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Digital pessimism: Can we break out of the negativity loop?

[By René König]

A few years ago, when I was in Cape Town, South Africa, I quickly learned that Uber rides were the best way to navigate the city. They seemed relatively affordable, quick, comfortable, reliable, and safe. But I was a little conflicted about my choice, being well-aware of the long list of scandals surrounding the company and I was reluctant to endorse it in any way. Bearing this in mind, I asked the Uber drivers about their experience working for the company, fully prepared to hear accounts of injustice and exploitation.

To my surprise, the stories the drivers told defied my expectations. Most of them came from Zimbabwe, a much poorer neighbouring country. In 2018, the year of my visit, Zimbabwe’s GDP per capita was 1306 USD while South Africa’s was 7434 USD. Zimbabwe had endured a series of severe droughts as well as floods; it had also suffered considerably under Robert Mugabe. Once praised for liberating the country from colonialism, the leader was later blamed for driving Zimbabwe into “hyperinflation, isolation, and political chaos.”

Learning where these Uber drivers came from made me realize how privileged I was for being able to travel to the other side of the world to take a comfortable ride with them. I also began to understand that the perspective of the distanced critic (taken from the countless articles and reports criticizing Uber) does not fully represent how their drivers feel. As Payal Arora has pointed out, such critical takes “do not account for the tremendous optimism expressed by the vast millions of people coming online for the first time in the Global South.” Arguably, the average Uber driver is more concerned with making a living, and less about the politics surrounding this company. For them, Uber is the best choice from a short list of available options. Yet, the discrepancy between the stories I read and those the Cape Town Uber drivers told me, made me wonder: Why was I so overprepared to confront Uber’s exploitative practices and so underprepared for these drivers’ optimism?

From techno-optimism to techno-pessimism

During the nascent years of the internet, many scholars and other observers painted a fairly bright picture of our future. There was a widespread expectation that the internet will have inclusive and democratizing effects on society, a hope for a newfound independence from the gatekeepers who controlled information flows. While this sentiment still circulates among a few techno-enthusiasts, the predominant narrative has completely flipped. Just take a glimpse at these popular recent book titles:

Popular books on the negative impact of digital technologies

The list goes on. Readers with an appetite for doomsday literature have a lot to chew on. It seems like the internet is no longer a driver for progress but for oppression and inequality. Even some key figures who helped building the big platforms have joined the critique. A recent example is the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”, which is full of accounts from regretful developers.

Narrative of doom: The Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”

Trapped in the negativity loop

It is hard to argue with these critical perspectives. Such books and films are full of examples and quite well-researched. However, there is another side to the story that doesn’t get heard as much – the optimism emerging from the vast underprivileged populations due to these digital alternatives. More importantly, I am concerned that the sheer dominance of dystopian narratives may actually negate what actually works for these people, throwing the baby with the bathwater.

It is not easy to introduce examples of hope that go against the current mainstream barrage of negativity. Anyone who attempts this, becomes a suspect of whitewashing the addressed problems. Not without grounds. Silicon Valley spends hundreds of millions on lobbying to brighten its image. Moreover, the most powerful and privileged benefit from the existing inequalities and have little desire to change them.

Nevertheless, key stakeholders who shape the debates – journalists, activists, academics – have few incentives for taking positive perspectives, while there is significant peer pressure to join the paradigm of pessimism. These groups are critical by default. From their perspective, it is much easier to add to the overwhelmingly negative narrative, while any optimism makes them suspicious of being naïve at best and complicit at worst.

This incentive structure results in a negativity loop: Negative stories produce negative stories. While I am deeply sympathetic about the contemporary critical takes on issues like tech monopolization, digital surveillance and algorithmic black-boxing, it is essential to balance this against the user perspective, especially those who have few choices to begin with. In their worlds, with limited options, digital platforms can be genuinely liberating in spite of their oppressive tactics. My concern is that the negativity loop may blind us from even seeing any hope, the essential raw material for progress.

Uber’s gender gap – to bridge or not to bridge  

To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a close look at my initial example of Uber in South Africa. There are many aspects one could criticize about the company’s engagement there. An obvious one is the shocking gender gap: In 2017, only 3.8 % of the Uber drivers were female (IFC 2018, p. 24). There are many reasons for this discrepancy – from cultural stereotypes that render women unfit for driving to real safety concerns. Not only are Uber drivers in South Africa exposed to the country’s notoriously high rate of violent crime, they were also subject to brutal attacks from meter taxi drivers who felt that they created unfair competition.   

In 2015, aware of the striking gender gap between professional drivers (not only in South Africa), UN Women and Uber planned to launch a campaign with the ambitious goal to create one million jobs for female drivers within five years. The cooperation did not last long. The International Transport Federation published an open letter arguing “[w]omen already make up a high percentage of the precarious workforce, and increasing informal, piecemeal work contributes significantly to women’s economic dis-empowerment and marginalization across the globe”. Shortly after, UN Women cancelled the partnership.

Certainly, a cooperation with such a controversial partner leaves an organization like UN Women vulnerable to criticism. However, the swift cancelation strikes me as somewhat defeatist. Whatever problems there were, shouldn´t the aim be to solve them together especially given that companies like Uber provide employment to many in these contexts, due to their low barrier of entry?

One of the few voices who dared to argue in this direction was Charles Kenny. In an article for the Center for Global Development he argued:

“Doubtless the positions would appeal to few women who were already in full-time stable jobs with heath care, guaranteed pay and other benefits. But, of course, the vast majority of women working in the developing world aren’t in such jobs. Many are engaged in far less lucrative and less safe activities than driving a cab. So perhaps some of them would feel economically empowered by the new jobs on offer. At the very least it might be worth finding out rather than assuming the opposite on their behalf.”

(Charles Kenny, CGD)

Can Uber be empowering?

Five years later, Uber still holds its controversial status. What also continues is the tendency among some critics to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy and realities of empowerment Uber drivers may share. A case in point is the interpretation of interviews with numerous drivers in South Africa by Andrea Pollio, a geographer at the Future Urban Legacy Lab. Many of them were enthusiastic about their experience, similar to the ones I spoke to. For example, two of his interviewees stated this:

“the great thing is you don’t have specific working hours. You can work whenever you want, I can go offline if I’m busy. It’s a great business innovation, it allows me to work when I can. True, Uber tells you when there are more people on the streets and less cars, they recommend a timetable, but you are free to comply or not (…).”

(Pollio 2019, p. 769)

“I think this is a much better life that I have. I just wait, and a client will eventually come. I don’t drive around, and that allows me not to waste fuel, and so I don’t need clients desperately because I’ve wasted fuel … I just wait, and that’s the best thing, the satellite will eventually send a client (…).”

(ibid.)

Pollio explains that this “self-empowerment” through Uber is just a “tale” (Pollio 2019, p. 766) and implies that such statements are merely “echoing the language” of a promotional video the company had released. This ‘correction’ of the optimism emerging from the lived realities of these drivers speaks to a long standing development practice of making subjects fit the script.

