home-based workers in India

Home-Based Work: Intersectionalities and Vagaries

By: Saraswati Raju
In competitive markets, the concept of flexible and cheap labour is best articulated through home-based work. On one hand, it fits comfortably with social codes that assign women to the confines of the home; on the other, it is a profit-maximising venture.
Gender Justice Magazine Articles

The concept of boundaries has been extensively used in the work–family literature.  Activities formally designated as ‘work’ and the activities associated with domestic matters often take place in separate spaces. It would be of interest, therefore, to see how when formal work takes place in informal spaces at home, the conceptual and geographic boundaries, largely used for categorising the domestic and public domains, overlap. At times, domestic spaces may transcend the rigidly defined confines of homes. Under such circumstances, the ways in which the home-based workers are often identified in the official discourses provide some fuel to theoretically problematise the assumed conception of home and home-based workers.

Drawing upon the unprotected nature of home-based work with associated caste, class and ethnic intersectionalities that essentialise it, it is argued that home-based work can easily be seen as epitome of symbolic and material marginalisation. Symbolic in the sense of not only echoing the ground realities regarding gendered norms at large, but also legitimising the material marginalities. One can, however, argue that home-based work is better than no work at all. However, home-based work by women is often carried out in addition to women’s unpaid household responsibilities—in her ‘so-called’ spare hours (Basole, 2016). Moreover, such workers remain outside any labour legislation and compensation in case of any untoward events if the workplace
is home.

The article is in three parts—an introductory section is followed by an analysis of overlapping vulnerabilities of home-based workers in terms of caste, class, ethnic locations, educational level and occupational avenues. The last part concludes the discussion.

Home-based Workers and Multiple Vulnerabilities

The Indian labour market has shown oscillating trends in the overall workforce participation rates in general and that of women in particular. While the 2004-2005 National Sample Survey (NSS) data had an increase in the workforce participation rates of women, the recent data for 2011-2012 show some decline. If the 2004-2005 increase is ignored as an exception, there is a secular trend in terms of overall decline in workforce rate amongst women in general.

There are a few aspects that appear to sustain even as the absolute levels of workforce participation rates may vary over the years. One such dimension is the predominance of the self-employed amongst the workers. Although there is not much of a difference between men and women self-employed workers, there is an overwhelming presence of home-based workers amongst
women (Fig. 1).

Self employed home-based workers

Since the article is about urban India, non-agricultural workers have been taken into account for assessing the percentage share of self-employed workers amongst them. Non-agricultural workers are all workers excluding those employed in ‘crop and animal production, hunting and related service activities.’ Agricultural workers are not taken into account as their presence in urban India is minimal and most of the agricultural activities take place both in domestic and public spaces making it almost impossible to confine them to home-based work. Thus the 68th Round of National Sample Survey (NSS) Schedule 10, 2011-2012 canvassed the question of ‘location of workplace’ only to people employed in non-agricultural activities.

Let us now see what is ‘home’ in home-based work. Question pertaining to ‘location of workplace’ was not uniformly canvassed for all individuals in various NSS Rounds. In the 2004-2005 NSS Report, home-based workers were those whose location of work was ‘own dwelling unit’. The percentages were 19.5 for male workers and 69.2 for women workers respectively. In 2011-2012, however, home-based workers could report location of work as ‘own dwelling unit, structure attached to own dwelling unit, open area adjacent to own dwelling unit, detached structure adjacent to own dwelling unit’. Accordingly, the extended definition of home-based women workers for India as a whole constituted 75.7 per cent as against 63.0 per cent if only those women working from own dwellings were considered. The corresponding figures for men were 22.8 per cent as against 13.2 per cent respectively. It can thus be noted that there has been decline in the shares of home-based workers from the earlier NSS Round—in 2004-2005. This decline in workers at their own dwellings can perhaps partly be explained in keeping with the general decline in workforce participation rate over the period.

One can expect home-based work to be concentrated in industrial states which are in the process of being linked with global production system through export-oriented manufacturing activities such as food processing, textile, garment and related trades where subcontracting is common. If so, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are obvious choices in this regard (Ghosh, 2002). However, there are other less developed states such Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir with comparable levels of home-based women workers where (export) linkages with external markets are generally weak or absent (Fig. 2). Ironically, the incidence of home-based women workers does not have the distinct regional variations as is the case with those who are working in public domains. This is an overall sanction of women workers’ place in private sphere such as homes. That this serves as satisfying both, the stereotypical confinement of women to home-spaces even as they bring some incomes to the households as well as the essentialised profit-making interests of the ventures, so characteristics of the changing nature of Indian labour market is what I argue for.

Not only more women than men are home-based, their demographic profile, educational levels and caste composition tell us a story of overlapping vulnerabilities that are more serious than the male counterparts (Fig. 3).

Educational Levels home-based workers

As far as the caste composition is concerned, it is well-known that in India, women from higher castes face a more restricted socially encrypted regime in terms of their participation in formal work.  As compared to them, women belonging to other backward castes (OBC) are much less restricted (Table 1).

Workers and home-based workers

65.2 per cent of urban women aged 15 to 59 had reported household work as a principal usual activity for them (Rawal and Saha,2015)­— household chores, caring and rearing of children and the old people. In material terms, women’s unpaid care work is huge. It is estimated that women perform 75 per cent of the world’s unpaid care work. In India, women perform 10 to 12 times the unpaid care work compared to men (Pandey and Mannathukkaren, 2018).

Not only the social nature of labour and the multiple identities of women—gainfully working and yet maintaining cultural-ideological controls,  are clearly implicated, (labour) structures seem to reproduce the situations in which women emerge as victims of gendered ideologies. And yet often official (policy) discourse eulogises home-based work which is seen as ‘advantageous to . . . [women] because while doing their routine work at home, they do the job and supplement the incomes of their families . . . The women have flexibility in working as there are no fixed hours of work and they do not have to move out of their houses. . . (Mazumdar, 2004: 17, emphasis added).

For home-based work, the raw materials are generally collected from the employers/contractors by the men folk of the household and finished goods are also delivered to the employers/contractors by them.  Ironically, even presumably forward looking policies in state discourses do not question such constructs and continue to regard self-employed workers as having autonomy in terms of how, where and when to produce.  They also talk about the economic independence of home-based workers as far as market, scale of operation and money are concerned. One may argue that such institutionalised legitimisation works towards reinforcement of constructs that confine women to domesticity. And yet, most women engaged in domestic duties as their principal activity were willing to take on (additionally) what can officially be called ‘work’ if it was available within the confines of their homes. However, this ‘preference’ has to be deconstructed – the so called preference comes from internalisation of social norms. The fact
that employers give precedence to subcontract work at home for cost-cutting is conveniently pushed to the backburners (Chen, Sebstad and O’Connell 1999).

A woman’s spatial framing is thus an outcome of the twin process of assigning her primary location within domesticity combined with societal reticence towards her visibility in public places and external compulsions. According to Maria Mies (1982, quoted in Rani and Unni 2009), home-based workers are semi-domesticated – that is to say, they are ‘housewives’ as far as their social standing is concerned, but they are wage labourers, integrated into market-oriented production system.


It is a commonplace understanding that in a globalising world, countries which have access to cheap labour have a competitive edge in export-oriented growth. It is also well known that women (and children) form a major component of cheap labour. Ironically, however, the changing nature of labour market dynamics in the contemporary context seems to have become an ideal site for reframing women’s position anew within the household sphere.

The location of women in such outcomes poses a classic dilemma. Although women’s access to income-generating activities is supposed to enhance their bargaining power, their concentration in most exploitative avenues of work with legitimacy appropriated to it by placing them largely in the sphere of domesticity—is an issue for contesting such a claim. The entire situation becomes further complex and layered because of the overlapping and multiple vulnerabilities,  economic and social that the expanding capital uses to its benefit.


Chen, M. A., Sebstad J, and O’Connell L., 1999. Counting the Invisible Workforce: The Case of Home-based Workers, World Development 27 (3): 603–10.

Ghosh J., 2002. Globalisation, Export-Oriented Employment for Women and Social Policy: A Case Study of India, Social Scientist, 30 (11): 17–60.

Pandey A., and Mannathukkaren N., 2018. Women and invisible work, The Hindu, June 28.

Rani U. and Unni J., 2009. Do Economic Reforms Influence Home-based Work? Evidence from India, Feminist Economics 15 (3):191-225.

Rawal V. and Saha P., 2015. Women’s employment in India: What do recent NSS surveys employment and unemployment show? Society for Social and Economic Research (SSER) Monograph 15/1, pp. 1-48.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *