HBWs decreased. Buying companies, including global garment brands, cancelled or suspended orders.

HBWs from Pakistan are skilled in tailoring, stitching and embroidery. They are vulnerable and totally bypassed by the weak and limited government social assistance set-up.

Over the years, several movements in the country have been building the case that women HBWs should be identified for targeted assistance and that current social protection mechanisms under the labour or social arms of the country’s government should be expanded to cover them. The crisis has brought this need into clear prominence.

The first wave of a wide and strict lockdown was relaxed partly in April and fully in May in a bid to curb the economic decline during the month of Ramazan.

It is understandable that with 74 percent of the working population employed informally, the economic impact of lockdowns was expected to be considerable, especially on this section of society, which is not covered well by the existing social assistance schemes targeted at the poorest.

The Karachi sample consisted of some Bihari and Bengali community members whose citizenship status has been in a limbo since Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan. This group has no access to higher education or formal jobs and consequently finds itself at the bottom of the job market earning the lowest wages. Though skilled in intricate embroidery work, its disadvantaged position in the society is the main cause of the vulnerability it suffers from.

While the existing cash transfers programme was expanded to cover more people in responding to the crisis, only 17 percent of the 60 women HBWs sampled in Lahore and Karachi said they had received it. Over 93 percent of respondents did not receive the government food aid.

While over 85 percent of HBWs sampled in Karachi had no work during the lockdown, only 20 percent faced this situation in Lahore. Still, earnings dropped to about 23 percent in Lahore; in Karachi these crashed to less than 10 percent. As earnings recovered in August, the number of those who had work didn’t increase in either of the cities, indicating improved earnings for those who were already working.

Both HomeNet Pakistan and Home-based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) reported other gains triggered by the crisis. Years of sustained work on enabling social protection provisions for HBWs received a fillip both through the informal economy workers recognising the value of collectivism and through government swiftness on moving the policy process on the subject.

Speaking to TNS, Ume Laila Azhar, the HomeNet Pakistan executive director, says, “The Home-based Workers Bill has been finally approved by the federal cabinet to be presented in the National Assembly. The realisation that these workers are important and need protection too, came with the Covid-19 pandemic. It worked as a trigger for the government to take action.”

The writer is a Lahore-based journalist. He can be reached at     He tweets @hassannaqvi5

Impact of Covid-19 on home-based workers