by wowmagazine

A strong bond beyond borders

The year 2000 marked the genesis of home based workers’ movement in South Asia. The adoption of Kathmandu Declaration, the formation of HomeNet South Asia and the evolution of the movement itself in the last 23 years was evident in the two recent events held in Kathmandu over the last six months: HomeNet South Asia’s 1st Congress in October 2022 and HomeNet International’s 2nd Congress in April 2023.

A study done in 2019 by ILO and WIEGO shows that there are over 260 million home based workers across the world, representing 8% of the global workforce. And, of these 260 million, 147 million (57%) are women. In just four countries of South Asia namely Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, it is estimated that there are over 67 million home-based workers. Millions still remain in the shadows and go unaccounted for in the national statistics.

Home-based workers are a category of informal sector workers working in and around the home. They are either an own account worker or a piece rate worker. Despite their significant contribution to the national economy, they remain invisible, unrecognized and at the lowest tier of the supply chain. HomeNet South Asia has consistently advocated for the rights of this marginalised and invisible group, and amplified their voice and visibility. HomeNet South Asia is the only South Asian network of home-based worker organisations spread across eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka where it has 62 affiliates representing 1.2 million home based workers in South Asia, 95% of whom are women.

HomeNet South Asia’s Congress held in October 2022 saw almost 200 home based workers from South Asia gathered in Kathmandu to make it a Celebration of Life, especially after Covid-19. A group of traditional Newari drummers welcomed the guests to an extraordinary photo exhibition “A-Z of Home Based Workers” which shed light on all the sectors in which the home based workers are working in. A peaceful opening prayer/performance by renowned Ani Choying Drolma energised the hall full of dignitaries and delegates. The uniqueness of the inauguration was the gonging of the big bell by the HBWs from South Asia (namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) symbolising their plea to be heard and seen as a category of workers. It brought attention to the dignitaries of the tedious yet invisible work done by the HBWs. HomeNet South Asia’s Enforcer Chandni Joshi, Chairperson Renana Jhabvala and Trustees of HNSA – Dr. Quratulain Bakhteari, Phuntshok Chhoden Tshering, Niteesha Muthoor Mokram and Strategy Advisor Namrata Bali actively steered different sessions during the Congress, slogan of which was “We are a Movement, We are a Sisterhood, We are the Future!”

A tapestry measuring 90 inches by 100 inches was jointly unveiled by the Australian Ambassador to Nepal HE Ms. Felicity Volk, Member of Parliament Hon. Dr. Bimala Rai Paudyal and Member of National Planning Commission Hon. Ms. Saloni Singh. The tapestry titled “Diverse yet United” symbolised the solidarity of home based workers beyond borders; and it was designed and created by Sristi Joshi Malla (Former Chairperson of SABAH Nepal) with an array of woven, embroidered and knitted materials made by South Asian home based workers. An Artisan Bazaar was also organised to showcase the diverse products made by the home based workers.

The affiliates who attended the Congress, actively participated in panel discussions on Access to Market and group work on Combatting Violence and Climate Change. The final day, i.e. October 20, 2022 – the Home Based Workers’ Day – witnessed 250 home based workers marching peacefully on the streets of Kathmandu during the Solidarity Walk with their demands written on placards in various languages.

Recently Kathmandu witnessed yet another Congress in which almost 200 home based workers from 29 countries from Africa, Eastern Europe & Central Asia, Latin America, South Asia and Southeast Asia participated. From April 25-28, 2023, HomeNet International (HNI) hosted its second Congress in Kathmandu, Nepal where home based workers of 72 out of its 75 affiliates came together in person for the first time.

