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Moving in reverse gear? Informalizing the construction sector in the ‘Smart City’ of Pune

[By Shweta Mahendra Chandrashekhar]

With the nationwide lockdown being lifted in different parts of India, life for most of us seems to be limping back to normalcy. However, on my way to work, via one of the busiest roads of Pune, I find that life continues to be at a standstill. Women and men who had been working full steam to transform Pune into a “Smart City” are nowhere seen, indicating the glaring impact of the nationwide lockdown on the migrant construction workers due to the COVID pandemic. Many aspects of the situation and distress of the migrant construction workers have been intensively discussed: their long journeys on foot, starvation, the accidental deaths on their way back home, or their loss of benefits or bailout money.

Pune’s metro project which was in full swing before the lockdown, has been considerably delayed now with almost 50% of the construction labourers employed not returning back to the project sites.

To gain a deeper understanding of the precarious conditions of the migrant workers in the sector, I interviewed the President and the General Secretary of the Construction Workers Federation of India (CWFI) and and the Project Director (Bengaluru) of the NGO SAMPARK that works for the migrant construction workers in India. We spoke about the CWFI’s and SAMPARK’s vision of reforming and formalizing the construction sector, the reasons for the migrants’ low registrations with the Welfare Boards, and whether digital technologies and platforms play an assistive role in their lives.

The President of the CWFI, Sukhbir Singh, when asked about his vision of reforming the construction sector as a move towards formalizing it said, “Since the year 1991, we have witnessed a trajectory in India that has largely resulted in the ‘formal’ sector turning into ‘informal’.” Giving the example of the construction sector, he explains:

“In the construction sector, most of the ‘big’ projects which were earlier executed by the government themselves, are now allotted to a few private construction companies; the problem starts here  – these ‘big’ construction companies further subcontract the work to small contractors or ‘dalals’ [middlemen], who in turn employ the labourers in dire need of employment – eventually making them victims of exploitation.”

He added that the situation becomes grim when the workers are not registered or rather not made to register themselves with the State Welfare Boards, eventually leaving them with no entitlements and benefits. The CWFI-President  explained that even though these “dalals” (middlemen) play an important role in employing the migrant workers, it comes at the expense of the worker’s security given that they are not employed by these big companies directly or by the government, eventually landing them in contractual and informal employment. According to him, “The current laws of our country [India] promote these practices, which hinder formalization.” The issue can be resolved to a certain extent he says, “if rather than allotting the contracts to private construction companies (who in turn employ middlemen), the major construction works are carried out by the government themselves!”

The General Secretary of the Construction Workers Federation of India, V. Sashikumar however spoke of the positive transformational potential of digital technologies that might work in favour of workers:

“Digitalization can be a pathway to formalization of the construction sector in India, provided the workers are imparted with basic digital knowledge and most importantly an awareness is generated amongst them about the benefits of gaining digital literacy in itself.”

He pointed to the fact that the workers employed in the construction sector mostly come to the city from rural areas in search for better prospects, and they generally lack digital literacy, which becomes a barrier to registration. As he explains, this leads to a situation in which “there are lakhs of Jan Dhan bank accounts whose holders are almost unaware of an amount credited to their account by the government”. Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana is a financial inclusion programme started by the Government of India in the year 2014 to cover all unbanked households in India, aiming to provide affordable financial services to rural as well as urban households.

A survey by INDUS ACTION between April 6 and May 30, 2020, covering 5,242 families across 11 states of India, found that only 59% of the 2,233 women eligible for Jan Dhan reported that they had received the benefit, 34% said they did not receive the transfer and 7% said they did not know if they received the benefit. The survey assessed the beneficiaries’ access to rations, employment status, healthcare and government schemes and pointed out that almost 40% of Jan Dhan account holders could not access the government’s COVID-19 relief. Interviewing V. Prameela who heads the migrant workers’ project in Bengaluru for the NGO SAPARK about thelow worker registration ratesunder the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996 (BOCW Act), she says, “Unawareness regarding the benefits of welfare funds is the main reason for low registration.” And adds: 

“When we started our work in the year 2013, even the developers or builders were unaware of the motive behind the 1% cess [tax/levy] under the BOCW Welfare Cess Act, 1996  that was required to be paid to government. If this is the developer’s plight, the plight of the workers is unimaginable.”

