A homeworker in the US
A homeworker in the US. As many as one in five of the global workforce was working from home during the pandemic, according to the ILO © Bloomberg

The surge in homeworking because of the coronavirus pandemic has fuelled an urgent need for better regulation, according to new research by the International Labour Organization which found that even workers in higher-skilled jobs are worse off than those in workplaces.

About 260m workers, the majority of them women, were already based at home before the outbreak of Covid-19, the UN agency estimated, almost 8 per cent of the global workforce — and at least double that proportion in large parts of Asia and the Pacific.

But in the early months of the pandemic as many as one in five of the global workforce was working from home, the ILO said, giving “renewed urgency to the need to address the issues facing homeworkers and their employers”.

Around the world, homeworkers range from those performing manufacturing tasks, whether rolling cigarettes or craftsmanship such as embroidery, to teleworkers in professional and technical roles and those who offer flexible services such as copywriting or tagging photos for digital platforms.

Homeworkers are almost everywhere worse off financially, even in higher-skilled professions, after controlling for age, occupation and education, according to the research; in the US on average they earned 22 per cent less in total pay than those working outside the home.

In the UK, where more than 10 per cent of the workforce is home-based, often with high hourly pay, total earnings were still 13 per cent lower.

The differential was even wider in many developing economies: in South Africa homeworkers earned on average 25 per cent less, while in Argentina, India and Mexico the earnings gap was at least 50 per cent.

Only in Italy, where homeworkers put in very long hours, was their total pay higher than that of those working on employers’ premises. 

Homeworkers also face worse conditions, the research found, with a greater likelihood of uncertain hours, and are often not covered by social security legislation. Those who are covered by legislation are often unable to enforce their rights, because of isolated working conditions and a lack of union representation, the ILO warned.

Homeworkers face safety risks ranging from the use of dangerous chemicals and tools without adequate training to platform workers’ exposure to violent and pornographic content while screening digital material.

Many European countries — including Germany, Spain, Greece and Ireland — have launched initiatives to improve regulation for the new army of home office workers, including setting clearer boundaries between work and personal life, and better oversight of workers’ welfare. Critics said some of these proposals are misguided, and could erode collective bargaining arrangements or lead to companies outsourcing work to countries with lower standards.

The ILO’s policy proposals range from bringing industrial homeworkers into the formal economy — with written contracts, access to social security and better legal protections — to using data to set fair wages for digital platform workers, rather than leaving them in a global race to the bottom.

For teleworkers, who are more often based in high income countries, the priorities should be to ensure equal treatment with those still on employers’ premises, address the mental risks of social isolation, and enable people to draw a line between their working and private lives, the ILO said.

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