The inaugural session of this event started in an innovative manner where some glimpses of Nepali culture were showcased in the form of vibrant jatras of Nepal. From the loud beatings of the drums, synchronized jhyali baja, traditional Newari dance, Lakhey dance, the twirling of an extremely tall colorful Bamboo stick and a parade of women home based workers of Khokana clad in traditional haku potasi attire was a sight to cherish! This spectacular jatra was then followed alphabetically by the 29 home based workers who proudly waved their national flags and walked up the stage. The entire hall was engulfed with positive energy to last for the next few days. This unique way of inaugurating the Congress was the brainchild of Sristi Joshi Malla, Regional Coordinator of HomeNet South Asia, and was facilitated by Prasant Tamrakar, the Choreographer.
The formal session started with the two stalwarts of the Home Based Workers’ movement. Chandni Joshi, Enforcer of HomeNet South Asia (HNSA) and Renana Jhabvala, Chairperson of HNSA explained the entire journey during the inaugural session. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India started organizing informal workers in the 1970s and coined the term “home-based workers” for workers working in and around the home. An important milestone was the adoption of the ILO Home Work Convention (C177) in 1996. Led by SEWA, home based workers’ organizations, trade unions and supportive NGOs came together to advocate for a convention.

After the adoption of C177, the HBWs organisations wanted a global network of home based workers for its ratification. While this dream could not be realised then, the seeds were sown for regional HomeNets, in particular, HomeNet South Asia and HomeNet Southeast Asia, to develop and flourish.

“Our vision is for greater visibility and recognition of home-based workers and for a strong, united and representative voices on global platforms where home-based workers effectively engage and challenge governments and employers who have power over their working lives,” said Renana Jhabvala.

“We started this Home Based Workers’ movement after the Kathmandu Declaration in 2000 when all the countries of South Asia got together. The Secretaries from Ministries of Labour from South Asia, SAARC, Gender Advocates, Researchers, late Ms. Ela Bhatt, Founder of SEWA, UNIFEM, Ms. Renana Jhabvala and Ms. Martha Chen came together, and then HomeNet South Asia was established,” shared Chandni Joshi. They both while tracing the history of the movement shared the major highlights and flagship programs mainly of HomeNet South Asia. It was only after two long decades of perseverance that HomeNet International was launched in a virtual Congress in February 2021 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

The theme of HNI’s Congress: “We Are Many, We Are United, We Are HomeNet International” resonated the solidarity among home based workers beyond all barriers, be it borders or languages. The Congress provided HNI delegates an opportunity to discuss their priority areas of work; showcase their products in a vibrant Bazaar; elect a new Executive Committee, and deepen the unity that was built by HNI during the pandemic’s virtual activities. The credit goes to HNI’s Working Committee members who relentlessly worked pro bono for 26 long months, meeting every month to plan for the Congress; and the facilitation, delegation and execution done by HNI’s International Coordinator Janhavi Dave and her team was par excellence.

Josephine “Olive” Parilla (PATAMBA, HomeNet Philippines) was elected the new President of HomeNet International; Manali Shah (SEWA Union, India) the new Vice President and MJemimah Awuor Nyakongo (HomeNet Kenya) the new Treasurer. The other new Executive Committee members are Rebecca Nelson from Africa; Lavrent Alania and Svetlana Balalaeva from Eastern Europe and Central Asia; Edileuza Guimarães and Tatiana Venus Rojas Orellana from Latin America; Apsara Dangol from South Asia; and Titin Kustini from South East Asia.

A series of thematic discussions during the Congress stimulated the interest of home based workers as it revolved mainly around the key emerging issues faced by them, such as organising, access to market, social protection, and the impact of climate change in their daily lives. The Congress also witnessed the presence of supporters, allies and sister organisations such as Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organising (WIEGO); and HNI created spaces during the four days for them to address the gathering and share their solidarity messages.

From left to right: Farida Khanam (HNSA Affiliate, Bangladesh), Phuntshok Chhoden Tshering (HNSA Trustee, Bhutan), Sristi Joshi Malla (Regional Coordinator, HNSA), Chandni Joshi (Enforcer, HNSA), Renana Jhabvala (Chairperson, HNSA), HE Esala Ruwan Weerakoon (SAARC Secretary General), Madame Krishanti Weerakoon, Dr. Quratulain Bakhteari (HNSA Trustee, Pakistan), Aminath Abdulla (HNSA Affiliate, Maldives) and Dinusha Rajarathna (HNSA Affiliate, Sri Lanka).

The delegates were taken on different field trips to witness the existing working environments of home based workers in Nepal. The visits organised by HNI were facilitated by HomeNet South Asia’s six affiliates, namely Centre for Labour And Social Studies Nepal (CLASS Nepal), Home Based Worker Concern Society Nepal (HBWCSN), SAATHI, Women for Human Rights (WHR), SABAH Nepal and Khokana Women Awareness Society (KWAS). The delegates had interactive sessions with Nepali HBWs to understand the challenges faced by them, understand the products made by them and also the supply chain structure of each of the organizations.

