Solidarity economy initiatives from the ground up: What can we learn from the women home-based workers of Southeast Asia?
What can the most invisible and marginalized of women workers contribute to the discourse on solidarity economy based on their concrete experiences over time? This question acquires significance in the light of the combined financial, economic, and environmental crises coupled with the increasing incidence of disasters in Southeast Asia. These have led to massive job losses in many parts of the subregion. In response to these events, home-based workers’ organizations and networks have risen to the challenge by developing solidarity economy initiatives, with varying results, potential and limitations based on specific national and local contexts.
By Rosalinda Pineda Ofreneo*
In a region where some countries have high levels of poverty, joblessness, and informal employment, organized home-based workers and other working poor in the informal economy have been able to create jobs with attendant mutual support systems through community enterprises, cooperatives, integrated microfinance arrangements, fair trade groups and other forms of solidarity economy. In some cases, these have been conscious efforts to turn away from the dominant development model built on competition, exploitation and destruction of the natural environment in order to move toward kinder, gentler alternatives based on compassion and cooperation. In other cases, these have been creative means of survival in and adjustment to increasingly harsh conditions of life. This think piece draws relevant lessons for the social and solidarity economy debate by examining examples of organized home-based workers in the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia.
Redefining “worker” and ways of organizing
As employment becomes increasingly informalized, the word “worker” is taking on a more encompassing meaning than the old one anchored in employer-employee relations. It now includes everyone, man or woman, who works to earn an income, or put even more fundamentally, to sustain life. Across Southeast Asia, workers in the informal economy comprise the majority of the total employed population and need to be organized in ways that correspond to their basic needs and interests.
Traditional unions based on regular work and stable employer-employee relations are weakening as the pool of regular workers in the formal sector becomes an ever smaller share of the labour market. Organizing the huge mass of workers in the informal economy has taken a variety of forms, many of them addressing the most immediate need for a sustainable livelihood while at the same time pursuing a human rights-based approach associated with advocacy for decent work. Addressing the gender dimension is also an important aspect of these new forms of organizing, since in most cases the majority of women who are employed are in the informal economy and are disadvantaged because of their multiple burdens: productive work to earn an income, reproductive work to care for home and family, and community work to secure basic services and “civic amenities” (for example water, electricity, housing and transportation). It is no accident that many organizational forms associated with the solidarity economy philosophy are founded and/or led by women, because these forms are more inclusive, flexible and responsive to the more immediate agenda of sustaining family and community life.
In Southeast Asia there are many examples of women-led solidarity economy initiatives associated with networked organizations of home-based workers, or “homenets”. Many are affiliated to Homenet Southeast Asia. Most home-based workers are women who intersperse paid work in between childcare and other domestic chores. Their primary concern is to put food on the table and keep their families afloat literally and figuratively, in a context of continual crises and frequent disasters in the form of earthquakes or torrential rains and consequent flash floods associated with climate change.
Many home-based workers wish to have more control over their income-earning activities, which is not possible if they work irregularly for very low piece rates under subcontracting arrangements. Indeed if given the opportunity, industrial homeworkers under the putting out system who receive orders from factories for very low remuneration, would rather be self-employed and embark on group-based initiatives to ensure livelihood security and broader goals of social protection, greater visibility and representation, access to resources, services, justice and overall fuller realization of their human rights as workers and as women.
PATAMABA: Microfinance plus for home-based workers in the Philippines
For women in poverty, the Philippine experience shows that microfinance can be the entry point for building solidarity and enhancing empowerment but can attain optimum results only if supplemented by a number of further measures: capacity building, awareness-raising, mutual aid and/or social insurance, participatory mechanisms, and extensive networking with state and non-state actors. This is particularly important given the reality that microfinance has become highly commercialized and the dominant players are now private banks charging very high interest rates while providing only credit.
In the Philippines, a national network of informal workers organized by women called PATAMABA blends microfinance with mutual aid while building women-led cooperatives and group enterprises focusing on food production to enhance food security. In one particular region (Region VI), where PATAMABA chapters have been in existence for more than two decades, they have developed their own independently run microfinance system with savings and mutual aid components. In their efforts to upscale and upgrade their operations, which now cover three provinces, they were able to engage the support of a private foundation set up and run by progressive NGO leaders called the Foundation for a Sustainable Society (FSSI). They have cultivated excellent and very productive relations with national government agencies and local governments, especially in one municipality where the PATAMABA chapter was provided with office space.
When Typhoon Frank struck the region a few years ago, many of the members were severely affected, but the organization itself was able to mobilize resources and assistance from local government and civil society organizations for relief and rehabilitation. Learning from this experience, PATAMABA leaders engaged more actively in local disaster risk reduction and management councils. They accessed durable (climate proofed) but affordable housing, raised awareness about environmental conservation and climate change adaptation, and engaged in livelihood activities focusing even more on recycling, sustainable agriculture, food production and processing.
Some PATAMABA leaders succeeded in getting elected or appointed to local councils and special local bodies, facilitating the articulation of informal workers’ concerns and coordination for provision of better community services. In this sense, PATAMABA as a membership-based people’s organization was able to engage both state and non-state actors in a solidarity network responding to its own needs while adjusting to external changes.
Realizing that grassroots initiatives must also translate into policy, home-based and other informal workers also strive to have visibility and voice at local, national and even ASEAN levels. One example is the initiative of PATAMABA, Homenet Philippines, MAGCAISA and other informal workers’ networks in the Philippines to push for a Magna Carta for Workers in the Informal Economy (MACWIE), now filed in both Houses of Congress. MACWIE is strongly underpinned by solidarity economy principles, reflected by related advocacy for a bill to strengthen social enterprises.
Home-based workers’ experiences in Thailand and Cambodia
In Thailand, where Homenet has been in existence for more than 20 years, community-based enterprises have been set up in several locations, with those in Khon Kaen providing illustrative examples. One such enterprise is composed of silk weavers who produce/access silk yarn, make organic dyes, develop a variety of high-quality silk products (with technical assistance from academics and some NGOs). Their products can command a good price in their shop and in other marketing outlets, including the export market. They finance their enterprise themselves, and in this sense they can be credited with having control of the entire supply chain (from inputs to processing to marketing) while also ensuring environmental conservation, which is crucial to ensure the sustainability of a solidarity economy initiative. In addition, because they are members of Homenet Thailand, whose work focuses on social protection, they are able to access social security, improve occupational safety and health and enjoy universal health care—in itself a victory for informal workers’ lobbying efforts. They will also be covered by the relatively new Homeworkers’ Law which promises to ensure their labour rights when finally implemented.
In Cambodia, where most working people live in poverty, the most vulnerable groups (home-based women producers, urban and rural poor, the differently abled, survivors of AIDS and trafficking) can be assisted and empowered economically by providing access to markets and at the same time promoting fair trade. The emphasis of fair trade advocacy on matters like fair wages, gender equity, occupational safety and health and environmental protection fits solidarity economy advocacy like a glove. This allows home-based worker products to reach high quality as well as ethical standards through social marketing and consequently command better prices from discerning and sympathetic buyers.
It is noteworthy that fair trade advocacy and practice has been able to make headway in Cambodia. It is common knowledge that in a country where elections have always resulted in the dominance of one party, civil society initiatives are bound by what government allows and/or supports. In Cambodia, the government aims to raise employment and export income in the interest of economic growth and poverty reduction. In this sense, there is convergence between what fair trade groups like the Artisans Association of Cambodia, or AAC (the focal point for organizing Homenet Cambodia), are actually doing and what the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce wants to achieve. One example of this convergence is the presence of the Ministry’s Secretary of State at the Fair Trade Subregional Workshop and Fair for Home-based Worker Products held recently in Siem Reap, spearheaded by AAC and Homenet Southeast Asia. It may be assumed that the presence of such a high-level national official at a home-based worker event reflects positive government perception of organizing and providing marketing assistance to producer groups.
Some Initial Insights
What can we learn from the experiences of home-based workers in Southeast Asia?
Forms of organization falling under the solidarity economy umbrella provide women home-based workers with productive and innovative ways of addressing their needs and interests within crisis-ridden environments. Through these initiatives, which can cover several or all the parts of the supply chain (input, processing, marketing, finance), they are able to exercise more economic control and ensure the sustainability of their enterprises. They may also be providing glimpses into the potential of an alternative development framework which values people’s well-being, cooperation and participation while at the same time ensuring the survival of the planet by caring for it.
In areas stricken by disaster and threatened by environmental degradation and climate change, appropriate responses such as sustainable agriculture, recycling and participatory disaster risk reduction and management initiatives can be nurtured within a solidarity economy context.
In all cases, there is a need to consider that women and men experience the overlapping crises differently and initiatives therefore need to be gender-responsive in order to support women in their efforts to overcome their gender-based disadvantages at home, in their economic initiatives and in their community and political work.
In all countries, there is a need to see with new eyes, and to join the dots in the ever expanding solidarity economy map of multi-layered and increasingly complex networks being built from the ground up. To see the whole picture it is important to understand how and why women home-based workers strive to and indeed are able to influence policy and access resources at both local and national levels to support or complement their solidarity economy initiatives. Researchers and advocates need to analyze systems of government and governance, and how these can facilitate or hinder such initiatives.
* Rosalinda Pineda Ofreneo has been working and learning with homebased workers for more than two decades with organizations such as PATAMABA and Homenet Southeast Asia. She is currently professor and dean of the College of Social Work and Community Development at the University of the Philippines, where she teaches in the doctoral program on social development and the graduate program on women and development studies.
This article is part of a series of think pieces by scholars and practitioners working on a broad range of issues within the field of Social and Solidarity Economy. The series was published in conjunction with the UNRISD conference “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. The conference took place on 6-8 May 2013 in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service.
Photo credit: UNRISD