Around 41.85 million workers in India work from their homes as home-based producers. They have always done so, even before the pandemic. The poor quality of their homes and the deficits in housing and urban infrastructure policies have grave economic consequences for them, which are being exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis.

At this moment, when work-from-home has grabbed the attention of the policymakers and the general public, we advocate for the cause of these millions of home-based workers, many of them women, who contribute valuable products and services to domestic and global markets. Let us use the present moment to enable and promote better living and working conditions for a large number of vulnerable and often invisible home-based workers of India.

The new norm

Work from home is the new norm in Covid-19 times. Beginning as an essential response to the pandemic, it is now touted as possibly a long-term shift in work culture and organisation. Social media is overflowing with reflections on this change in the place of work and what it entails. But continuing to exist, shrouded in a cloak of invisibility, are a group of workers, many of them women and almost all informal, who have always worked from their own homes.

Defined as workers who undertake productive employment from within their own homes or premises around their homes, there are around 41.85 million home-based workers in India. A combination of care burden, restrictions on movement and limited livelihood opportunities force more women to take it up.

Home-based work thus constitutes a significant share – 22.7% of the female workforce in urban India. There seems to be a growing trend of outsourcing work to homes, making home-based workers the largest worker group in urban India at 11% of total employment.

Owing both to lack of proper work contracts and their isolated location within their own homes, these are a particularly invisible and marginalised set of informal workers. Their earnings are low and they have no other protections or benefits.

In addition, they pick up the cost of their place of work, which is also their home. Poor conditions here have a bearing not only on their quality of life but they also negatively impact their productivity and, consequently, their earnings. In a nutshell, one of the key challenges that home-based workers face has to do with their spatial environment. The deficits in housing and urban infrastructure policies have grave economic consequences for them. These have been further exacerbated during the pandemic and require urgent intervention.

Representational image. Manish Shukla/IndiaSpend

Home as workplace

As part of the urban working poor, home-based workers live in informal settlements which are characterised by overcrowding and poor infrastructure. Their houses, which are also their place of work, are often small and cramped.

The physical space has to be constantly adjusted and rearranged to accommodate their paid work and all other domestic activities, which is an added burden that remains uncompensated. Poor quality of housing leads to equipment, raw materials and finished goods getting damaged.

In many areas in the city, there is no regular provisioning of water. In such places women have to queue up to fill water from tankers, which eats into their productive hours. Many households rely on community toilets until they can save enough from their meagre earnings to build a personal toilet. Poor ventilation and electricity shortages further hinder productivity. The monetary and time costs of using and accessing these utilities are fully borne by the workers. This also has a negative impact on occupational health and safety.

High rents in cities use up a large portion of workers’ earnings, while state actions like eviction are a constant threat. The livelihood impact of these policies remains unrecognised as relocation to peripheral colonies destroys key socio-economic linkages, increases transport costs and further marginalises women workers.

City planning policies add a layer of insecurity for home-based workers. Despite being very small in scale, never using heavy machinery and rarely using toxic substances which could cause pollution or nuisance, single land-use norms in residential settlements makes home-based work illegal and open to be penalised. It also prevents the conception of any work-related infrastructure even in fully planned housing for the poor.

Pandemic and lockdown

The need to increase the visibility and recognition of home-based work is a long-standing demand that has been made even more urgent now. Missing from national or city-level statistics and without any overarching policy protecting them, home-based workers are one of the worst affected in the ongoing pandemic.

As government and corporate policies mandated their workers to resume work from their own homes, home-based workers found that the supply of work to them completely dried up.

A study in April found 92% of home-based workers in Delhi reporting severe job and income loss. With all the factories and markets in the city shut down, there was no longer any work for them to do. Contractors, the key links for the supply of work, found themselves without orders and, in many places, firms did not pay the outstanding payments for work that had already been completed. It is still unclear if and when these value-chains will bounce back.

Covid-19, although a health epidemic, has exposed the extreme vulnerability of the urban poor living in informal settlements. The impact of the epidemic outbreak and lockdown is being felt harshly with no earnings to fall back on.

Physical distancing and self-isolation are not possible in the dense settlements where they live and work. Lack of individual tap connections and running water makes frequent handwashing a challenge. Also, there is a risk of infection while collecting from common water posts. Risk of forced evictions due to defaulting on rent further adds to their vulnerability. The social stigma associated with being sick may jeopardise their earning opportunities and social life. Further, health services are inadequate in most places – with many issues related to quality and access, which are more pronounced during the present pandemic time.

Way forward

Crisis moments that reveal structural problems have often propelled new ways of thinking and doing. It is now clear that employment is the pivot around which urban life is arranged and that without it, the vast majority of citizens would be unable to survive in the city.

In these times, the needs of the millions of home-based workers who contribute immensely to larger value chains, must not be forgotten. It is time to recognise that the binary of home versus workplace does not exist for many informal workers, and that, for home-based workers, in particular, the home is a key productive asset.

The reality of homes being used for much more than shelter by urban workers has to be recognised and reflected in the housing policies of the country. The focus should be on enabling the provision of adequate affordable housing with secure tenure and access to basic services. The economic needs of the working poor must be reflected in the size and design norms, and flexibility to incrementally build and alter according to need must be maintained.

Apart from the house itself, the larger informal settlements are productive hubs which are providing jobs and sustaining local economies. A conducive environment should be created for workers here, through appropriate mixed-use land zoning and supportive infrastructures like community workstations and storage facilities. As the first city plan coming out post-pandemic, the Delhi Master Plan 2041 can pave the way by incorporating the needs of home-based workers through inclusionary zoning and worker-friendly housing strategies.

This moment of blurred boundaries between home and work in the face of a worldwide public health crisis has also given us an opportunity to reorient our perspectives on work and cities. When we now think of work-from-home, let us enable and promote better living and working conditions not just for the elite, but also for a large number of vulnerable and often invisible home-based workers.

Shalini Sinha is India Country Representative for WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), a global research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.

Malavika Narayan is a Research Consultant with Focal City Delhi Project, WIEGO. They are both members of the Main Bhi Dilli Campaign, a citizen’s collective aiming to make urban planning in Delhi more inclusive and participatory.