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Making the law speak: Empowering workers through legal engagement

[By Siddharth de Souza]

One of the most telling images of the past few months since the Government of India announced a lockdown has been the exodus of people on the move, from cities where they had made a home, through work, through children’s schools, and through social relationships, back to the home that they had left in search of economic and social opportunities. It has not been uncommon to see such images, of hundreds and thousands of people, men, women, young families with small children, many elderly; walking, cycling, and trying to avail of any mode of transport to cover great distances to reach their villages where they would have food, shelter and above all a sense of community and dignity. That so many people decided to go back home, despite the obvious difficulties, exposed the grave sense of vulnerability, and precarity that a majority of workers in India’s informal economy have faced in recent times.

In a survey carried out by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) 21 days into the lockdown, it was found that 50 % of the workers surveyed had rations for less than a day. While 72 % said their rations would run out in 2 days, 96 % had not received rations from government, and 70 % had not had cooked food since the lockdown had begun. This data was from a total of 11,159 workers of which around 1643 were women and children. More recently, another report by the same group found that a majority of workers who they had previously been in touch with were still waiting to go home and only 33 % had managed to leave.

What has precipitated this crisis is the poor implementation of legal and social protections for migrant workers across the country. In a recent intervention by the National Human Rights Commission at the Supreme Court of India, attention was drawn to a forty-year old legislation, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. This legislation provided for a series of measures to ensure that contractors would have to apply for licenses to employ migrant workers which would also ensure that they upheld certain requirements in terms of remuneration, hours of work and other basic amenities. Further, the law required a database of migrant workers to ensure that these workers were not employed illegally, and without the basic statutory protections in the law. That this legislation has been largely forgotten has been symptomatic of the challenges of implementation but also of the information asymmetries that hamper the workers from accessing their rights and entitlements. It emphasizes the urgency of strengthening legal literacy and awareness across the country so that citizens can engage actively in obtaining their rights.

At the FemLab.Co project, one of our objectives is to think creatively about how to build legal content that can empower the user as an individual and as a group. The idea of legal empowerment is to give people the tools and the abilities to be able to understand and make use of the law. As a concept it can be understood as one that is concerned with both the outcome as well as the processes through which laws are realized. While legal empowerment can include a whole array of strategies (including citizen participation, community mobilization, legal aid initiatives), our project focuses on one aspect, to think deeply about legal literacy and ways in which this can be reimagined to make it more engaging—particularly in the context of informal labour groups.

In thinking about the distinctions between law in books and law in action, one of the critical challenges is the question of the translation of laws into the realities in which they are applied and used. A particular aspect of this is in terms of how the law is communicated. While the design of the substantive legal content must take into account the contexts in which they are used in order for them to have meaningful impact, they must also be communicated in a manner in which the intended audience – which is largely the general public – can engage and take action. This includes not only the content itself but also the mode of delivery.

The use of plain language, where key elements of the law can be communicated without unnecessary legal jargon in a precise and clear manner, is an important step in this direction. It does not mean that we need to dumb down the law. Instead, it is about acknowledging that the law is meant to be consumed beyond the corridors of power where it is developed, and that, for it to have any impact, it must empower citizens with agency to use it. In the case of the migrant workers act, many of the provisions of ensuring basic amenities, fair remuneration, and allowances for displacement are protections in abstraction because those who are to be protected simply do not know about these provisions. In order to give these legal protections a material basis, communicating them effectively becomes crucial.

The approach to developing legal content must take into account the lived experiences of users and to ensure that such content is engaging, accessible and meaningful. Such approaches are an integral part of the FemLab.Co project and Justice Adda, a legal storytelling social venture in India which is a partner on the project. We have attempted to do this, by using illustrations, data visualization, animation to demystify the density and obtuseness of legal content.

Figure: Illustrated Cases of the Supreme Court of India by Justice Adda and Manupatra

With this in mind, we recognize that we need to shift thinking that often ends with the production of legal information (laws, judgments, policies), to instead engage actively with how it is consumed (through WhatsApp forwards, TV shows, rumors and gossip, social media). Doing so, will necessitate moving to an understanding of what works in the specific contexts of the workers we are engaging with. For this project, we ask ourselves four questions when designing legal content and will draw from principles of design justice:

  • How can we communicate legal content that can empower and enable the communities in which we work?
  • How can we center voices of the community in the design of the legal information, such that we are building content with rather than for the community?
  • How can we make our content creation collaborative by design, such that we work to facilitate the development of the content as co-creators, but not from top down?
  • How can we build an ecosystem where there is support for legal content to have value and sanction beyond its textual format?

Through these processes, and reflecting on how legal knowledge is constructed and consumed, we will develop content such as visual contracts, toolkits, and explainers that aim to provide actionable, inclusive and useful tools to empower workers by making the law speak through different mediums.