Scandal of home-workers on 29p an hour

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The Independent Online

Parveen starts work as soon as she has packed off her four young children to school. When they return, she stops to make their evening meal, puts them to bed, clears up, and continues her work late into the night.

But at the end of a long day, filling box after box with thousands of greetings cards, the 35-year-old from Bolton is unlikely to have earned more than £12.

Parveen, paid £1 an hour, belongs to a silent army of more than one million workers in Britain systematically exploited for working at home, a survey shows. Her work is seen in leading supermarkets and high street retailers, who are among employers supplied with products from workers being denied basic working rights, the charity Oxfam said.

Some workers were paid as little as 29p an hour, two-thirds were refused paid holiday leave, and redundancy pay, maternity leave and health and safety checks were rare. Workers who complained were also frequently dismissed, said the report, to which the TUC and the National Group on Homeworking contributed.

They urge the Government to adhere to the International Convention on Homework, the standards established by the International Labour Organisation. These include basic employment rights, ranging from maternity leave to redundancy pay. The report also calls for stronger penalties for companies who fail to pay the minimum wage.

"Exploitation can include failure to pay the national minimum wage, forced overtime, no sick pay, holiday pay or maternity pay," said Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC. "Legislation on this area of the labour market is weak. If workers complain, they often lose their jobs and they are not entitled to redundancy pay."

The case of Parveen, who did not wish to be identified in case she lost her job, is typical. The study found more than 90 per cent of industrial homeworkers were female and one in two is from other countries, most from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Ashfaq, 35, from Bradford who has five children aged between three and 15, was also attracted by working flexible hours at home. But she swiftly changed her mind after spending 70 hours working round the clock packing cards and balloons into boxes. She was paid £20, which is 29p an hour.

"I didn't know how much work was involved for the money until I sat down to do it," she said. "I thought it would never finish. I became very stressed and had to get my whole family to finish it in time."

The report said nine companies were supplied with products made by exploited homeworkers, including two major supermarkets and four high street retailers. The companies have not been named in the hope that they will improve the working standards. Retailers were urged to ensure the rights of workers were guaranteed through their chains in the UK as well as abroad.

Phil Bloomer, head of the Oxfam Make Trade Fair campaign, said: "Our research uncovers the double standards of retailers who claim they want to uphold the rights of workers in their supply chain, while at the same time making it impossible for their suppliers to do so by demanding cheaper products at the expense of workers' rights.

"They get away with it because home-workers are not entitled to the same labour rights as other workers. Ensuring the minimum wage is key. The Government needs to take stronger measures to enforce payment."

'I can't complain because I need to keep working'

For Karen Reid, 45, working from home is her only option if she is to continue caring for her elderly parents who require daily visits.

But she pays a price for the luxury of being able to pack boxes full of tights for high-street stores and leading supermarkets at her Leeds home - namely her wages.

Mrs Reid, whose name has been changed, earns little more than £2 an hour for working eight-hour days, seven days a week. Frequently working late at night, she earns 20p for every two dozen pairs of tights she sorts, folds, boxes and bar codes with stickers. She vaguely remembers signing "some piece of paper" when she began working for the company eight years ago, but her employment rights are minimal.

"We don't get anything like maternity pay or paid holiday," said Mrs Reid, who lives with her husband and two of their four children. "There are periods in the summer when things are quiet and I don't work because there are no tights to pack but other than that, I never take holidays. I couldn't afford to."

Her employers, a family-run company,told her that they could not increase her pay because they are unable to sell the products for more money.

"I couldn't complain because I need to keep working," she said. "I've heard of other people complaining and then losing their jobs.

"The money isn't good but it was worse when I packed tights for another company in the 1980s."