Uber’s shiny self-portrait

As much as tech companies like Uber try to overemphasize their emancipatory power (which they clearly do), we see an equal and opposite force of critical observers downplaying the positive impacts these digital platforms may have at the ground level. One reason Pollio gives for his dismissal of the drivers’ optimism is that many of them were forced to rent cars, which leads him to conclude:

“Despite the empowerment rhetoric, or the fact that drivers described themselves as entrepreneurs, they did not own idle capital, but accessed ridesharing through a mediating technology of subordination.”

(Pollio 2019, p. 767)

As precarious as such arrangements may be, they are not a contradiction to empowerment. Take the story of Tsungi Pamela Kujinga, a woman from Zimbabwe, desperate to make a living in Cape Town while providing for her two children. Since her car did not meet Uber’s minimum standards, she was forced to work for a commission under another driver. While this practice could be judged as exploitative, one needs to also acknowledge that it eventually helped her to buy her own car and create her own business.

She is not alone. 90 % of the few female Uber drivers in South Africa stated that “working with Uber allowed them to purchase products or services they hadn’t been able to afford before.” Moreover, these drivers noted that Uber’s GPS tracking makes them feel safer. Indeed, Charles Kenny pointed out the increased safety Uber drivers enjoy:

“Compared to a traditional taxi system where drivers pick up at random and passengers can pay in cash, Uber at least ensures that every driver (and the company) knows who is taking and paying for the trip – it is recorded as part of the transaction on the application.”

(Charles Kenny, CGD)

As obvious as this may seem, the now popular critical focus on “surveillance capitalism” will likely miss such promising opportunities of tracking technology. 

Embracing experiences of empowerment

Let me be clear: I have no doubt that there is a lot wrong with Uber and other digital platforms as they build market concentration and dominance, and we should demand change in these arenas. It is equally obvious that nobody should be forced to work under precarious conditions. However, it is just as clear that for people like Ms. Kujinga, Uber provides an opportunity to improve their situation and gain independence. Beyond individual perspectives, the gig economy might also have side-effects that are particularly beneficial for the Global South, for instance, an increased formalization of its vast informal labour market.

We need to break out of the negativity loop. We should seek to shape our future technologies by taking into account the full spectrum of user experiences, especially in the all too often marginalized Global South. Let us not downplay or negate experiences of empowerment because it doesn’t fit the narrative of oppression. Rather, we should aim at discovering and strengthening the agency of the marginalized and attend just as much to what works and what to keep, while we continue to push for change. In Ms. Kujinga’s words:

“As women, let’s take the opportunities we have and make a better life for tomorrow’s female generation. Let’s pave the way!”   

(Tsungi Pamela Kujing, Wow Woman)
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Savari: Sharing more than a ride

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

Picture this: 9 women cramped into an auto (three-wheeler vehicle in India), taking a savari (‘ride’ in Hindi) to their workplace. Two women in saris on either side of the autowallah (driver), three on the seat at the rear actually meant for people to occupy, three on the little wooden slab facing it, fitted to accommodate more people, and one on the iron railing bordering the right side of the auto. The crisis of public transportation in India forces the working poor to travel in overcrowded buses, trucks, seven seaters, and autorickshaws. Perhaps the image is somewhat overwhelming in the present context of the pandemic and the mantra of SMS (sanitizing, masks, social distancing), but this is how domestic workers travelled in the BC (Before Corona) era or so I discovered when I interviewed domestic workers as part of a summer course in 2018.

Image credit: Pikist

Brinda (names changed for purposes of anonymity), a domestic worker in my neighbourhood, told me how this ‘auto’ arrangement came to fruition. Her husband did not approve of her travelling for work every day. She had however never given it any thought, but after being stalked by a young man at the bus stop for two days, she was scared. Incidents like these, she said, which were not isolated, brought the community of domestic workers in her area to team up to find a solution. They identified a few autowallahs and struck a deal with them. Six autowallahs would ferry 6 groups of 8 to 9 domestic workers to and from work and each would have to contribute Rs. 8 to 10 per ride (14 cents). Brinda also introduced me to her other ‘automates’ who corroborated her story with experiences of their own.

These shared auto rides provide opportunities for the group to discuss a variety of issues related to work, to trade stories, and brainstorm solutions as a mini-collective. En route to the workplace (a 15 to 30-minute ride depending on the traffic), they would discuss how much each of them earned to fix the “going on rate” for their labour in a particular area. It is only reasonable, they argued, that people living in “posh” areas (perceived to be a mix of commercial and residential) pay more than those living in purely residential areas, often categorized as low-income neighbourhoods. They would also discuss the added benefits of working for a particular family, what infrastructure they expected to already be there in a particular home (washing machine or a mop) and how they could negotiate issues of leave, including getting one of their travel companions to substitute for them. It is also during these auto rides, Maniamma says, that the unspoken rule of not “snatching” work from a fellow worker became a common understanding. As a group they also decided that a 3-day paid leave per month was not only reasonable, but if these days off were not utilized, they could ask to be paid a bonus.

The Indian Ministry of Labour and Employment estimates that there are approximately four million domestic workers in India. The unofficial figures are much more staggering, with the International Labour Organization suggesting that there are about 20 to 80 million domestic workers in the country (75 % of whom are women). Given that domestic work (such as cleaning, sweeping, mopping, cooking, babysitting) often takes place inside the ‘private’ settings of people’s homes (historically, the home has never been considered to be a workplace), and is classified as informal, unskilled and unproductive, it was not governed by any law as such until the United Progressive Alliance government mandated that it be recognized as part of the unorganized sector and be regulated by Unorganized workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. This act is primarily geared towards defining who a ‘worker’ is and social security benefits such as life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, provident fund. However, this act does not include any directive about ensuring fair work and minimum wages and was never implemented because of a few “design flaws”, such as not differentiating between agricultural and unorganized non agricultural workers. Further, it was left to the State governments to establish State Social Security Boards to recommend suitable schemes and ensure social security to unorganized workers. Telangana is one of the States that is yet to institute this board, despite the fact that Hyderabad is one of the major cities where domestic workers migrate for work.

Subsequently, there were several attempts to formulate separate legislations for domestic workers. A national policy that was drafted in 2011, a private member bill introduced by Shashi Tharoor (Member of Parliament) in 2016, and another by domestic workers’ unions in 2017, but ultimately, they were shelved. The latest effort made by the Modi-led government, the National Policy on domestic workers, 2019 (still under consideration) has its heart in the right place, and addresses some of the key issues articulated by the workers who spoke with me. Concretely, it seeks to:

  1. grant domestic workers the legal status of a ‘worker’ and register as “unorganized workers”
  2. address issues of minimum wages, paid leaves, social security
  3. clearly define full time, part-time, live-in workers, employers, private placement agencies
  4. form their own associations or unions
  5. enhance their skills by providing training
  6. provide protection from abuse and exploitation and a grievance redressal system.

The draft policy also assumes that domestic workers are now covered under the Unorganized Workers Act, despite proof to the contrary. The steady rise of on-demand domestic work platforms such as Bookmybai and Bookmynanny, also needs to be taken into consideration by the state. Currently, there are no laws that protect gig workers, with the Code on Social Security, 2019 yet to be approved by the parliament. 

