A woman's place?
Nancy Smith of Waterbury, Vermont, told a Labor Department review panel that she enjoys knitting ski caps at home for a commercial manufacturer. "I can make my own working hours, work at my own speed and most of all, [be] home when my family needs me,' she explained. Senator Orrin Hatch agrees. His Freedom of the Workplace bill, introduced in Congress last year and still under consideration, would end the ban on commercial work in the home. Hatch calls it a defense of "the rights of women.' Likewise, in a July 30 editorial The New York Times endorsed the lifting of restrictions on home work, saying it "would make working easier for people who care for children.' But will women benefit from the proposed deregulation of industrial home work?
The effort to deregulate home work in six garment-related industries (knitted outerwear was deregulated in 1984) and to expand it in telecommunications and clerical work goes against assumptions central to modern labor relations--that labor-standards legislation is necessary and that home labor is intrinsically exploitative. It turns its back on a century of controversy. Beginning in the 1880s, reformers fought to regulate the home finishing of garments and soldering of jewelry, as part of a broader quest to set labor standards for all workers and to secure protective legislation for women. Such standards would maintain the "family wage,' an income large enough for a man to support his wife and children, and would also protect actual or potential mothers by improving working conditions for the "weaker sex.' The factory was no place for mothers, went the argument, a point dramatized by a National Women's Trade Union League postcard from the 1910s showing a haggard woman nursing an infant while running her foot-powered sewing machine, mockingly titled: "$ acred Motherhood.' Home work--involving long hours, small wages and child labor--particularly degraded the home, motherhood and childhood. With union allies in the clothing trades, early twentieth-century reformers such as Florence Kelley of the National Consumers' League struggled to save the home from the factory.
During the New Deal era, women in the Labor Department sought an outright ban on home work because, as the Women's Bureau declared, it "commercialized' the home, undermining the "normal demands of home and children upon the housewife and mother.' After the passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, they won prohibitions on home work in seven garment-related trades, where such labor was most prevalent and violations of minimum-wage and maximum-hour provisions were most flagrant. The history of state labor-law enforcement and Federal action, particularly under the National Recovery Administration, had proved that home work could not be regulated: not only would employers and employees falsify records, but many would never apply for certification in the first place--problems that persist despite a compliance program set in motion last year by the Labor Department.
Like their predecessors in the 1930s, trade unions and government opponents of home work decry its corrosive effect on wage standards, but they also defend women's rights on the job, and to a job. Their critique is an advance from earlier notions of "sacred motherhood.' Yet it retains the separation between home and work, keeping the home as a private realm, free from industrial work but not from women's unpaid labor: the cleaning, cooking and caring that both neoclassical economists and radical feminists agree place women at a disadvantage in the labor market. In contrast "pro-family' conservatives recognize the interaction between home and market. Support for home work is on their agenda, alongside opposition to government regulation of industry, union power and the welfare state. Proponents of home work continue to cite its advantages for women who must work and care for their children. In the 1980s, however, they speak in the language of rights, charging that prohibitions against home work discriminate on the basis of sex, even as they defend the traditional family.
"Right to work' has become "a woman's right,' extended to the home, where women will now be free to type or sew after washing clothes and watching children. They will not have to fight traffic, buy office clothes or a second car, or further reduce their pink-collar paychecks by paying for child care. Instead, they will limit their career prospects, pensions and other benefits, and they will be free to experience a domestic "stretchout,' as the work they do for wages moves into the home. But the conditions that make home work the best of a set of bad options will remain: women's nearly exclusive responsibility for the care of children, the elderly and the ill; a labor market divided along gender lines, in which women earn about 60 cents to every dollar earned by men; and the undervaluing of women's labor in both the family and the market.
Moreover, what seems like a flexible arrangement for some women can turn into a nightmare for others, particularly urban immigrants and the rural poor, who sometimes earn as little as 37 cents an hour sewing women's sportswear. A farm woman's embroidering of monograms on sweatsuits might modestly relieve her family's distress, but it will hardly solve the farm crisis. Similarly, undocumented aliens bringing dresses home to sew in the evenings from the new sweatshops fails to improve living conditions here or in their countries of origin.
The merger of home and workplace provides an alternative to the current organization of production but not one that challenges the place of the home in the economy or of women in the home. Nor will it provide, in most cases, a living wage for women and their children. Instead, it encourages the view that all women are secondary earners who need not have jobs that pay better, who want to work only a few hours a day. Moreover, home work discourages government support for the care of children, the sick and the elderly, as emphasized recently by a report on home-based clerical workers produced by a House Government Operations subcommittee. This individualistic solution relieves men of responsibility for family labor and reinforces the role of woman as care giver. More generous parental-leave legislation, better and affordable care for dependent relatives, comparable worth and economic-revitalization programs for rural areas can begin to address the underlying problems that home work ostensibly solves.
While the microchip revolution augurs more home-based labor, we must remember that people, not computers, will organize our use of new technologies and will decide who benefits from them. We must look beyond the workplace to the home, and struggle for the restructuring of both to promote the economic independence of women. Only with a new home and a new workplace can home work be a good deal for women.