A special cultural event was hosted by Enforcer of HNSA Chandni Joshi in the evening of the field visit day. Chandni welcomed all delegates and dignitaries invited for the evening, including the SAARC Secretary General, Australian Ambassador HE Felicity Volk, UNDP Resident Representative Ayshanie Labe and government officials. Pancha Kumari Dance and a couple of Nepali folk dances were showcased to promote Nepali culture to this large group of HNI delegates who were visiting Nepal for the very first time. An exceptional product show was organised in order to showcase the beautiful and intricate products made by home based workers across the globe. The dignity and pride exuded by HBWs was priceless. Last but not the least, a Solidarity Walk was choreographed well by Prasant Tamrakar in sync with the music created by DJ Vital for the occasion representing all five regions – Africa, Eastern Europe & Central Asia, Latin America, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Sadichha Shrestha, the Emcee for the evening, has been a supporter of the HBW’s movement in Nepal for over a decade. Sristi Joshi Malla, responsible for the cultural event, once again showcased her creativity in envisioning and executing such an extraordinary evening.

The main highlight of the last day was HNI’s 1st Declaration which was endorsed by all delegates. The Declaration has been drafted in aspiration of using it as a powerful advocacy tool to raise public awareness about important issues, and to influence policy decisions that affect the lives of all home based workers across the globe.

HomeNet South Asia’s Enforcer, Chairperson, Board of Trustees, three members of Advisory Board and the Regional Coordinator of HNSA paid a courtesy call to the Secretary General of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation on April 26, 2023. A formal ceremony with all SAARC Directors and staff of SAARC Secretariat, the tapestry was handed over officially to the Secretary General. The Enforcer, Chairperson and the Regional Coordinator (as the designer of the Tapestry) also spoke at the ceremony where the SAARC SG thanked HNSA for keeping the spirit of solidarity alive beyond borders at the grassroots.

Chandni Joshi
HomeNet South Asia

“I am not a dreamer, it is not in my temperament to dream,” says Chandni Joshi, Enforcer, HomeNet South Asia (HNSA). But through her work with HomeNet, she has helped realise the dreams of thousands of women at the grassroots level. Women toiling in rural and urban areas have come together under HNSA. It has enabled them to organize, empower and also speak up against the exploitative middlemen while marketing their products.

“In the early days of HomeNet South Asia, it was very difficult to derive a definition of home based workers. I remember placing a home based worker in a corner of Princess Hotel in Bangkok – a shoemaker continuing her daily chores of cooking, caring for her child while doing her productive work in a home like mock up. This was a strategic intervention to make the policy makers of 15 different countries understand the category of home based workers we were talking about. Every time there was a deviation or confusion, I would show them the home based worker again and again to clarify their doubts!” she exclaimed.

Enforcer Chandni continues, “As a founding member of home-based workers movement, it gives me immense joy to see how the journey we initiated in 2000 to shed light on this category of informal workers here in Kathmandu itself, has grown into an international network of home-based worker organizations across five regions – South Asia, South-East Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe & Central Asia. When I look at different Nets working so proactively in different parts of the world, my heart swell up with pride.”

“Rebuilding a world of equal opportunities for women has always been my goal.”

HNSA began by mapping, organising and creating a safe network for home based workers across South Asia to come together, learn and grow together. The culmination of HNI Congress is also a recognition of HNSA’s pioneering work in this sector.

The support Ms. Joshi was able to provide HomeNet South Asia as the Former Regional Director of United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) for South Asia was exceptional. Talking about what interests her in the work she does, Chandni shares, “My choice of career to work for the excluded women, learning from them and rebuilding a world of equal opportunities for them has always been my goal.”

The living room wall of her residence has pictures framed of important milestones in her career. She is considered a gender and rights champion across all countries of South Asia where the impact of her work is clearly evident. We asked her from where she gets the strength to fight and achieve. “It is from the women themselves. They have always given me the strength. They are strong and resilient even when faced with crises and disasters,” she answers simply. One thing she is extremely happy and proud about HomeNet South Asia is the way it has been able to keep their affiliates together. By making the movement more inclusive, HomeNet South Asia hopes to contribute in keeping the issues of home based workers in the priority list of policy makers too.