The abuse and exploitation (both physical and sexual) of domestic workers is reported in the media, but few lodge a formal complaint. Most domestic workers are either not aware of the legal provision (Sexual Harassment of Women at workplace Act, 2013) or on account of belonging to non-dominant castes and communities (such as tribal minorities),  feel a fight with “bigger people” is a losing battle. Some of the workers who spoke with me also mention abuse but not always as having themselves suffered it. Older and more experienced workers, they said, would warn those new to the trade against working in a particular home (those who are known to abuse their ‘servant,’ or bachelors’ homes are a strict no-no) during these auto savaris.

The metaphor of the ‘savari’ is quite interesting for many reasons: It represents both the literal travel involved, and the travel from an individualised experience requiring personalized mechanisms (such as negotiating wages) to that of shared experiences and a collective redressal of issues (however small or informal the effort of collectivisation). These interviews compel me to wonder if it is possible to identify, and/or energize and enhance informal collectivisations (like the auto savari groups) that might already be happening across sectors via digital technologies. For instance, domestic workers organizations and unions in Indonesia, Thailand, and Hong Kong have used mobile phones and internet to create virtual solidarities, mobilize themselves to protest against discriminatory laws (such as the proposed minimum two year contract at a placement agency), and document abuse. The mobile phone, specifically, could potentially be a device that connects isolated domestic workers with organizations that are already working towards their rights and protection (such as the Hyderabad Bastee people’s federation and National Domestic Workers’ Movement), and foster a sense of community and solidarity.

Recent media reports also suggest that, in the absence of the safety net of labour laws that specifically apply to domestic workers, the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have only exacerbated issues outlined above: losing jobs, not being paid for the months they were unable to report to work. Those that tried to continue working through the lockdown were branded as “virus carriers” or “super spreaders”, and found themselves at the mercy of their employer’s “benevolence”. Even though India seemingly recognises the rights of workers, and is a signatory to the ILO’s Convention on Domestic workers, without ratification, this agreement is limited to word and not spirit, and the rules are not binding. The fact that there has been a 120 % increase in the number of domestic workers post-liberalization only underscores the need for a comprehensive national policy that can empower these community of workers, instead of “carewashing” –deliberately confusing actual legal provisions and monetary assistance with expressions of gratitude through words.

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From unbanked to fully digital? A look behind Bangladesh’s online money transfers

[By Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

COVID-19 has shown how some states, when motivated, can institute compassionate, sweeping and radical changes that remake society and its relations between workers and their organizations. However, integrating novel interventions into our everyday life demands that we think beyond the reactive impulse to address chronic problems. When technology is used as a short-term fix to address what appears to be an immediate problem, it can mask the need for more sustained institutional reforms. We see such a tension arising in the case of e-payments made to workers in the readymade garments (RMG) sector in Bangladesh, a measure that appears to be benevolent and timely, but on closer examination reveals a range of conflicts that have to do as much with issues of trust and perception as with technological readiness.

The fintech triumvirate to the rescue

In May and July 2020 the RMG sector in Bangladesh distributed Tk 10,500 crore  [$ 1,221 million] as salaries to 2.6 million workers. These were online transactions from the bailout funds from the government to tide the labourers over during the economic hardship brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic during this period. The three key mobile financial services – bKash, Rocket and Nagad – have been credited with enabling the disbursal of these sizable funds. 

According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the apex body of Bangladeshi apparel industry owners, the vast majority of factories (1,821 out of 1,898) paid workers an Eid festival bonus, and 94 % of them have paid the salary for July through digital transactions. Although a section of RMG workers stated dissatisfaction for losses of 2 % from their payment because of online transactions fees for withdrawal of salaries and bonuses, various national dailies reported that most workers expressed satisfaction with the new system of payment. Amirul Hoque Amin, President of the National Garments Workers Federation, speaking on behalf of labourers, confirmed this, given the deep dissatisfaction that had pervaded across the industry in the South Asian region in the months immediately following the start of the pandemic, when workers experienced significant wage losses.

Image credit: UN SG’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance


BGMEA and the Ministry of Labour and Employment, with as many as 23 regional bodies of a national crisis management committee, worked together to monitor the progress of the payment to workers ahead of Eid-ul-Azha, the second largest religious festival in the country. They wanted to avoid labour unrest in the RMG sector especially before the religious festival.

Shift from the unbanked to mobile-banking

Before the Rana Plaza catastrophe, salaries were handed out in cash. Usually, during the first or in some cases within the second week of the month, they were distributed by the account department staff. It takes around 8-10 minutes to hand over cash for each worker according to Financial Inclusion Insights. Following the minimal wage movement by workers that was triggered by the disaster, BGMEA, and the Ministry of Labour and Employment of Government of Bangladesh along with the Garment Workers Federation decided to distribute salaries directly through bank accounts (the owner takes responsibility for disbursal of salaries). Although 50-60 % of factories started paying salaries through workers’ bank accounts, many unregistered factories (small and not affiliated with BGMEA) continued making cash payments.

Cancellation of orders by foreign buyers in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis has jeopardised the RMG sector, leading to the possibility of job losses affecting nearly 2.5 million people, mostly women. This crisis has led the BGMEA to seek assistance from the government for a bailout fund. To ensure transparency in fund distribution, the government sought a list of all workers and their bank accounts for transferring the salaries, but this time, directly to the workers—instead of going through the employers. Workers who did not have bank accounts, were asked to submit mobile money transfer accounts.

These varied demands clearly come with new challenges and require new strategies to reduce transaction costs. Where an intermediate agent is involved, a transaction fee of 2 % is charged, and this is borne by the recipient (the worker), whereas a direct transfer to the worker or a designated family member would not attract this fee. The issues go beyond this, including complete failures to deliver actual cash: In the case of mobile transfers, the recipient is required to show proof of the transaction to the agent who will then disburse cash, and if this message is accidentally deleted, or if the mobile is lost or stolen, it is impossible to collect the money. Some women workers may not even own a mobile phone, or not have control of their phones. There is also concern about the sustainability of such platforms given their narrow emergency focus. bKash, the largest mobile salary distributor, admits that workers showed interest in using mobile money if they could use it for more varied transactions than just money transfers.

Piloting the fintech experiment in times of crisis

To ensure the smooth payment of the wages, the government requested BGMEA to provide details of workers’ data early this year. Following the request, they handed over workers’ data of more than 3,000 factories across the country. The Bangladesh Bank (the country’s central bank) released money through 47 banks under a promotional package declared by the prime minister Sheikh Hasina for the RMG sector as part of the national COVID-19 bailout fund.

Reports from industry consortia as well as financial gateway operators suggest that a large number of workers indicated that they had received salaries through a digital money transfer, and the actual numbers reflected a big jump between April and May 2020—the time when the pandemic related lockdown began. However, this is curious, given that the World Bank’s Global Findex 2017 report indicates that only 50 % of Bangladeshis out of 164 million people had mobile banking and/or financial institution accounts as of 2017, of which only 21.2% have had mobile money accounts. Less than 2 % of RMG workers had such accounts. But the latest move has resulted in a sharp increase of mobile banking, with some estimating that around 95 % of the RMG workers have now either a bank account and/or a mobile account.

From emergency to sustainability

So what is the real issue at stake here? On the surface it appears that mobile money transfers have ensured some level of transparency and consistency in salary payments, and have moved a sizeable number of workers into the digital economy. But the 2 % transaction fee represents a burden on the worker and overall, a significant gain for the private corporations that enable the fund transfers. The National Garments Workers Federation, a left-wing workers’ union hold that the service fee cut from the wage is tantamount to the exploitation of poor workers through what they call ‘digital traps’. The Federation calculated a loss of around Tk 155 crore [$ 18.3 million] from the workers’ salary due to this digital transaction.

Image credit: WorldFish

There is no doubt that digital transfers have the potential to enable greater transparency and control for low income workers, but perhaps they would be more attractive if bundled with other digitally accessed welfare services. Concerns around sustainability and trust are legitimate and need to be addressed through more open communication between workers and employers, and clear working guidelines for the intermediaries, such as those that enable the digital transfers. This experience with mobile digital transfers suggests that work needs to be done to ensure readiness and smooth functioning at multiple levels—workers (including a consideration of the fact that most are women, who may not own their mobile devices), agents and other intermediaries, employers, and most importantly, government institutions and regulators.

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Making opportunities inclusive for first-time digital users

[By Shrinath V]

A couple of years ago, our house help came in early. She brought her daughter with her. The daughter was working at a nearby fashion store as a salesgirl after her graduation. The previous night, she had arrived home from work, distraught and weeping. The mother could not understand what she was upset about. She thought my wife could help calm her.

After having some coffee, the daughter calmed down a bit and spoke about what had happened the previous day at the store. The store owner was unhappy with her using her mobile during working hours. He had threatened to put up photos of her slacking on Facebook. This had terrified her, as she thought her reputation amongst her friends and her local community was at stake. She could not sleep that night, fearing that she and her family would lose face.

After she narrated the incident, we checked whether the sales manager was a Facebook friend. He was not. She later confessed that she had deleted her Facebook account a while ago. Why was she so agitated then? She assumed that any photos of hers posted there would be seen by all her friends. Facebook’s privacy settings had been too complex for her to understand, so she assumed the worst. We had to reassure her that once she deleted her Facebook account, no one could tag her or make any content public. Even if she had not deleted her account, she could remove tags from photos others posted before any of her friends could see them. It took her a while to get convinced about this, but when she left, she was a lot calmer than she came.  

This incident got me thinking.

I live in Bangalore, often called India’s Silicon Valley. Bangalore has a huge population working in the technology domain. Most college students carry smartphones. Here was a college educated salesgirl in an urban fashion store. We would assume that she would be comfortable with social media usage. And yet, she was so confused by the controls on the site that she thought it was a threat to her reputation. Finer aspects like abuse of power and violation of privacy were tough for her to comprehend. A threat about posting photos on Facebook from someone who was not even her friend had turned her into a nervous wreck.

Image credit: Victorgrigas 

The truth is that this girl is representative of many first-time digital users across growth economies. Thanks to cheaper smartphones and data plans, many users are getting their first taste of the internet. But many aspects that seem trivial to long-time technology users are seen very differently by such new adopters.

New opportunities and challenges

Smartphones have fueled the imagination of many who have just started understanding the power of the internet. In some ways, this has been timely. We are already seeing that the world post COVID-19 will rely a lot more on digital technologies. As we shift to transacting more online, we will see a larger number of gig jobs. From entertainment to education, smartphones, apps, and online services will play a greater role in lives of the new digital initiates.

A lot of this, no doubt, will improve the lives of billions. Going online is opening new vistas for exploration and providing new opportunities. Thanks to smartphones, new entrepreneurs and business models are aplenty. We see housewives post extra plates of lunch on WhatsApp groups for others in their locality to order. Local teachers take to Telegram to coach students appearing for exams. Drivers-on-hire get you and your car safely back home after a late night at the bar, so you need not drive when drunk.

And yet, there are unexpected challenges. Internet-driven models and services are largely designed for people who are comfortable with digital literacy. There are a lot of assumptions baked into how these are designed or delivered. As first-time digital users start using these services, many of these assumptions do not hold.

As digital technologies are likely to play a bigger role in the future of work, here are some points to consider.

Better terminology & representations

Websites and apps often have different privacy and consent policies. These are difficult enough for us to understand but can be befuddling to first-time digital users. Most are written in legal language that is difficult for common users to understand. They are made easy to click through so the apps can claim they received approval from users. As these vary per app or website, it is often easy to lose track of what one has agreed to. A more inclusive design could involve a common set of representations for terms like privacy and consent, preferably with videos explaining what the users are signing up for. For gig workers, this could greatly improve their understanding of what permissions the business asks of them. For example, knowing that you are being tracked only when you are on the job and not otherwise can be reassuring.  

Better explanation of downside risk

Many first-time digital users sign up for gigs based on referrals from friends. But often, the downside risks are not well understood. A while ago, I took an auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk) to office. As I chatted with the driver, I realized that he had earlier signed up as a cab driver for one of the many ride-hailing apps. As part of the deal, he purchased his taxi on a loan arranged by them. After a few months, he wanted to take a vacation and get home. He parked his taxi at their designated garage. When he returned, he was told that he had to pay a huge per-day parking charge before he could take his vehicle. This shocked him, but the company agent said it was part of the initial agreement he had signed. He did not know enough to debate them. After a few days, he realized his negotiation was going nowhere, and the taxi loan payments were due.

Image credit:  Andy Gray

He finally opted to forego the taxi and the money he had paid for the loan as he felt there was no other choice. This made him wary of gig opportunities in the future, and he decided to take up a safer, though less remunerative, option. He would have understood things much better if the downside risks had been better explained. This could again be done by using tools like video in languages that gig workers are comfortable with.

Better avenues for grievance redressal

A food delivery executive I spoke to recently complained about a late-night delivery he had to make a couple of days ago. He had picked up the food but was accosted by local bullies on the way. He could keep his phone, but they grabbed the food. When he rang up the food tech firm, he was told that he would have to pay for the food stolen from his remuneration. As online businesses grow, we will see many such cases of grievances that come up. First-time digital users may not be aware of grievance redressal mechanisms in place. More education on these and better policies will help.


Shrinath V is a product management consultant and founder of The Better Product Studio. In his last corporate role, he was the Head of products for location services on Nokia’s phones built for the Next Billion Users. He has been a mentor to various startups building for this segment over the last several years. 

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Women resellers in India’s gig economy: From access to confidence

[By Achyutha Sharma]

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of conversation around the gig economy that will impact how we view labour and the skilled workforce globally. In India, both the ‘gig economy’ and the gig workers have always existed and been pervasive, especially in the unorganised sectors. From a vegetable vendor, tea shop, an artisan to an entrepreneur or a reseller on our Meesho platform, workers in the informal sector are at the heart of India’s gig economy. Many women in India, especially housewives who want to work from home have leveraged platforms like Meesho to enter the commercial realm.

A reseller is someone who sources a product and sells to the end customer without the parent company or supplier source involved. This is different from a seller/ retailer (represents a brand/company) or dealer (wholesaler) who don’t engage with customers directly.

Mission rise event where women resellers network and learn from each other.
Image credit: Meesho events team

As per the 2018 estimate, India has approximately 300 million women in the age group 20 – 49 years. If we consider 5 % of this population as being literate to semi-literate women across urban, semi-urban and rural areas that have digital access via the mobile phone, then we have a potential reseller who can become a Meesho entrepreneur. Meesho brings suppliers and resellers on a social ecommerce platform that manages the end-to-end process from product selection to end-customer delivery. Meesho has engaged over 10 million women over the last 5 years on the platform.

A reseller like Geetha (name changed), a 35-year-old housewife in semi-urban India,  uses the Meesho app to select and order products which she can then sell to end customers in her area or anywhere in India. Meesho procures the product from its warehouse or from the supplier and delivers to the customer on behalf of Geetha. The accumulated commission from all orders is transferred by Meesho every fortnight to Geetha’s account. She continues to scale her business (under her brand name, Geetha Style Boutique) with more orders and earns a regular income from the platform. Many such resellers over a period of time have gone on to become Meesho entrepreneurs earning a minimum of 250 – 500 USD per month (this is equivalent to an urban middle-class individual income in India). Meesho in some sense is formalising women and men as ‘gig workers’ from the informal sector by linking them to the formal financial system where the commission from the platform gets transferred to their registered bank account. 

In order to further the company’s key objective of ensuring resellers’ success, a user research function was set up to study their motivations and behaviour and dig deeper into problems they may face on the platform or in the course of conducting their business. This involves conducting qualitative, generative research along with UX (user experience) validation and usability testing of the Meesho platform across product features and user experience. The results from this study have been insightful for me, to say the least, while leading user research function at this late growth stage of the business. We have been able to produce actionable insights about our resellers for product and design teams, built frameworks and models on reseller behaviours, in addition to sharing these insights across functions in the company. Currently, we have over 2 million women actively reselling on our platform. These women represent the gig economy, a unique case study of women resellers on an entrepreneurial journey. I share some of my learnings here.

A woman reseller’s success is her family’s success

Women resellers in our research are not just users; we found evidence and insights about them as contributors, influencers, movers and makers of family and community at large. For instance, Radha (name changed) was able to admit her children in a better private school after they had been forced to drop out for a year from a low-budget school when she lost her job. Sunitha who never had a job or managed money started contributing to the household savings after paying some of the family expenses—this was within 3 months of reselling, which augmented her savings to 2000 USD within a year. Pushpa (name changed), a housewife who had fallen into depression due to a lack of opportunities and self-doubt found a new life and self-confidence through Meesho’s reselling platform. Our qualitative research uncovered that motivations and ideas of success for women resellers went beyond earning an income to acquiring new skills, building self-identity, confidence and personal development.

Managing the household and scaling business

Popular search and targeting based on our marketing insights and data on acquiring new resellers for Meesho have been based on work from home, earn extra income or earn money from home. Our qualitative research also confirms that women resellers who are looking for work from home or earn extra income through social media or online search discovered Meesho platform. These ‘acquired’ women resellers on our platform are very clear about balancing household responsibilities and running their reselling business. They are not willing to compromise either, especially if they have found reselling personally fulfilling beyond earning an income. Their idea of managing time is not based on specific hours of reselling work but rather multi-tasking between household responsibilities and scaling or managing their reselling business. Many women have actively found support in their spouses and other family members to manage household chores, their business orders and customers.

Digital access to digital confidence

Often, women, no matter their background, have lacked exposure or opportunity to run a business. Our research showed that women have ‘negotiated’ social permission to try reselling, especially in rural and semi-urban areas where digital or mobile access for women is restricted. They negotiate permission with their husbands or family decision-makers (father/mother) to get their own mobile device, using internet for the Meesho app or to try reselling or online business through the platform. The family agrees with the intent that women would try this business while staying at home and managing household responsibilities at the same time. Thus, the women and their families are both building trust with Meesho and the reselling business to see if this way of earning is legitimate or authentic. This digital access leads to women using the Meesho app on a daily basis and over a period of time to gain a measure of digital ‘confidence’. This finding was backed up during our usability testing where women demonstrated their use of the app more confidently and were able to complete tasks in shorter time than expected. This also depended on what stage of reselling they are at and app usage frequency—whether they were new, intermediate or experienced resellers. Our approach to designing a quality user experience is closely aligned to women resellers’ journey of learning and using the app to gain confidence, both in the process of reselling and with the platform. 

Mission rise event organised by Meesho to celebrate women entrepreneurship.
Image credit: Meesho events team

Women resellers represent a big part of India’s gig economy. Our data and research have generated evidence that women resellers stand to gain considerably from platforms that are responsively designed. Their success is based on their ability to influence a potentially large base of customers and continually engage them in building a sustainable business. This is because women in India not only have strong relationships or influence their relatives or close friends but when supported by responsive tools, can acquire the ability to forge new relationships with strangers, among communities, social networks or circles across regions.


Achyutha Sharma has over 15 years of experience in Research, Brand and Design and is currently leading user research at Meesho. He has worked across themes in social sector understanding BoP demographic in addition to commercial retail experience gaining depth of insights on Indian consumers.

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The street sweeper and her missing gloves

[By Usha Raman]

The two women walk down my street at around 7 a.m. every morning, noticeable in the navy-blue knee-length coats they wear over their sarees, and the colourful bandannas that cover their heads. Bhagya (name changed to maintain anonymity) has large kaajal-rimmed eyes and she flashes a bright smile if she happens to see me on the terrace. There’s a man with them, and the three form the team that sweeps and gathers the street rubbish every day in my part of Hyderabad city. Their blue coveralls are printed with the letters signifying the municipal authority that employs them.

Well…if the relationship they have with that authority can be termed “employment.” Bhagya and her companions are contracted by the municipality through a third party. They are perhaps somewhat more fortunate than many others who are hired on and off on daily wages, but less so than the 37 % or so that are estimated to be on the permanent rolls of any urban municipal corporation in India. They are part of the crew that is responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the city—an activity that was elevated to mission mode under the Central Government’s highly publicized “Swacch Bharath” (Clean India) scheme launched in 2014. While the building of toilets and eliminating open defecation were seen as top priorities under the scheme, the cleanliness of public spaces and ensuring safe and efficient waste disposal were also important goals. The scheme was dismissed by many as populist, and failing to tackle the real issues of caste-based inequity and deep-rooted social stigma faced by sanitation workers, but it did open up the discursive space around these issues.

Image credit: Pikist

The mission also succeeded in bringing more attention to the condition of workers like Bhagya—women and men working under precarious conditions of employment, subject to often unfair and nebulous contractual terms, and no safety net in case of health or other emergencies. An in-depth qualitative study by Dahlberg Advisors in 2017 categorized sanitation work into nine different types, ranging from cleaning latrines and drains to sweeping streets, each with its own challenges and vulnerabilities. More recently, a study by the NGO PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) Network points to four “predispositions” that are the reasons for the persistent marginalization of sanitation workers—gender, caste, geography and education.

One does not need to look deep into the fine print of such studies to perceive the challenges that women in sanitation work face, being doubly marginalized by caste and gender. The PRIA study also pointed to the lack of empathetic supervision and little consideration given to the specific issues of safety and protection that women workers might require. These issues have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, with all categories of sanitation workers becoming part of an invisible frontline in the fight against the pandemic. A phone-based survey of 214 sanitation workers in three north Indian cities during this pandemic, of whom 30 % were women, revealed that they had received no instructions or training related to safety during the pandemic, nor had any special arrangements been made for them at work. Bhagya, for instance, told me that she was issued one set of gloves when she started working for the municipality three years ago, which have since torn and have not been replaced. When I asked her about face masks and hand sanitizer, she shook her head: “We have to get them ourselves if we want.” A simple cloth scarf was wound around her face in lieu of a mask.

The lack of information and the failure to provide basic protections results in a high level of anxiety, often leading to desperate measures. A 60-year-old sweeper in Telangana was reported to have taken her own life by consuming pesticides, fearing that she had been infected by the SARS-CoV 2 virus after having swept the streets in what was later declared a containment zone. In this and other reports, women sanitation workers are often referred to as “Covid warriors” but this terminology belies the very real vulnerabilities they embody. A majority do not have any form of health insurance despite the fact that much lip-service is paid to the fact that they are on the front lines of the pandemic.

Worker protections exist—in theory, and to varying extent—across all sectors; however, there are gaps at the level of making these protections, and knowledge about them, available to workers. When I ask Bhagya whether her contractor is supposed to give her protective gear, she shrugs, and says “Who knows?” While one might see this as apathy or complacence, it’s more likely to be a simple lack of awareness of what one is due and how to demand it. Of course, there is also the possibility that the exercise of voice might just put her job at risk.

When we talk of communication rights, it is often limited to access to means of communication and the freedom of expression. But within a human rights framework, communication becomes the means by which we access a whole range of other rights—including the right to fair work.

Some days, as I look down from the terrace, I see Bhagya walking a few feet behind her companions, talking on her phone. What if this phone became a means—not only of domestic communication, but also, to access a checklist of protections, a means to report on lapses, and a way to connect with others in her cohort? What if it were not an instrument of surveillance (as has been used to monitor activity under Swacch Bharat in some regions) but an instrument of security, care and supportive connection?

I guess that’s a question for another day.

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Platformizing women’s labour: Towards algorithms of empowerment

[By Pallavi Bansal]

As the fifth-born daughter to a poverty-stricken couple in a small village of Karnataka, Rinky would consider herself fortunate on days she wouldn’t have to sleep on an empty stomach. Her parents pressurised her to take care of her younger brother while they struggled to make ends meet. As the siblings grew up, the brother started going to a nearby school, while Rinky managed the household chores along with her sisters. A curious teenager, Rinky coerced her brother to teach her every now and then, including how to operate a smartphone they had recently acquired. When she turned 19, she mustered the courage to move to Bengaluru in search of a better life. She survived by doing menial jobs in the beginning such as cleaning houses, cooking and washing dishes. She earned a mere amount of Rs 15,000 (about 200 USD) every month, enough just to get by. She always felt disrespected having to deal with constant humiliation until someone in the neighbourhood advised her to learn driving and partner with the ride-hailing platform Ola.  

Image credit: Renate Köppel, Pixabay

While there were initial hiccups in procuring the vehicle and learning how the app works, this move dramatically changed her life as it turned her into a micro-entrepreneur with a lucrative income of Rs 60,000 to take home every month. Besides allowing flexible work hours, the job provided her a sense of independence which was missing when she worked for others. She wasn’t really bothered about how the rides were assigned to her, though she always worried about her safety while boarding male passengers. At the same time, she was unable to comprehend how some of her colleagues earned more than her despite driving for similar number of hours.

“Rinky” is a composite character but represents stories of many such women for whom the platform-based economy has opened up a plethora of employment opportunities. The interesting aspect is that women workers are no longer confined to stereotypical jobs of salon or care workers; they are venturing into hitherto male domains such as cab driving and delivery services as well. The Babajob platform in fiscal 2016 recorded an increase of 153 per cent in women’s applications for driver jobs. According to the Road Transport Yearbook for 2015-16 (the latest such report available), 17.73 % of the 15 million licensed female drivers ride professionally. Though there are no distinct figures available for how many women are registered with Ola and Uber as drivers, ride-hailing app Ola confirmed a rise of 40 % every quarter in the number of female drivers with them. Moreover, cab aggregative service Uber announced to tie up with a Singapore-based company to train 50,000 women taxi drivers in India by this year.

Clearly, the ride-sharing economy is helping Indian women to break the shackles of patriarchy and improve their livelihood. However, the potential of these platforms cannot be fully utilized unless researchers turn an eye on the algorithms that govern them. These algorithms not only act as digital matchmakers assigning passengers to the drivers but regulate almost all aspects of the job – from monitoring workers’ behaviour to evaluating their performance. These machines often fail to treat workers as humans – as people who can fall sick, need a leisure break, socialise with others to stay motivated, de-route to pick up their kids from school, attend to an emergency at home, lose their temper occasionally, and moreover, coming to the work after facing physical abuse at home. In a normal work environment, employers tend to understand their team-members and often deal with compassion during tough times.

Image credit: Satvik Shahapur

Research shows how these data-driven management systems especially in context of ride-sharing apps impact human workers negatively as they lack human-centred design. They discovered that sometimes female drivers did not accept male passengers without pictures at night only to be penalized by these algorithms later. Moreover, drivers complain of rude passengers, which is seldom taken into consideration by platform companies and it only lowers the driver’s acceptance rate and ratings.

Technology creators need to ask themselves how to ensure that algorithms are designed to enable workers and not just be optimized for customer satisfaction. Alternatively, they need to see the extension of worker’s satisfaction as that of customer gratification given these two realms reinforce one another. By sensitizing to the needs of women like Rinky who are perhaps stepping out in this male-dominated world for the first time, programmers could create a more empowering pathway for such women workers. With the entrenched gender norms burdening women with familial duties and limiting their access to education and skills training, the intervention by platform designers can promise genuine change. While cultural change often takes a long course, by placing women at the centre, designers can accelerate this shift.

More concretely, what if platform companies did the following:

  • They create a feedback/resolution system which accounts for rejections and safeguards ratings when women drivers reject certain passengers if they consider them as potential threat.
  • They can institute flexibility in terms of wanting to go home early and this shouldn’t be translated into ‘lower incentives’, after all this is the premise of gig economy.
  • AI should aim at promoting workers’ well-being, which means following a demanding or intensive piece of work (a long ride in this case), AI could recommend a relatively easier task for drivers.
  • Another aspect is to ensure transparency in terms of how the wages are allocated to different people and an understanding of how the autonomous systems impact ratings with also a system of redressal, i.e. one that allows for corrections etc.  
  • Algorithms should encourage a community-building culture rather than individualism-oriented – social incentives could be given to those drivers who pick up rides when an assigned driver is unable to reach the destination instead of penalizing him or her.
  • While the in-built GPS system in apps can help drivers track public toilets and other places that could be used for restroom breaks, algorithms could be trained to adjust routes according to drivers’ needs and availability of amenities.
  • Moreover, popular ride-sharing platforms like Ola and Uber can consider assigning women passengers to women riders especially during the night-time. This move can make both the parties feel secure considering women dread boarding a taxi in an ‘unsafe’ country like India.

Across disciplines, if we brainstorm on reimagining these platforms as cooperative instead of competitive spaces, of human-centered versus optimization-centered, and as feminist-oriented and not just male-oriented, there may be more promise for our digital wellbeing.

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Domestic work in Africa: Essential but precarious

[By Sharmi Surianarain & Julia Taylor]

“I was working three days a week as a house cleaner. When the first person was infected with COVID-19 in Kenya, my boss told me not to report to work anymore. I have tried calling and they don’t answer my calls. l stay in the slums of Kawangware and they think l will infect them. Now getting a place to work is not easy.”

Nelly, 29, Nairobi (All names have been changed to protect identities).

Nelly’s story is all too familiar in almost every country on the African continent. 

Domestic work is a significant source of employment in Africa, accounting for around 2.2 % of its labour force, which may still be an underestimate, as in Africa, the popular saying is that “even domestic workers have domestic workers” (ILO, 2016). It is also critical to everyday life across most of Africa’s cities. An analysis of the South African labour market in 2003 found that a quarter of all employed African women were working as domestic workers.

Housekeepers, cleaners, cooks, and child-care workers enable millions of professionals to do their jobs, but are often underpaid, under-valued, and vulnerable—living and working in a highly unregulated environment. This precariousness has been further compounded by COVID-19, resulting in unprecedented setbacks for domestic workers that will continue for years to come.

Due to swift lockdown restrictions in many African countries, many household workers have been forced to stay home, often without pay, and sometimes losing their jobs. For example, Esther was working as a nanny for a wealthy family in Nairobi. Just before the first COVID-19 case in Kenya, she happened to be visiting relatives in her home village, away from Nairobi. When Kenya responded with a curfew and travel ban between its counties, Esther could not return to work.  Within a week, her boss had already replaced her with someone else, and now she has no income to live on and to support her family.

Domestic worker in Kenya. Image credit: Solidarity Center

Domestic workers, like gig workers of many kinds, face the challenge of poor and irregular pay, unstructured or missing contracts, and inconsistent income. Without social or economic safety nets, domestic workers—mostly women, many of them single mothers—are forced to dig into savings, if any, to support their families. Given how little the sector is regulated, and how rarely domestic workers have access to any form of savings and insurance, this often means that they have to rely on the charity of relatives, friends, and employers, or go hungry. Early in Kenya’s lockdown, the country was moved to action by the story of a widow forced to cook stones for her children to lull them into sleep while they waited for the meal. She used to wash laundry pre COVID-19 and her loss of income meant she could not feed her children.

The pandemic has laid bare the structural inequities and systemic barriers to inclusion across the world, underscoring the need to design more inclusive futures. How can we specifically design solutions for informal sector workers in general, and domestic workers in particular?

Let’s look at insurance. While traditional insurance will cater to domestic workers, we may need to turn to more innovative solutions such as micro-insurance for the informal sector, or alternative forms of social protection. Creating access to a marketplace for linkages to contract work may smooth demand shocks, but it will be critical to ensure that these platforms do not extract more value than they provide. Some platform organizations, such as Sweep South in South Africa—a platform that connects users to domestic workers—instituted a COVID-19 relief fund for workers on their platform to meet living expenses. They raised in excess of $500,000 towards the fund—something that could provide a stopgap version of unemployment insurance for gig workers in a precarious sector.

In an era where labour is becoming less formal, the role of trade unions in protecting workers rights becomes more complex. Some labour unions fail to adapt to the changing circumstances of work and must be supported to transform and adapt so that informal and gig workers understand their rights and are part of a community. We could use creative advocacy and digital storytelling to include the case for gig domestic workers within existing formal labour networks to campaign for decent working standards, as evidenced by the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union. Finally, by documenting and sharing the stories of these workers in ways that leverage new digital tools, we could collectively shape innovative solutions.

The economist Mariana Mazzucato argues that the decades-old economic assumptions of conflating price with value should be contested—and that we need to redefine what constitutes value in the economy (WEF, 2018). Caring—for children, for our homes, for the elderly—and cleaning has always been seen as less valuable, particularly in a highly monetized economy. And yet the COVID-19 crisis is showing us that this is one of the most essential forms of “work” we have. It is time we take care of the people that care for us.


Julia Taylor is part of the Impact and Storytelling team at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa.  Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Julia is committed to addressing inequality and creating a more just and sustainable world. Julia’s work at Harambee has involved implementing new opportunities for youth employment and ensuring impact and strategic alignment for new initiatives. She holds a B.Com from the University of Cape Town, a PGD in Sustainable Development from Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute, and a Masters in Environment and Development from Edinburgh University.

Sharmi Surianarain serves as the Chief Impact Officer, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa.  Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Sharmi is an activist for opportunity creation for young people, particularly women. She is an Aspen African Leadership Initiative Fellow, Class of 2020 and sits on the Boards of Emerging Public Leaders, Ongoza, Metis, Instill Education and is on the Advisory Council for the NextGen Ecosystem Builders Africa 2020. Sharmi holds a B.A. from Harvard University, a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

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Landless labourers? Busting the myth of the migrant in the construction economy

[By Shweta Mahendra Chandrashekhar]

I was born in Lonavala and brought up in Pune, both places located in the western region of India. Some of the vivid memories I have of my childhood include visits to numerous tunnel construction sites in India (Pune-Mumbai Expressway, Konk­­an Railway, Delhi Metro). My father’s infrastructure firm has been in the business of building tunnels for more than 35 years and many of our family trips in the 1990s & 2000s included such visits. Since most of the sites were away from the city and amid mountains and forests, it was a welcome break from the din and bustle of daily city life. As a young girl, I used to interact enthusiastically with the site supervisors, engineers and workers, sometimes even accompanying my father deep into the freshly excavated tunnels.

Image credit: Safal karki

My most recent visit (December, 2019) to a tunnel construction site was in Karwar (Karnataka) near an old highway bridge constructed by the British on the National Highway (NH-4), dubbed by locals as ‘London Bridge’. My father’s company was in the middle of a time-bound construction project of a twin tube tunnel for NH-4. There were more than 250 construction workers at the site, most of them skilled migrants from the states of Odisha, Jharkhand & West Bengal. Recently, my father gave me a first-hand account of the impact of the COVID pandemic and nationwide lockdown on the construction sector:

“My company is based in Pune. I travel to Karwar frequently, usually stay there for a fortnight and come back to Pune. The construction work of tunnels is different from other works as it goes on round the clock and in three shifts per day. On the late evening of 24th March, my mobile phone was ringing constantly. Akash Rana, my site engineer was on the phone and he informed me that a nationwide lockdown had just been announced by the Prime Minister. My first reaction to this national emergency was to go to the site immediately (normally I would retire after meditation for half an hour in the evening). I reached the site and as the news had unfolded on media, the workers were agitated. While I stayed in my guest house in Karwar, several of my site engineers were accommodated in another guest house. The drillers, blasters and other crew members stayed at site where we had erected temporary structures on government land allotted to us for erection of the site office. Most migrant workers usually stay for six months, return to their native homes for farming and come back again. Some of the workers had already booked tickets to return home. I assured them that it’s a matter of 30-40 days and I would take care of their compensation and ration during this period. These workers had migrated for a better life for their families. They were not landless labourers. They had agricultural land in their villages and associated animal husbandry. They have migrated to earn more as the local economy had little to offer whereas the construction sites gave them a variety of jobs and higher pay scales. A month’s supply of ration for staff mess was immediately procured. The lockdown was severe, and it was challenging to maintain the supply line of ration as law enforcement agencies didn’t allow any vehicles on road. The next day I rushed to the District Collector’s office and requested them to issue us passes so that we were not obstructed by the law enforcement agencies to carry rations and medical supplies to the workers. The pass allowed us to move four wheelers with rations. Local government’s efforts were encouraging, and I received a call from a state intelligence officer asking me about the number of migrant workers with me along with their home address. The impact of lockdown on infrastructure projects was imminent and all work was stalled. With the wisdom of hindsight, it appears that infrastructure projects should have been exempted from the massive lockdown. Most of the construction sites were away from urban areas, workers could have stayed at the respective sites and projects could go on without any interference. Almost a month later, we faced a strong demand from the site workers to return home. Some of them had genuine reasons to be home as monsoon was closing in and they had to look after their agricultural land for the grains would be part of their year-long supply of rations. We hired two private buses. After receiving permission from the government of Karnataka, one left for Odisha and another for Bihar.”

The construction industry has been heavily affected due to a lack of workers. According to a newspaper report :

“The departure of migrant workers in the last two months has depleted 75 per cent workforce employed at different construction sites of Pune Metro and has slowed the progress to just about 20 to 25 per cent of the usual capacity, as per MahaMetro officials.”

In the popular media and common-sense view, the migrant construction workers are often stereotyped as landless labourers who have no choice but to migrate from their home states. However, it is worth investigating and analysing how many actually do belong to this category. As recorded in my father’s chronicle, many workers are landholding farmers, who had consciously decided to migrate for better prospects. This dual role of the migrants – as farmers and construction workers – has a potential to disrupt the common perception of them as landless labourers solely concerned with subsistence and without any aspiration for upward mobility. In his essay ‘The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition’, Arjun Appadurai considers the capacity to aspire as a cultural capacity and not just an economic one. He says:

“Aspirations certainly have something to do with wants, preferences, choices, and calculations. And because these factors have been assigned to the discipline of economics, to the domain of the market and to the level of the individual actor (all approximate characterizations), they have been largely invisible in the study of culture. To repatriate them into the domain of the culture, we need to begin by noting that aspirations form parts of wider ethical and metaphysical ideas which derive from larger cultural norms.”

The hardship faced by the migrants during their journey from cities to villages has been well documented in the media. Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) has published three reports, so far, describing the migrants’ distress. Many steps have been taken by central, state and local governments to provide relief in the form of Shramik trains, free food grains, cash transfers and employment opportunities. The allocation for MGNREGA, a program that enhances livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of wage employment to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work, was increased by Rs. 40,000 crores (5,334 million USD). Migrants, who returned to their home states, have created the additional demand for work under MGNREGA and states like Rajasthan have reported record employment. Moreover, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also launched Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (GKRA), a program to ensure employment in mission mode in 116 districts across six states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha) where the maximum number of migrant workers have returned. MGNREGA generates employment mainly for unskilled workers and is provided each year since it was enacted as a law. However, GKRA is a one-time program that brings together 25 categories of ongoing work. It will continue for 125 days and is aimed at skilled workers who have returned to their native places because of the lockdown. Mission mode implies that GKRA employment will be rapidly generated by an active coordination of 11 central government ministries so that ongoing works which were progressing at a normal pace as per schedule, are now fast-tracked to transform the challenge presented by the pandemic into an opportunity to quickly create infrastructure in rural areas. The basket of a wide variety of works in GKRA will ensure that each migrant worker is able to get an opportunity of employment according to her / his skill.

Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Social welfare measures for the construction workers are enshrined in the Building and Other Constructions Workers (BOCW) (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. The preamble of the BOCW Act explains: “An act to regulate the employment and conditions of service of building and other construction workers and to provide for their safety, health and welfare measures and for other matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” The BOCW Act establishes Welfare Boards in each state to provide financial and medical assistance to construction workers.

Various estimates put the total number of construction workers in the range of 50-60 million while the number of registered construction workers is only 35 million. So far, the state governments have disbursed a substantial amount of Rs. 4957 crores (661 million USD) cash assistance to approximately 20 million registered construction workers across the country during the lockdown. About 17.5 million of these transactions were done directly into the bank accounts of the workers through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). However, the relief provided to construction workers has not been entirely smooth. Telephonic interviews, conducted by Jan Sahas (NGO), with 3,196 migrant construction workers from north and central India between 27th­­- 29th March 2020 found that 94 % of interviewed workers did not have BOCW cards, making them ineligible for any transfer. Further, 14 % did not have ration cards and 17 % did not have bank accounts. Clearly, not every BOCW is registered with the Welfare Boards and not every registered BOCW has benefitted from cash transfer. The criteria for registration are determined by the state governments. For example, in Delhi, a certificate from a registered trade union suffices to get a construction worker registered with the state BOCW Welfare Board, while for a worker in Uttar Pradesh, a builder’s certificate specifying that she / he was involved with the construction activity for 90 days in the previous 12 months is required. Often the builders / contractors do not issue such certificates, making workers ineligible for registration with the board. In the state of Delhi, the labour department last year made the registration process more extensive, requiring every applicant to fill out a 12-page form. In addition, many workers routinely fall off the grid of the safety net due to their inability to stick to the compulsory annual renewal. For example, the number of registered construction workers in Delhi fell from over 300,000 to 40,000 between 2015 and 2020.

In order to address this issue, the central government has planned multiple measures as under:

Now-a-days, most of the welfare schemes of central, state and local governments are operated as a Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) program where cash is transferred directly in the bank accounts of beneficiaries. The DBT program is built on the convergence of Jan Dhan Bank Account, Aadhar Card (biometric-authenticated unique identification number) and Mobile Phone Number and is called the JAM trinity in popular parlance. A minimum digital literacy is therefore necessary for workers to harness the internet for availing banking services from their mobile phones. Apart from the government’s flagship Digital India program, there are many other initiatives taken by private sector to improve digital literacy among women. Google India and Tata Trusts’ initiative Internet Saathi has benefited 17 million women in rural India. National Digital Literacy Mission by NASSCOM Fo­undation has been initiated with the vision to empower at least one person per household with crucial digital literacy skills by 2020.

A minimum level of digital literacy alone is not enough. It should be bolstered with a minimum financial literacy (basic knowledge of banking operations) and a minimum civic literacy (basic knowledge of govt. schemes). For example, how many workers are aware that there are 16 welfare schemes run by the Govt. of Maharashtra for BOCW ? Do they know that they are entitled to home journey allowance including payment of wages during the period of journey according to section 15 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment & Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 ? Are they aware that Kerala government provides insurance and free medical treatment to migrant workers? (see also Siddharth de Souza’s blog post on this issue). However, it will be premature to assume that this is entirely a literacy or awareness issue. It could also be that the workers distrust the enforcement of these measures or they don’t want to be profiled so they don’t get identity cards which can allow them to capitalize on these initiatives. Therefore, this topic requires further investigation and analysis. 

When the lockdown is lifted, I plan to visit another construction site in Solapur where my father’s firm has started operations. According to American sociologist Charles Wright Mills, sociology should be about examining the biographies of individuals in the context of history of societies. It would be worthwhile to understand the concerns of female workers in the construction sector and their methods to organize themselves. By contextualizing this understanding in the backdrop of their usage of digital platforms, perhaps a new narrative can be constructed! 

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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.