Ms Prameela spoke of the an estimated amount of staggering  8,000 crore rupees (1.081 billion  USD) unutilized in the Karnataka’s welfare board itself. 

Section 3 of the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996  provides for collection of cess (tax or a levy) from every employer at the rates prescribed, on the cost of construction incurred by an employer to fund construction labourer’s social security. It had been argued under the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour v. Union of India & Others that many of the State Governments have collected the cess as contemplated under the Cess Act, but these amounts have not been passed on to the Welfare Boards to extend the benefits to the workers as contemplated by the Act.

Explaining the efforts of their NGO’s in conducting campaigns for the workers, V. Prameela spoke of her experiences of how tough it was to identify eligible workers and getting them registered with the government. In this regard she said, “the certificates approving that a worker has worked for 90 days are many a times obtained illegally. To avoid this, online registration was put in motion.”

President of The Construction Workers Federation of India addressing the workers at a rally in Haryana, India. Image credit: Mohindar Sapra

The President of the CWFI, however, expressed his dissatisfaction on the way the entire digitization process of the worker’s online registration is carried out in the country. He says, “Undoubtedly, digital technology and platforms can play a significant role in formalizing this sector, conditional to the process remaining corruption-free.” In this regard, he pointed to many North Indian states, including Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, and Rajasthan where online registration of the Building and Other Construction Workers has sown seeds of corruption. He says:

The government approved Common Service Centers that aim to provide assistance to the workers regarding their online registrations and educating the digitally illiterate, are run by private companies-who have started charging unfair prices to the workers under the pretext of faulty paperwork”.

A pertinent question then arises: Why would the workers choose to pay for the same process which earlier involved no charges at all with a mere submission of form in the BOCW headquarters? Moreover, the rejection of online forms further creates reluctance among workers, discouraging them from registering again.

With the Central government planning to introduce the three new Labour Codes,

a few concerns are raised whether under the pretext of universalization and simplification, these codes would make the workers even more vulnerable. In this regard, V. Sashikumar expressed his heightened concerns as the existing BOCW Act, 1996 will be repealed under the Social Security Bill, 2020. He says:

It is sad and rather unfortunate that the reforms of the government are regressive, with a precarious standing for the future. Central government’s new agenda involves centralization of power; opposite of what we need now ‘Decentralization’ is the need of the hour as it empowers the state boards and other organizations like the unions and NGOs to work at grassroots level and address local developmental needs.”

In response to the new labour code, the General Secretary hinted about their efforts to organise themselves to conduct a national level protest.

Repealing the  BOCW Act, 1996 would impact construction workers as registrations of almost 4 crore (40 million) such workers would  lapse. This would also mean closure of 36 state BOCW boards wherein all the construction workers would have to newly register themselves with the proposed state welfare boards. Moreover, the closure would lead to cancellation of  tens of thousands of pensions which are being paid to older workers and disabled workers and cancellation of millions of scholarships which are being paid as education assistance to the children of construction workers besides cancellation of several other benefits, including maternity benefits for the women workers.

Since the formation of the BOCW Act, around Rs 40,000 crore (5.408 billion USD) of cess or  levy has been collected and roughly Rs 11,000 crore (1.487 billion USD) has been utilised to benefit construction workers. It is seen that this new labour code bill would cease these benefits, as the cess collected for the construction labour would go into a Common Service Assistance Fund. Studies by Subhash Bhatnagar, co-ordinator of the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour (NCL-CL) and Ravi Srivastava, member of National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) on the construction sector reveal that a construction worker is employed for around 15-20 days on an average for a month and receives 50% of the existing minimum wage in that sector. The problem starts here- after receiving only 25% of wages that the construction worker is intended to receive, they would need to contribute 12.5% of it towards the social assistance fund to avail benefits. Experts point out that this is an unrealistic contribution from a construction labourer who lives on daily wages.

Are the workers ready for the new change given their current economic standing in the COVID times? The pandemic has opened the pandora’s box and has surfaced their deep-seated problems. What possible mechanisms could strategically pull them irreversibly out of poverty and distress? Digital platforms do hold a promising future for them, if leveraged ethically and efficiently with full awareness of their plight. Recent mobile apps such as MyRojgaar and Majdoor showcase the potential of digital technologies to assist the workers in these testing times. Strong symbiotic efforts from the NGOs, Trade Unions and the government think tanks and policy makers is needed to resolve the problems and concerns of the workers before they get institutionalised. With India embarking on its journey to attain the Sustainable Development Goal 8 “Decent Work and Economic Growth for all”, it needs to be seen how far it has achieved the provision of “productive dignified employment to its citizens”. Economic growth propelled by decent work is the only way to unlock true human potential and raise the quality of life for all.

