Heavily affected by the lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic, home-based workers have not enjoyed what little relief government has provided.
Before covid-19 and the lockdown, many home-based workers (HBWs) in the manufacturing sector experienced long periods of no work. Cut Make and Trims (CMTs) are workers who have in previous years been retrenched and whose some-time employment has been casualised by the clothing industry. They often go without work for many months due to their lowly position in the supply chain. Clothing company liquidations and factory closures have also caused many of their employees to become home-based workers, like Gail White, after losing their jobs: “Before working at Abby’s Fashions, I worked at a clothing company and I lost my permanent job because of retrenchments.”
The covid-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the livelihoods of street vendors and home-based workers. With no recognition and protection as workers, government’s economic measures to mitigate the impact of the lockdown has only reached workers in the formal economy. Home-based workers did not have any relief to fall back on, which meant many families went hungry as they had no income.
Abigail Strachan who runs Abby’s Fashions, explained that one of the problems that they face is lack of recognition. “We are workers and produce for the economy [but] we are invisible. We make clothes that people wear. Government must recognise us. We produce for the economy and people buy the clothes that we make.”
During level 4 of the lockdown government regulations required that everyone wear a mask when in public places. This created a welcome demand which saw clothing companies open their doors with minimal staffing. They assisted some cooperatives and CMTs with work but paid at extremely low rates of R2 to R2.50 per completed item. Most of the HBW groups don’t know the actual client who placed the order and have no bargaining power to determine the rate that their work is worth.
This was the situation before covid-19 and as Ayesha Louw from New Hope explains, “We struggled when the lockdown started, we could not work and had no income. Through networks we would do masks for private companies and hospitals.”
This was the same for Abby’s Fashion who produced hospital theatre gowns at an extremely low rate of R7 per item and feet coveralls at R1. Asakhe Sisilana from Litha Co-operative in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, feels that they are being robbed: “We must be recognised as workers and get the work from the suppliers directly. The middle person is killing us.”
In essence the struggle for better recognition in the supply chain such as negotiating rates with clients will ensure improved and regular income as well as job-security.
While some co-operatives and CMTs were able to work from home, others like the Litha Co-operative suffered a complete loss of income because they rented space. Eventually they found temporary workspace in a crèche and paid less rent. Shahieda Cassiem, from New Hope Co-operative in Manenberg, Cape Town argued, “We must be recognised and government must support us by assisting with decent workspace and a better work environment.”
While corruption in PPE tendering in the public and private sectors has been exposed, little mention has been made about the levels of exploitation of the CMTs and co-operatives of home-based workers in the supply chain. They are the definition of precarious, without a contract with the supplier to protect them and never knowing for how long they will have work. A recent case with Abby’s Fashions was that for a while they had consistent work to make PPEs to the extent that it provided work for three extra CMTs, employing a total of forty-four workers who were suddenly informed three days before by the middle-man that their contract would end. No warning was given to the workers to prepare their families and they were without any recourse or protection from the government or their big private supplier.
HBWs have become more conscious about the need to be organised and unite and struggle for their rights. A recent example was a regular supplier of work to seven cooperatives who informed the team leaders that they were unable to provide jobs to all seven of them. They intended terminating two of the co-operatives and would communicate which these would be. The seven cooperatives called a separate meeting and discussed the proposal and called the company back to a meeting and made an alternative proposal. Essentially this meant that they were entering into negotiations despite not having recognition and protection by the labour laws of the country. The company ended up providing new orders for six co-operatives because the seventh one had closed down during the lockdown. This collective action gave confidence to the HBWs and built a spirit of solidarity. It represented a significant shift by the home-based workers to collective organising, bargaining and solidarity.
This augurs well for their future because the organisation and system of production has changed with informal and HBWs a growing section of the workforce. However, they are not visible nor even referred to as workers. The traditional trade unions do not have strategies that organise or assist informal workers to be recognised and improve their livelihoods.