Home-based work without home

Forced displacement, unfree labour and radical hope

Joint session of the Working Groups Free/Unfree Labour and Feminist Labour History

Third ELHN Conference, Amsterdam, 19-21 September 2019



In this paper I look at the paradox of doing home-based work without having a home, under conditions of forced displacement and unfree labour. The analysis revolves around the life-story of a young refugee woman, who recounts her experiences of child labour in the garment workshops of Istanbul.


Turkey is now considered to be the third largest exporter of garment and leather goods to Europe after Bangladesh and China, but the sector is largely unregulated and there have been many reports about harsh labour conditions that include long working hours, low or zero wages, as well as gender discrimination. Being a crossing point for millions of refugees and migrants, who attempt to move to Europe Turkish garment workshops offer easy work opportunities under very poor working conditions, including slave and child labour. What is also interesting in this urban garment industry is that many of its workshops are run by networks of extended families, wherein the boundaries between home and work are blurred and fuzzy, creating new conditions of home-based work. In this context, the long histories of the garment industry in the 19th and 20th centuries, are being transposed and ‘home’ seems to become a floating and imaginary signifier, wherein gender discrimination, as well as gender based violence unfold in new forms and manifestations.


While recounting such harsh working and living conditions, what however emerges from the young woman’s narrative is a whirl of existential forces that deterritorialize her from the black holes of patriarchal segmentarities, harsh border practices, labour exploitation and the pain of separation on a plane of remaking her present and re-imagining her future. In responding to the Arendtian question of ‘who are you?’ the young woman appears to the world as a unique and unrepeatable existent that cannot be objectified under any discourse of vulnerability and victimization. Her story becomes a narrative of untimely histories and radical hope, leaving traces of her conatus, her perseverance of living in-the-world-with-others.