Phuntshok Chhoden Tshering
Trustee, HNSA
Chair, SABAH Bhutan

“I am a Trustee of HNSA and Chair of SABAH Bhutan. The challenges HBWs face is that they are invisible. They are the backbone of the society, but are never counted by the national economy, nor is the work they carry out in their home. They are not recognized formally as workers, so this movement is very important for them to be heard and seen.

This HNI Congress is important as it has brought home based workers from around the globe for solidarity. They have to be considered important actors in the national development in all our countries of the South Asian region. Home-based workers form a very important part of our informal economy yet they are not acknowledged. It is important to recognise them as important actors while forming policies and laws and national budget.

“A majority of HBWs are women. Their labour drives industries and economies while also keeping their families out of poverty. However, they are rarely recognised as workers and access to labour entitlements remains out of their reach. “

Thanks to social media that our governments will learn about the event. Entities like HNSA and HNI are helping their affiliates to understand their challenges and their needs. Such congress is important for national governments to know HBW’s worth and recognise their contribution. In HNSA, those who conceived the vision of the movement, Late Ela Ben, and we have Chandni ji, Renana ji with us to reactivate the movement and launch the HNI, which has been in our agenda in HNSA. I have been proud to be a part of this conversation and momentum built while HNI was formed.”

Firoza Mehrotra
HNSA, India

The fact that home-based workers are in huge numbers and yet not recognised drew Firoza’s attention towards it while she was serving in India as an IAS officer. “HBWs are silent workers, they work from home, they are invisible, they are marginalised and yet they are contributing to their family, society and country. And unfortunately they are not even counted,” says Firoza Mehrotra who has been working in the advisory board of HNSA to get visibility for HBWs.
Taking us back to how difficult it was to form a network like HNSA, Firoza points the hardest part was the registration.

“After looking at different options, we finally registered in Mauritius as a trust in 2006 because there was no other way,” she says. These served as a learning lesson for other organisations. “When HomeNet Africa was formed, they invited me to talk about what are the things they shouldn’t be doing as an organisation. From my experience in HNSA, I could guide them to have all the legal frameworks on time,” Firoza shares. On that note, she reveals HomeNet International is yet to be registered. “HNI is doing some ground work and research on where to register. The first challenge is registration and the second is the mobility between countries. The visa regulation around the world is difficult due to various reasons,” she explains.

“HBWs are silent workers, they work from home, they are invisible, they are marginalised, and yet they are contributing to their family, society & country. And unfortunately, they are not even counted”

Visa ease was also one of the reasons why HNI Congress was held in Nepal. “Organising in Kathmandu was way easier than in any other country. Nepal has been very progressive in these terms and very tourist friendly as well,” she tells us. Talking about the four day HNI Congress, Firoza is surprised to learn that there were 15 different language interpretations during the event with several whisper interpretation as well. “Communication is one of the greatest challenges in HNI as in different international events you only have five language interpretations going on,” she says.

In a way HNI Congress also helped their delegates to learn from each other. “They learnt the life lessons, they know each other now and they rightly pointed the issues they wanted to solve collectively,” she states.

Sharing about the progress in India in recognising HBWs, Firoza says, “So far India has started something called wage card which is achieved when you register on the platform of the labor ministry. And this is valid not only for HBWs but also informal workers which includes domestic workers, street vendors, construction workers, etc. That’s quite a big step because at least now somebody is recognizing that there are informal sector workers and they are being provided social security to some extent.”

Her vision for HNSA is to be a strong regional body which helps creates solidarity amongst home based workers across all countries.

Ume-Laila Azhar
Board Member HomeNet Pakistan

“Home Based women workers in Pakistan comprise 70% of informal workforce behind the country economic activities,” says Ume-Laila Azhar who has been actively working for HNP in collaboration with Aurat Foundation since its establishment in 2005 and has been a part of HomeNet South Asia since the Kathmandu Declaration in 2000.

Since 2005, HomeNet Pakistan (HNP) has been involved in organising, mobilising, data collection, advocacy and lobbying for the issues and rights of home-based women workers. “HNP has an outreach in 86 districts of the country. Currently 538 organisations are registered with HNP with 58,262 women home-based workers,” states Laila.

Pakistan as a country is struggling with political instability and this has had major impact on home-based workers. “They were most affected when the overall unemployment rate declined. HNP enabled home-based workers to regain their momentum by conducting several trainings offering multiple skills development and business growth to improve their micro businesses in new ways,” she shares.

“When you are organised and work together, you gain strength. It takes a long time to succeed, the process is slow, it has been nearly two decades since HNP was founded but there is hope and solutions”

One of the major milestones of HNP has been that the Bill on home-based workers for social protection has been passed in four provinces of Pakistan. On March 9, 2023 home based workers commemorated International Women’s Day and celebrated the approval of the much-awaited Punjab HBWs Act 2023 in Lahore with fervour, zeal and enthusiasm. “The Punjab HBWs Act 2023 which was initiated in 2011 has made Pakistan the first country to have four provincial legislations for HBWs. The affirmative action for Home Based Workers in Pakistan have eventually brought a huge workforce of the informal economy contributing to the GDP into the formal workforce,” Laila states.

How does HNP overcome hurdles such as unsupportive contract systems, cruel money lenders and middlemen? “When you are organised and work together, you gain strength. It takes a long time to succeed, the process is slow, it has been nearly two decades since HNP was founded but there is hope and solutions,” she concludes.

Home Based Workers in Pakistan can now keep their financial records through the wage card. “HNP created the wage card consisting of basic information with the help of the HNSA user guide. It turned out to be a useful instrument,” she explains.

Dinusha Rajarathna
CEO, SABAH Sri Lanka

“I am the CEO of SABAH Sri Lanka and I have been with SABAH for the last 14 years. We started in 2011 by coming to Nepal and getting experience of SABAH Nepal. We started with the food sector and now we have diversified into garment. We started with SAARC Development Fund and now we are trying to be sustainable. We are opening a new shop and starting a franchise model.

HNI is a good experience for us, meeting so many home-based workers from around the globe, though we might not understand their language, but the problems are the same so to solve our joint problem, this is a good platform. We can lobby for HBW friendly policies, and ultimately, make the home based workers’ lives comfortable.”

Sristi Joshi Malla
Regional Coordinator HomeNet South Asia

Since childhood, Sristi wanted to work for the economic empowerment of women. “My mother worked for women’s development and I always used to tell her that I am interested in this field only if it makes marginalized women rich!” she recalls. Sristi has been involved with the Home Based Workers’ movement since the Kathmandu Declaration was unanimously endorsed by South Asia in 2000.

“With HNSA’s initial support, the mapping was done in all countries including Nepal, but the market for the home-based workers’ products was yet to be achieved. And SABAH was just the right platform,” says Sristi Joshi Malla who served as the Chairperson of SAARC Business Association of Home Based Workers (SABAH Nepal) from 2012-2022. She worked pro bono to strengthen the livelihood of financially deprived and marginalized home based workers of the informal sector in Nepal.
SABAH Nepal creates market linkages for women home based workers who have the inherent skills but lack the opportunity. By promoting enterprise management and collective marketing under the SABAH brand, women home based workers have received numerous opportunities to upgrade their skills, connect to market through their flagship store, receive virtual trainings and sell their products to online marketing platforms during covid-19 pandemic. During her tenure, Sristi feels satisfied to have seen the transformation of SABAH members. “From a silent member to a confident leader, I was fortunate to witness the resilience of our members especially during the catastrophes.” She was able to showcase SABAH Nepal to different stakeholders including the Rt. Hon. President of Nepal, HM Queen Mother of Bhutan, US Senators, UN Executive Board, diverse donors as well as Ambassadors of US, EU and Norway.

Sristi is now the Regional Coordinator of HomeNet South Asia. With bigger roles come bigger responsibilities. At HNSA, she is responsible for 62 affiliates (including SABAH Nepal) representing 1.2 million home based workers in South Asia. Let us hope Sristi’s childhood dream of making the marginalized women rich be realised soon.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment