There’s a good reason why home workers are known as the “invisible workforce” or the “shadow economy” of the garment industry.
Far less regulated than factory work, home-based work—that is, work performed in households and small workshops rather than the traditional four-wall setting—is little understood by brands and retailers and virtually unknown to the general consumer.
Yet home workers, who operate informally at the bottom of the supply chain, are among the sector’s most exploited, perhaps more so than the typical factory worker. They may not work under sweatshop-like conditions per se, but the irregular, extremely low-paid and piece-rate nature of the job means home workers frequently lack job security or stable incomes. Neither are they afforded the usual social protections or the right to legal restitution if a contractor reneges on a payment.
“Most homeworkers work in isolation,” said Dominique Muller, director of policy at the Clean Clothes Campaign, a global consortium of workers-rights groups and labor unions. “They don’t have access to any of the employment-related benefits: maternity pay, sick leave, things like that. They’re often not given training in terms of health and safety or any of the chemicals that they might use.”
Though the precise number of home workers globally is nigh impossible to quantify, their ranks likely run in the hundreds of millions, according to the International Labour Organization. Artisan activity, per the nonprofit Aspen Institute, is the second-largest employer behind agriculture in the developing world.