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Homeworkers or home workers are defined by the International Labour Organization as people working from their homes or from other premises of their chosing other than the workplace, for remuneration, which results of a product or service specified by the employer. There are an estimated 300 million homeworkers in the world, though because these workers generally function in the informal economy, and are seldom registered and often not contracted, exact numbers are difficult to come by. Recently, the phenomenon of homework has grown with increased communication technology, as well as changes in supply chains, particularly the development of Just In TimeW inventory systems.
Homeworkers differ from entrepreneurs, or self-employed, or family business, in that they are hired by companies for specific activities or services to be done from their homes. Homeworkers do not own or operate the business they work for. Though there is a significant body of highly skilled homeworkers, particularly in information technology, most homeworkers are considered low skilled labour. Recently, working conditions have worsened for homeworkers, and they are becoming a point of concern for international development organizations and non-governmental organizations.
The problems of homework
Currently, homeworkers are typically used as informal labour with few rights. Because they are seldom registered as employees, they are among the most vulnerable to exploitation, unreasonably low wages, refusal of the right to organize into unions, and inhumane conditions of work. Typically unprotected by laws or regulations, homeworkers have little or no bargaining power in the face of large companies, which may employ thousands of easily substitutable homeworkers. General trends towards trade liberalization have worsened this situation, not only in countries typically associated with poverty, but also in Western, rich nations.
At the industrial level, homework is often used when dealing with Just In Time inventory systems. Recent trends to move away from large factory floors and towards a large body of subcontracted workers and small firms. In that way, larger companies are able to outsource the risks involved in uncertainty of demand; if the product is not selling quickly, less work can be given to homeworkers, protecting the company from having to pay an idle workforce.
Independent, or 'own account' homeworkers
Alternatively, there is a whole group of homeworkers who own their own product and sell them locally, thus producing consumer goods from their homes and selling them to earn a living. Though not strictly fitting under the definition of the ILO, these homeworkers are often seen as a more socially sustainable and desirable working structure, which can be used for empowerment.
- See Demotech's Sustainable Design for Homework Concept for more details. (Link needed)
- Global trade and home work: closing the divide by Annie Delaney, Gender and Development,Vol 12, No 2, pp 22-28, July 2004
- Home Work Convention C177, 1996 by ILO, available at
- Organising home-based workers in the global economy: An action-research approach by Ruth Pearson, Development in Practice, Vol 4, No 1, Jan 2004