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Coders’ dilemmas: The challenge of developing unbiased algorithms

[By Samarth Gupta]

The 21st century has seen the rapid rise of algorithms to control, manage, analyze, and perform any number of operations on data and information. Some believe that decision-making processes can be significantly improved by delegating tasks to algorithms, thereby minimizing human cognitive biases. As Tobias Baer argues:

“The rise of algorithms is motivated by both operational cost savings and higher quality decisions […]. To achieve this efficiency and consistency, algorithms are designed to remove many human cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, overconfidence, anchoring on irrelevant reference points (which mislead our conscious reasoning), and social and interest biases (which cause us to override proper reasoning due to competing personal interests).”

However, there are increasing concerns that algorithmic decisions may be as least as biased and flawed as human decisions. One worry is that, they may exhibit ‘race’ or ‘gender’ bias as Amazon’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) based recruitment tool demonstrated, compelling the company to scrap it altogether. According to a Reuters article, this was because “Amazon’s computer models were trained to vet applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period. Most came from men, a reflection of male dominance across the tech industry.”

With the boom in AI, algorithms are being viewed with renewed scrutiny given its sweeping impact on our everyday lives, including how it will shape the future of work. As a student of computer science, I have been actively coding since the last 5 years. I have been involved in various open source communities where programmers develop, test and debug software issues. Moreover, having done internships at different institutions across India, I have closely interacted with programmers from different geographies and socio-economic backgrounds, learning about their perspectives. Reading the ongoing news on algorithmic bias, ethics, and how these systems can discriminate, got me thinking. I wanted to understand how these biases find their way into algorithms. Are coders even aware of the possibility of bias in programming?  What are the different (technical as well as non-technical) approaches used by them to eliminate these biases? Do they receive any kind of ethical/value-based training from the company they work for? Did they face dilemmas of programming something they didn’t want to? If so, then what was their approach to solving the issue?   

To explore these questions, I did a pilot study by interviewing software engineers working in different tech corporations across India. The participants were recruited from my school alumni group as well as members from different programming groups where I have contributed/contribute in the software development cycle. The purpose was to explore the notions of ethics and human values coded into the algorithms based on a programmer’s perspective. The interviewees were selected keeping certain diversity parameters in mind – level in the company, kind of work they do and their years of experience. The companies too ranged in size from start-ups to software giants.

Image credit: Pixnio

The responses were revealing. Firstly, they suggest that none of the organizations conducts any kind of ethical or moral training sessions for the software engineers. In the words of one of the participants:

“No bro…there weren’t any such trainings […]. There were classes on corporate communication and email etiquettes. But majority of the training was focussed on Java and Kubernetes (Computer Software) […]. The manager and other teammates are always there for help in case of any difficulty.”

It was also noted that most of these companies are dominated by male workers, as has been highlighted in the media. According to a diversity report by Google, women make up only about 20% of the engineering staff.  This lack of representation inevitably reflects stereotypes about women in the software.

Tech companies often develop innovative products that cater to extremely large audiences. For instance, WhatsApp has close to two billion active users across 180 countries. Developing a product of such a massive scale depends on complex databases, data structures and algorithms. Even basic software programmes are technically intricate, and involve teams of designers, managers, and engineers with different specializations. However, very often, the code is subdivided into smaller modules and specialized teams work on those aspects independently of other teams. In the words of one of the interviewees:

“Actually, everything happens in a hierarchical manner… first the senior management decides what all features should be there in the product…after that the product managers refine it […] finally the software engineers are asked to code for the features. For example, if I am developer engineer I will only code for the GPS route optimization… testing people will do different types of testing for checking if the code is stable […] designers will redefine and redesign the UI/UX […] and so on.”

This subdivision of the tasks according to the hyper-specialization of the employees prevents them from getting to know the broader context as they are limited to their own ‘tiny’ specialized job. This micro-division of work according to the hyper-specialization has two major consequences:

  1. Employees often feel alienated from the bigger picture as they are confined to their specialized task – debugging the code, testing it on different pre-decided parameters or developing a module of software. This alienation may reflect in the software they develop and thereby affect the users. For instance, a programmer who is hesitant to communicate with others may favour developing an AI-powered chatbot for implementing help functionality in his/her software instead of developing an algorithm that works by asking for help from other users.
  2. It becomes extremely hard to implement ethics in this institutional system. The engineers most often have no contextual awareness of the product they are developing. They just focus on the efficiency of their code, its scalability and efficient design without any regard for ethics or human values.

Most software companies and start-ups proudly claim that they have a casual working environment, provide different kinds of perks, flexibility, recreation facilities and many other benefits to the employees. The organization might have a culture of empathy, diversity and collaboration. They may be empathetic while caring for the employee’s family, inclusive with recruitments specifically for women, and LGBTQ groups, for instance. In the words of one of our interviewees:

“The company has a very sweet, family-like atmosphere […]. There are lots of fun activities, no restrictions on the dress code or fixed work timings…to the extent that on Friday evenings, the whole team goes out for some fun activity…But friend, there is no value of our suggestions…See, what happens is that in the weekly meetings we are asked to give our suggestions on the product, but you understand the working of corporate […] it’s just for formality so that we don’t feel excluded…strict top down orders as given by the senior management are followed […] we are just for coding their desirable features.”

This shows that when it comes to business, companies may become strictly hierarchical, with the junior employees having no say in any of the products that they code for. It clearly reflects the contradiction between the culture that a company envisages and what the employees actually experience on the job.

Another dilemma that programmers face is conflict of interest. Even if they encounter unfair work practices, they must choose between raising their voices against it and risking their job or remain on the safer side and just keep on moving things forward. As one interviewee remarked, when asked whether (s)he had faced any such dilemma:

“Yes…this happened while I was working as an intern with [name of organization]. My task was to analyse the data of the financial transactions…I found out later that the analysis that I was doing was being used to gauge the consumer’s behaviour, but users were not informed…I felt like raising my voice…talked to my friends there [who were also working as interns]…finally decided not to do anything and continue with my project…as nothing was going to change with my objection and I would also lose my PPO [Pre placement offer]…company’s CTC [Cost to company] was very good…why should I interfere with it?”

The final dilemma that emerged in the interviews had to do with designing ethical AI algorithms. Programmers are careful to not explicitly insert any bias in their algorithms. For instance, no programmer would insert a line like “if the gender is female then assign a lower score to the resume”. The bias creeps in at the time of ‘nurturing’ the algorithm – i.e. training it on the data. Real-world data reflects human limitations and judgment, and this invariably gets inscribed into the algorithm when it is trained on real world data.

Hence, the need of the hour is to sensitise the data annotators and collectors about this problem, diversify data to become more representational and subject it to rigorous testing to eliminate stereotypes and biases. The platform-based gig economy has been rising consistently, as reported by the Economic Times and hence will tremendously affect the future of work. Algorithmic bias plays an important role here. At Uber Eats, for instance, gig workers blame the algorithmic system for the unexplained changes that led to slashing their jobs and salaries. Many women are excluded from the gig work force due to the lack of value-based design for women in digital platforms, as reported by the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank.

Algorithms (and code in general) are increasingly impacting our lives in this age of the platform society. If these tools are to work for everyone, in a fair and just manner, values of fairness and justice should be part of their framework. It is not enough to appeal to programmers through measures such as ethical guidelines. Algorithmic biases need to be met in the same complex and wide way they affect us – from individuals to organizations, regulators, and society by and large.  

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Locked down but unlocked: How online retail may preserve Bangladesh’s Jamdani heritage craft

[By Rawshon Akhter and Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

Haji Razzaque, an artisanal broker of around 50 years, shares his struggles of selling the products from Bangladesh’s Jamdani weavers, purveyors of a largely female-driven craft. He speaks of how, as a young boy, he would spend three to four hours every Friday morning at the Jamdani haat (bazaar). Right after the traditional Muslim Fazar prayer, he would head to the marketplace where over 500 Jamdani weavers, brokers, and customers from different areas would gather, some 20 km from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Since the Corona lockdown, the attendance at the market has dwindled to barely half that number. Consequently, Haji too, has lost his earnings.

Tahura, a weaver of Jamdani sharees, has been forced to shut down her home-based handloom unit due to a significant decline in demand over the past six months. The sharee is among the most labour-intensive forms of handloom-weaving, practiced in this region for centuries, and constitutes part of Bangladesh’s rich textile heritage. UNESCO recognized Jamdani as an intangible cultural heritage in 2013.

