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And so we begin, by organizing ourselves…

[By Payal Arora & Usha Raman]

On January 27 2020, the team for ‘Feminist Approaches to Labour Collectives: Organizing Digitally in South Asia,’ a three-year grant funded project by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) Canadian agency, got together in Hyderabad, India, to launch this project.

Project meeting in Hyderabad

The goal for the meeting was to draw up a road map for the next two and a half years, think through the challenges we might face as well as devise strategies of outreach by capitalizing on existing stakeholders, and technologies. Over two days of brainstorming, we delved deeply into how to frame our sites, as well as the knowledge, methods and ethics that could enable us to optimize our resources most effectively.

The team is spread across four locations: India, The Netherlands, Bangladesh and Germany. This first meeting therefore offered an important opportunity to meet face-to-face (fortunately, just a month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit) and establish some common ground for working together across distance in a manner that would draw on our respective strengths and make room for synergies.

Responding to the rising precarity in conditions of work globally, particularly in the informal sector, the Feminist Approaches to Labour Collectives (FemLabCo) project has two main aims. First, we will explore ways to foster an understanding of female workers’ concerns, and everyday strategies to collectively organize themselves by accessing information on rights and sharing their working conditions using digital tools. Second, we have an action research component where we will design a digital storytelling toolkit and campaign based on the voices of these women. The goal is to use these digital tools to build awareness among our participants of their rights and collective opportunities and nudge behavioral change among consumers and businesses in alignment with ethical practice.

To this end, the project team will engage with women workers in India (Hyderabad) and Bangladesh, to map their communicative ecologies and the ways in which they build and nurture work-related community networks, and use the understanding we so derive to inform the action research. The members in The Netherlands and Germany then will take this formative research on board to build the digital storytelling toolkits that translate legal rights for instance into empowering and engaging material for workers and other interested parties. The goal is also to animate and engage consumers and other stakeholders across the global supply chain and to steer them towards responsible and ethical consumption practice when it comes to fair work in the global supply chain.

Even as the team had planned to begin initial scoping work in the two countries to identify research participants in the sectors of interest — garment workers, home-based artisans, sanitation workers, construction workers and beauty and wellness services providers in the gig-economy — the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and much of the globe was shut down. While this has put field work to a halt, it has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on the larger goals of the project and also consider more deeply the complexities of the contexts in which the most vulnerable women live and work. The media is infused with images of thousands of migrant workers, (many from the sectors of interest to our project) leaving cities for their villages, having lost their means of livelihood. This has brought to the forefront new aspects of precarity in the future of work as few of these workers enjoy a security net either from the state or their private-sector employers.

The current crisis also underscores the need to look at problems in all their complexity: to consider economic productivity in isolation from other aspects of life (health, community and family, environment, housing, etc.) is neither tenable nor just, as the response to the Covid-19 crisis has shown.

With this approach, the Bangladesh and India teams will over the next few months begin developing a familiarity with the selected sectors and identifying interlocutors who will help us connect with women workers and initiate an empathetic conversation that will continue over the year. This blog will serve as an initial talking post where we try out ideas for size and present some of our field based insights as they emerge.