Extreme weather batters home-based workers’ livelihoods

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Trade unions cannot ignore the plight of informal workers who could face more threats to their livelihoods from climate change than formal workers, says Chris Bonner.

Goma Darji is a middle-aged woman working as a piece rate garment worker from home. Today she’s known as a home-based worker (HBW). An alcoholic husband, domestic violence at home and the passing away of her only son, her life has always been a struggle. However, she used to manage somehow with her tailoring work earning between 10000 to 20000 Nepal Rupees (86 to 171 USD) per month. Now she faces a lot of challenges due to climate change.

Living in a semi pucca home with a tin-roof sheet, it is so hot inside that working in afternoons is very difficult in summers. And if I use fan more then [sic] the electricity bill will be a high, which I can’t afford. Added to this is that we have now started facing frequent flooding in monsoons. My house is flooded and often damaged so I can’t work much during that season too. The broker uses this as an excuse to further delay payments, always citing flooding as a cause of delay. In winters, we used to work outside but now there is a lot of haze due to pollution. Thus my overall productivity has reduced all-round the year. With more and more women taking up these works already the piece rate has decreased and now that my productivity has also decreased my earnings will also decline.”

According to the ILO, workers like Darji in the informal economy make up more than 60% of the global workforce, i.e. two billion workers.

Addressing COP26 delegates in the Glasgow conference, Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary said,

We all know we are in a race against time for a sustainable future for both people and the planet. Trade unions are committed to climate ambition designed as a Just Transition – there must be no stranded workers and no stranded communities.” (my emphasis)

The Just Transition promoted by the international trade union movement, must not forget about informal workers like Darji. These workers and their communities must not end up being “stranded”.

HBWs are perhaps the most vulnerable of all workers. They produce goods or services from within their own homes or in nearby premises. This working-poor workforce, a majority being women, often termed the “invisible workforce”, is largely unrecognised by governments and employers. Their work is insecure; they have low incomes; are excluded from most social protection measures and many live in poorly constructed homes with limited basic services. 

During the pandemic, a study carried out by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) found that HBWs were the hardest hit group amongst a sample of workers in the informal economy including domestic workers, street and market vendors and waste pickers. Their incomes dropped dramatically and were the slowest to recover.

Raising the visibility and voice of HBWs

Darji’s experience is just one of the stories that HomeNet South Asia (HNSA) – a regional HBW organisation comprising 60 affiliates across South Asia – has gathered. Through household surveys and focus group discussions (FGD) conducted with HNSA affiliates in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, they found that livelihoods of HBWs are already affected by adverse climate factors such as increased heat and extreme water events including flooding and droughts.

Their study titled, “Impact of Climate Change on Urban Home-based Workers in South Asia”, is HNSA’s first step to ensure that HBWs are included in a Just Transition by raising their visibility and voice in relation to climate change challenges they face now and potentially in the future.

The World Bank predicts ever worsening conditions for these countries: temperatures and annual rainfall are expected to rise significantly in all three countries; tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal may increase with a likely increase in sea level causing flooding; in Nepal winters are projected to be drier and monsoon summers wetter resulting in more frequent summer floods and winter droughts. 

Given that Asia and the Pacific account for 65% of HBWs worldwide and with HBWs accounting for 24% of total women’s employment in South Asia, the inclusion of this constituency in any climate change and just transition strategies is essential.

HBWs’ observations about climate change

In HNSA’s research, 83% of the HBWs reported observing a rise in temperature over the past 10 years during summer months and that the number of hot weather days had increased.

More than half reported observing changes in rainfall patterns, including an increase in heavy and/or irregular rainfall days and unseasonal rains. A participant in an FGD in Lalitpur, India, noted that:

Monsoon season usually starts from June/July but this year it started earlier in April/May and in excessive amounts compared to last year. This increase has resulted in flooding. Also, there is a high intensity of rainfall in short durations.”

Additionally, 48% reported an increase in storms and cyclones, most distinct in Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Bhaktapur (Nepal). This data from Dhaka is not surprising considering that the city faces frequent storms and cyclones.

Impact of Climate Change on HBWs

Adverse climate trends and events all have an impact on the livelihoods of HBWs. Most of them reported a decrease in income from home-based work in the last five-year period. While the impact of Covid-19 and the resultant lockdown has added to this, around a quarter of the responses attributed decreased productivity of HBWs as one of the major causes and climate change a key contributor.

The rise in temperatures during the summer months means decreased working time, “Earlier I could make 10 pieces per hour but now I can make only 4 or 5 due to extreme heat inside the house,” said an FGD participant from Bhaktapur, Nepal. 

Bhavna Ben Ramesh sews handmade purses out of her home in Ahmedabad, India. Like other HBWs the extreme heat in summer will likely impact on how many she can make a day. (Photo credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage)

Hot weather also leads to spoilage of goods, for example for HBWs producing food. 

Unseasonal rains, flooding and water logging lead to loss of raw materials and finished goods.

Climate change, especially extreme heat, also affects the health of HBWs and their families. A number of HBWs reported that someone in the family had suffered from heat stroke in the last few years; and around one third reported that they or their families had been affected by water (diarrhea, cholera and typhoid) or vector (malaria, dengue) borne diseases. Being ill or caring for others who are ill, all reduce working time and productivity.

A number of factors specific to HBWs increase their vulnerability to climate change: the key factor being that their home is also their workplace. Most live in inadequate housing like Darji, with homes that are vulnerable to flooding and water logging during monsoons. Flooding and leaking roofs cause damage to equipment, raw materials and finished products. Paying for repairs is difficult in the absence of a stable income. Houses lack insulation and are subject to extremes of temperature.

Like Omar Darji, home-based workers Rookmani Ram Naryan (left) and her daughter, Kavita Harshiresh Yemul, who hand roll Indian-style cigarettes called bidi will face dwindling incomes because of extreme weather such as monsoons and very high temperatures  (Photo Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage)

Inadequate services such as lack of water connections, regular waste removal, stable and affordable electricity connections all add to their difficulties.  An FGD participant from Ahmedabad, India pointed out that “The high need for electricity in monsoons, when they cannot work outside results in increased electricity bills up to INR200 to 250, thus half of the 500 per month that they generally earn from part-time work goes into paying for the same.”

Working at home and being a woman means that unpaid care work reduces the hours available for paid work or extends the working day late into the night. Around 47% of the HBWs surveyed reported an increase in their unpaid care work, some of more than two hours a day.  They cited an increased burden of caring for the ill, followed by time and effort to fetch water and manage food stocks as major reasons.

It is important not to forget that the global affects the local. HBWs are found at the bottom end of global garment supply chains. Many decisions in the garment sector are made based on weather forecasts, and climate change and abnormal weather patterns influence consumers’ clothing behavior. This affects production and sale of fashion products, making for quick design changes and short lead times. The fluctuations in demand are immediately transferred to the bottom rung of the supply chain, affecting the HBWs directly. Work security and incomes are/will be affected by the impact of climate change in the source and market countries and along the product supply chains.

How to respond?

Low incomes and lack of social protection measures make HBWs vulnerable to any kind of shocks and affect their ability to respond and recover. In order to cope with the effects of climate change many have had to resort to extreme measures such as changing their homes and/or changing their livelihoods.  Some sold assets to cope with health care costs brought about by water and vector borne diseases.

The study found that knowledge of climate change adaptation solutions amongst home-based workers is low. It recommends that work be carried out in various ways and at various levels: communication and awareness generation, networking and multi-stakeholder partnership development, scientific knowledge transfer, exploration and promotion of adaptation solutions. 

Different actors need to be involved: government, civil society organisations, academics and researchers, climate change advocates, networks and donors.  Most important is the informed participation of HBW organisations. This includes local associations as well as regional organisations such as HomeNet South Asia, and the global organisation HomeNet International which have a critical role to play in the advocacy needed at regional and global levels.

Only in this way will HBWs like Goma Darji and others not be left stranded.

Chris Bonner is a Wiego Advisor and the former director of its Organization and Representation Programme

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Chris Bonner
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