Festivals like Pohela Boishak (Bengali New Year celebrated on April 14th), Eid (important Muslim religious festival), and Durga puja (a Hindu religious festival) are the key seasons for sales of these fabrics and garments in Bangladesh. Most middle-class women city dwellers dream of having a Jamdani sharee – as a festival gift. However, this year weavers and sellers missed these three festive events for the first time due to the Covid lockdown.

The latest Handloom Census 2018 (preliminary report) of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) estimates that weavers produce about 2,000 Jamdani sharees per week. Several villages on the eastern side of the river Shitalakkhya, including Noapara, Rupshi, Moikuli, Khadun, Pobonkul, Murgakul, and Borab in Rupganj under Narayanganj district are known as the hub of Jamdani weaving and supply to markets both at home and abroad.

Image credit: Armanaziz / Wikimedia

Though the Jamdani artisans are scattered in different places in the country and a small portion in West Bengal in India, most of them live in the Rupganj and Narayanganj regions, and nearly 15,000 people from 3,000 families are engaged in the trade. The price of sharees ranges between Tk 5,000 and Tk 40,000 (ca. 59-472 USD). Specially made sharees can cost as much as Tk 150,000 (ca. 1799 USD).

Bangladesh Handloom Board (2018) data shows that the industry has witnessed a drastic fall in recent years, and the number of handlooms has declined by about 45% in 15 years. The total number of workers also fell to 301,757 (133,444 male and 168,313 female workers) from 888,115 workers in 2003. In 1990, the number was over one million.

Faria Sharmin and Sharif Tousif Hossain (2020), scholars from Stamford University Bangladesh and Sonia Ashmore (2018), an expert in handloom weaving industry and author of ‘Muslin,’ have documented that there are around 500 master weavers actively involved in Jamdani production activities. These master weavers have 6,500 working looms in total and the same number of weavers working as labourers.

Both studies indicate that this craft is facing extinction. Many of the artisans are abandoning this profession due to numerous obstacles, including being paid barely minimum wages (usually less than Tk 500 – ca. 5.90 USD – for a Tk 2,000 sharee) despite the back-breaking labour of their unique craftsmanship. These weavers had no direct or limited contact with the customers because they often work as bonded labourers under the traditional Jamdani weaving system. Fashion designers also depended on mahajans or wholesalers to buy their products. The COVID-19 crisis has made matters worse.

Income loss to weavers, production, and drop in sales of garments and textiles due to the crisis have resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment among weavers. To keep sales alive, many of these small entrepreneurs and weavers have started to sell these products online. According to the Women and E-commerce Forum (WE), more than 500 women have started small and home-based entrepreneurial businesses selling sharees, and other Jamdani yarn made garments like fatua and Panjabi (for men), and kamij (for women)via online platforms.

WE insiders confirmed to us that during September and the first half of October, Jamdani items sold Tk 5 million (close to 60.000 USD) worth across the country through such platforms. WE started in 2018, and within two years, members and followers on Facebook have already reached around a million customers. WE founding member Kakloy Russell Talokder, now a moderator and owner of Kakoly’s Attire, an online fashion platform solely dedicated to selling Jamdani, admits that there has been a five to ten-fold increase in sales through WE. When we interviewed her she stated: “The main reason is that during COVID-19 middle-class people started to depend on local Bangladeshi products through online sales”.

Image credit: Kamrul.vb / Wikimedia

Although artisans and their agents (buyers) missed the sales events for the first time in Bangladesh history due to the pandemic, Ms. Talukder says:   

“Online sales of Jamdani have soared recently, creating a new window of opportunities for the traders. […] Jamdani weavers have got a new life in recent years as entrepreneurs who sell Jamdani online. It helped them survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The boost received from online sales has helped revive Jamdani sales and the production as well. Mr. Kamal Hossain, the owner of a Dhakaiaa Jamdani, Lalkhanbazar, Chottogram branch, explained to us that online sales have increased recently. His centre sells around 20-30 sharees every week – in contrast to only 5-10 until last September. Earlier, he sourced the Jamdani collection through brokers from Rupganj but now he purchases these goods directly from handloom owners.

Kakoly Russell Talokder points out that online sales can be an excellent tool for promoting Jamdani, adding that Facebook plays a significant role here as about 33 million Facebook users exist in Bangladesh. She notes that there is very little information on the craft online, and as more and more individuals and organizations talk about Jamdani in these online forums, the more it will spread. According to her, the Jamdani sharee is not adequately promoted in the global market. There are over 30 million Bangla speaking people living overseas. “We could not reach our cultural treasure to them,” she laments.

However, the Textile Today (2017) reports that the demand for quality Jamdani Sarees has increased exponentially over the years, at home and abroad, particularly across the Bangladeshi diaspora in the West. Bangladesh received the Geographical Indication (GI) status for the Jamdani sharee in 2016, defined by the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) as:     

“indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.”

Many entrepreneurs (WE members) hint that these recognitions will lead to further direct investment in production alongside ecommerce, creating a new turn in Jamdani waving. Adding to this, Ms. Talokder believes that “many people are used to the comfort and benefit of ordering online. This trend will continue and even expand in parts of Bangladesh. Thus, women, weavers do not need to be worried about their low pay.”

Haji Razzaque is also hopeful that increasing demand through sales can boost weavers’ income. However, Tahura, who was trained in Jamdani weaving by her father at a young age, does not want to engage her 12-year daughter in this hard, low-paid work. She doubts that increased online sales may be sufficient to motivate weavers to stick with the craft.

However, if the numbers cited by WE are any indication, coupled with the push for more online engagement among Handloom owners and retailers, there is a glimmer of hope that these new digital forums can help sustain this craft and possibly encourage young people from weaving families to preserve their heritage. It remains to be seen whether the interest and momentum to go online, provided by the COVID-19 crisis, will be sustained in the long term.

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Not quite the death of distance: Challenging the resettlement utopia of Perumbakkam

[By Sunitha Don Bosco and Maartje van Eerd]

“I have a house now, nice and shining new, but what am I supposed to do in it? Sit inside and admire the house all day? I cannot eat the house, can I? I have a stomach to fill. I cannot find a job here; I cannot move back to the city. We were happy we were getting homes, but we were not prepared for this reality.”

“I used to work as a maid in residences in the city, I lost my job because I moved here, as a single parent with a girl child ready to join college. I am unable to support her education. Going back to the city for work is impossible with erratic bus services. I am struggling to make ends meet, I don’t know how I will educate my child […], resettlement is a bane for me. I was not aware about the consequences of moving out of the city.”

Women in Perumbakkam settlement

Our journey begins!

Our first visit to the Perumbakkam resettlement site (Chennai, India) in December 2017 was an eye opener to the problems of the resettled urban poor, especially women. As part of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) international refresher course titled “Gender dimensions of urban river restoration projects”, we took our participants to the Perumbakkam resettlement site during a field visit and as soon as we got out of our vehicle, women in the tenements surrounded us and started sharing their stories. The above statements were made by women who were moved to Perumbakkam from a slum in the city.

These stories went against the dominant discourses and public understanding that resettlement projects are a viable solution to urban housing needs. Finding a home in the city is a distant dream for the many poor who migrate to urban areas in search of livelihoods. Many of the poor end up in slums along rivers or in other vacant spots that they can find. Official estimates indicate that the slum population in Chennai doubled from 0.7 million in the 1970s to 1.3 million in 2011. Chennai city is currently witnessing massive evictions and resettlement. Resettlement involves moving and rehousing communities from one locality to another, often because the land is required for other purposes, because of public interest, or to protect communities against disasters like floods or landslides. In Chennai, a river restoration project will eventually lead to the displacement and resettlement. 60,000 families or roughly 200,000 people living in the slums along the riverbanks in so-called objectionable areas – low lying flood prone areas of the city were earmarked for eviction of whom many have already been relocated.

Aerial view of Perumbakkam

Perumbakkam is the largest resettlement site in Asia with a population of 14,000 families, but it will, when finalised, in total rehouse 100,000 people. It is located more than 30 kilometres away from Chennai city centre which is situated outside the Greater Chennai Corporation limit. The project came under heavy criticism for its failure to involve the impacted communities, especially women, in the design, development and implementation of the project (see also this report by IRCDUC/HLRN). Research has shown that those resettled there face a multitude of problems such as the lack of economic opportunities in the vicinity of Perumbakkam, and that those continuing with their previous jobs must travel long distances – which is problematic, particularly for women.

The stories of women, children and elderly affected us deeply. We wanted to intervene. Our team consists of an unusual combination of academic disciplines, i.e. housing and media, coming together to work on an intervention to mitigate the problems of women affected by resettlement. Our first initiative was a documentary film project on the gender dimensions of resettlement.

Death of distance 

We embarked on the documentary film project “We too Urban” to digitally record the stories of resettled poor communities in Perumbakkam, particularly from a gender perspective. The documentary with participation of women from Perumbakkam will be used as teaching material for students in universities and to inform various stakeholders across the globe. These include those who are involved in resettlement, but also to inform the public about the gender dimension of resettlement so that the same mistakes are not repeated.

A view from the window of a Perumbakkam tenement

The project gave us access to stories the community wanted to tell the world. During filming, we met Girija (name changed), who narrated her story, a strong testimonial which tells us of the impact of physical distance on urban poor women due to resettlement:

“My husband has been sick, and bed-ridden for 12 years now. We were moved from Otteri [Chennai city] to Perumbakkam. When I was in Otteri, I was able to take care of him [pointing at her husband who lies in the cot] despite going to work, as my son and neighbours offered support in taking care of my husband. Here in Perumbakkam, I have no one to help, everyone is new here, I cannot go to work or take care of my husband. […] I can’t even leave him alone to go search for jobs. I did apply for his pension, but haven’t received it yet, whenever I go to the office with the request for pension, they are asking me to bring him [the husband] to the office to prove his disability. If I had to take him it would cost me Rs.500 [ca. 6,74 USD]. For that Rs.500 I have to beg. I have no money. Even to get medicine from the hospital they ask me to bring him in person. Back in the city, the hospital was nearby, I could go. Here, to travel 3 km I have to spend Rs. 200 [ca. 2,70 USD] both ways. Where will I go for that money?”

Advances in digital media and mobile telecommunications have revolutionised the world and  re-popularized the notion of the “global village” – a proposition by the media philosopher McLuhan who argued that the ubiquity of communicative technologies would vanish the issues of time and space.  Frances Cairncross, an economist and journalist promoted this notion, making the case that technology has created a “Death of distance,” diminishing physical spatial distances. On the contrary, in spite of the recent rise in digital connectivity in India through cheap data plans and mobile phones, the divides of space continue to exclude the urban poor.  “Death of distance” isn’t real for women like Girija. For her the distance will determine her access to healthcare, employment, and social networks. The reality of the distance, living in the outskirts of the city is life changing for many women like her who were resettled and mobile connectivity has limited effects on mitigating these woes. 

Life in the slum

We need the city and the city needs us too!

The relationship between a city and its poor is symbiotic: the city depends on them and vice versa. Employed mostly in the unorganised sector, the urban poor depend on the city for survival. When physically removed from the city under the cover of resettlement, their livelihoods and survival are at stake.

Slums have been part and parcel of the landscape in Chennai. Many slums have been there for generations and some even have purchased ‘their’ land from local politicians in the false understanding they would be safe (source: interview in Radha Krishna Nagar, December 2017). As this land is owned by the Public Works Department it was not supposed to have been sold. Although the overall living conditions of these slums are problematic as they lack many services and living is tough, the biggest advantage of these inner-city slums for their communities is the location; they are located close to the workplaces, hospitals, and schools. This locational benefit is particularly important for women who are therefore able to combine a domestic job with their own household responsibilities.

“We were born and brought up here and we haven’t caused any problems, people just mind their business. We pleaded with them not to demolish the houses. We requested for resettlement in the city. No-one heard us. We have petitioned many government officials in this regard. There are no job opportunities there (Perumbakkam). Our kids are studying here. Our source of livelihood is here. There are no job opportunities there.”

“I work as a cook in nearby homes, I earn around Rs. 10,000 [ca. 135 USD]. I never went hungry here, what will I do there in Perumbakkam? Will I get a job there? You are going to set up a park here, you call this beautification, of the city? Removing the poor is not beautification, can your development be inclusive of the poor? They have been talking about evictions for some years, I never realised it is for real […]. We were promised by our local leaders that evictions won’t happen and now I am amidst the rubble […].”

A woman and her child watching the demolition of their home in an inner city slum

Our interviews make clear that people living in the inner-city slums in Chennai targeted for resettlement are uninformed or not sufficiently informed about the resettlement plans and process. The information on what is happening and when and where to is very fragmented. Although in some cases a selected group is informed, in general there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety amongst the community. Sometimes plans had been announced a long time ago but since nothing happened people have forgotten about them. In other cases, people are only informed a few hours prior to a forced eviction, while in other cases these forced evictions start totally unannounced.

Compromised factors in resettlement varied from safety and security, loss of social assets, social stigma, children’s education, unemployment to crime, alcohol and drug addiction and child abuse. But one main component to many of the factors which causes distress is lack of information and communication between various stakeholders. The perversity of this resettlement is that Perumbakkam is situated just a stone throw away from the IT corridor of Chennai.

So, what can be done? Can communication interventions mitigate the issues these women face, brought about by resettlement?  Will “death of distance” be a reality as these women become more the digitally literate? Will digital inclusiveness help in solving some of the problems women face in resettlement? These stories tell a different answer, one that moves beyond just access to that of proximity to opportunity, networks, and solidarities.


Sunitha Don Bosco is a faculty in the Department of Media Sciences, Anna University. Her research interest involves using media for development with a solution and rights-based framework among in disadvantaged communities. Her current research projects in collaboration with IHS, Erasmus University, Netherlands, funded by SPARC-MHRD, Government of India and DAIDA foundation, Netherlands involves communication interventions to improve livelihoods of poor urban women in resettlement. She obtained her M.A & M.Phil. in Communication from the Department of Journalism & Communication, University of Madras. She received her Ph.D. from Anna University for her interdisciplinary thesis on Environment & Media.

Maartje van Eerd is a member of a research team from IHS from the Netherlands and Anna University in India conducting and coordination action research in a resettlement site in Chennai, India.  The project focusses the role that digital inclusion can play in achieving access to information, rights, and livelihoods, and it intends to result in concrete interventions that benefit urban poor resettled women and their communities. She has been conducting long-term research on resettlement in India and organised many international trainings on housing rights, evictions, and resettlement, with a specific interest in gender aspects related to resettlement.  Maartje is a human geographer by profession, with a PhD from Leiden University and a Master from the University of Amsterdam. She works as assistant professor at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies of Erasmus University.

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Beyond access: Towards meaningful connectivity

[By Teddy Woodhouse and Chenai Chair]

In addition to her full-time job as an invoicing agent with a community Wi-Fi service provider, Heny sells mangoes. Fortunately for her, she’s able to use the public Wi-Fi network at her work to post pictures and announce the latest shipments of new produce to would-be customers.

Heny is just one of many who have benefited from a key component of meaningful connectivity. We define ‘meaningful connectivity’ as having four components: when someone has a (1) 4G connection (2) on a smartphone they own and (3) daily use of (4) an unlimited broadband connection at home, work, or a place of study. Through her access to a reliable, high-capacity Wi-Fi connection at work, Heny is able to post regularly and with higher quality photos that give her a competitive edge in selling mangoes within her community. She can make more sales and market more mangoes than others. Compared to another vendor in the same community, Rinie, who relies only on her mobile internet connection to sell mangos through e-marketing, Heny is able to sell three times as much in a day than what Rinie can in a week. In turn, Heny has built a reputation with several farmers for her reliability in getting a good price for herself and for farmers, too. Heny’s story is just one of many – of early advantage to those with greater connectivity and of frustrated potential for those who remain un- or under-connected.

Image credit: Karen Vermeulen / Web Foundation

As part of our latest research into women’s experiences online, we find that affordability and digital skills gaps remain stubborn barriers to gender-equitable access to and use of the internet. However, in addition to the digital gender gap – where a majority of men have used the internet but a majority of women have not – women are also less likely to have reliable access to a higher-quality connection that moves the internet from just being an incidental perk to a tool that enables someone to expand their horizons, personally, professionally, or otherwise.

We measure this higher quality through the meaningful connectivity framework. It can apply at the individual level – their access to each of the four indicators – and as a national assessment tool to focus on broadband policy discussions around potential targets for greater connectivity. Our initial surveys in Colombia, Ghana, and Indonesia show that in each of the three countries, the number of meaningfully-connected individuals is much lower than the number of internet users as measured by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and that women are less likely to be meaningfully connected than men. Clearly, much work remains to be done.

Around 9,700 kilometres away from Heny, in Cape Town, Grace, a cleaner at the University of Cape Town, can use the university’s network for her own connectivity and also to share it with her daughter, Dululu, for homework, educational games, and entertainment. