Homeworkers — reserve army of the half-employed

With fingers weary and worn.
With eyelids heavy and red,
A Woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the ‘Song of the Shirt!’

‘Work — work — work
Till the brain begins to swim.
Work — work — work
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep
And sew them on in a dream!

‘O, Men with Sisters dear!
O Men! with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out.
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch — stitch — stitch,
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread
A Shroud as well as a Shirt


Whatever the outcome of this winter’s campaign by many union-organised low-paid workers, it will do little or nothing to improve the situation of homeworkers. These freelance, “self-employed” workers, mainly women, work in or from their own homes, some as envelope addressers, others putting toys, balloons or mottoes in Xmas crackers, while a great many are in the rag-trade. The Daily Mirror (Jan. 30, 1979) exposed some typically atrocious conditions:


  Mary Fabri gets paid 80p a dozen for making fashionable Broderic Anglaise petticoats which sell at £4.75 each. Her earnings are £20-£22 per week, out of which she has to pay about £1.30 for electricity to power her sewing machine. Rachel Tomlinson used to “slave away till two or three in the morning”. She machines trouser suits at 75p each, using a twentypart pattern: these suits are sold by mail order at £26. Pat Frolich and her friends, getting 4p for putting tassels on football supporters’ scarves, tried to get 1p increase, and on being refused they joined the General and Municipal Workers’ Union. “I didn’t get any more work which amounts to the sack, and the Union couldn’t do a thing.”


In the nineteenth century, before the factories superseded the domestic system, the lace-makers, milliners and spinners working at home, were all employed in much the same way. There was also then the notorious “rag trade”:


  One of the most shameful, the most dirty, and the worst paid kinds of labour, and one on which women and young girls are by preference employed, is the sorting of rags. It is well known that Great Britain, apart from its own immense store of rags, is the emporium for the rag trade of the whole world. They flow in from Japan, from the most remote States of South America, and from the Canary Islands. But the chief sources of their supply are Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Belgium and Holland. They are used for manure, for making bed-flocks, for shoddy, and they serve as the raw material of paper. The rag sorters are the medium for the spread of small-pox and other infectious diseases and they themselves are the first victims. (Capital vol. I.)

The homeworkers of today, as of Marx’s time, are part of a fluctuating pool of labour on the fringes of unemployment.


From the capitalist’s point of view the advantages of employing homeworkers are many. The main and most obvious is that their labour-power is cheap. As Marx observed of the “so-called domestic industries”, “unlimited exploitation of cheap labour-power is the sole foundation of their power to compete” (Capital vol. I). Since there is not enough work to go round, each homeworker is competing against thousands of others, all equally desperate. Also, as unemployment has increased many housewives are driven to supplement the breadwinner’s inadequate paypacket by turning their homes into factory annexes. According to the Low Pay Unit, the number of full-time workers earning less than they would be able to get on Supplementary Benefit (the government-decreed poverty norm, on which families can survive) increased from 130,000 in 1974 to 290,000 in 1976 (Observer, 17 Sept. 1978). If we add to this figure the one-parent families where a mother struggles to bring up her young children on Supplementary Benefit, we can see how large a number of homeworkers there are on the fringes of the employment market.


Another advantage for the capitalist is that the homeworkers’ working hours and conditions are totally unregulated and unprotected: no Factory Acts, no National Insurance stamps, no income tax. The hours worked, and pay obtained, are entirely a private matter between the individual homeworker and his or her “employer”. Homeworkers do not normally have any contract of employment so it is rare for them to get the sack: but if the “employer” just stops sending them any work they have no legal protection. Because they are isolated from one another, they seldom get the chance to organise and protect themselves from the imposition of harsh work norms. (Some Market Research firms go to quite extraordinary lengths to prevent their interviewers meeting up with one another: in such firms the only personal contact the interviewer has is with her supervisor, never with other interviewers.)


Because most of them are on piece-rates (inevitably extremely low) home workers have to work exceptionally long hours to obtain something like a wage. For instance, a hand-knitter made a complicated Fair Isle sweater which required 30 hours work. For that job she was paid £5.20. Employers take the cynical view that “very often women are grateful to us because we are paying them for their hobby” (Daily Mirror, 30 Jan,.1979). The same woman whose hobby is toiling at her knitting machine or typewriter for long hours at a miserable pittance is worth, as a housewife, £87.90 a week (Daily Mirror). At least, that is what she could get if she was paid for doing some one else’s household chores and caring for someone else’s children. Then consider some of the less agreeable jobs, such as delivering sales leaflets door-to-door in all weathers. In one typical area, women and schoolchildren who deliver a free local newspaper and sales material get paid £3 basic, a rate which has not changed in ten years. No one would describe this as a “hobby”.


Another advantage to the firms that exploit homeworkers is that, should their work-load fluctuate, as is the ease with Xmas crackers, market research and the rag-trade, the employees can be left high and dry without work (without pay) during slack periods, yet can be required to work almost round the clock in a busy season. There is absolutely no limit to the number of hours homeworkers may work in a week, other than their own physical limits. (Pit-ponies however are limited to 48 hours a week).


Homeworkers are a mere footnote in the economic history of our times. Yet their low rates of pay serve to depress those offered to factory workers in the same area. How else would Grunwicks be able to offer such low rates to women working part-time.


The reformers of British capitalism have introduced legislation to control the length of a working day, the conditions of work within factories, the protection of workers from “unfair” dismissal or discrimination, to provide paid holidays and sick pay, to insure workers from actual destitution when injured or unemployed, and to provide pensions and maternity leave. All these regulations are easily evaded by those firms which exploit the reserve army of the unemployed in their own homes. In addition this practice reduces the firm’s own overheads (power, light and heating, and in many cases depreciation of machinery).


In one of his novels, the Russian writer Dostoyevsky described a widow who stitched away all night. In his Autobiography, Charles Chaplin described how his mother slaved at shirt-making, starving herself to feed her children when there was not enough money coming in. Her reward was premature senility, caused by malnutrition.


Marx described the domestic industries as “the last resort of the ‘redundant population’ ”—capitalism’s safety-valve. So long as people can be made “redundant”, so long will this cynical exploitation of the very needy continue. Fashion firms will flourish while factory rates of pay will be depressed and women will be degraded to the point where to many prostitution seems preferable.


The wages system with production for profit is the root cause of all these social evils. Reforms of the law can do next to nothing. To end exploitation in the home, as in the factory, we must abolish the wages system. There is no other way.


Charmian Skelton