The garment workers' union has been pushing a bill through the Maryland state legislature that would prohibit industrial garment manufacturers from employing people who work in their homes. The union is concerned about allegations that contractors have been exploiting homeworkers by paying them rates for their completed work that, when equipment rentals and other costs are taken into account, are far below legal minimums and compete unfairly with factory manufacturers. Housewives in western Maryland, where unemployment is very high, protest that the new law will deprive their families of their only source of income.

Since federal regulations ban operations of the type in question, the Maryland law seems unnecessary. State legislators say, however, that they are worried that the Labor Department, having lifted restrictions on home knitting a year and a half ago, may plan to remove other restrictions. In fact, the department has recently put much greater emphasis on homeworker investigations, but it has been sued by a group of women in Wisconsin who claim that current rules banning home sewing unfairly deprive them of decent jobs. Department officials are also understandably uneasy about the inconsistency of completely banning homework in a few areas while the practice flourishes in other occupations ranging from trout-fly tying to electronic manufacturing and computer programming.

Properly regulated, homework can offer many people a convenient way to mix job and home responsibilities. Operating illegally, as it does now in many areas, it can become a way for unscrupulous jobbers to exploit workers who are afraid to seek help for fear of losing their livelihood. An outright ban in areas such as garment-making, where exploitation has historically been common, has the appeal of simplicity.

In practice, however, the ban policy has been ineffective not only because it is difficult to enforce in a scattered industry, but also because it isn't much of an additional deterrent to operators who are already violating a bevy of federal and state work-standard, tax and health laws. A better approach would legalize homework--but set licensing requirements that ensure that homeworkers receive decent pay and benefits and that piece rates do not unfairly undercut factory work.

The Maryland Senate has already passed the homeworker ban. A House committee, however, has added amendments that would exempt nonprofit groups, employers of fewer than four persons, and those who operate retail outlets. The amendments would preserve some legitimate operations, but the measure is still flawed. Far better than a series of ad hoc state laws would be a consistent and well-enforced federal policy that provides needed protections against exploitation in all types of homework --not just garment-making--without shutting off legitimate and much-needed opportunities for work.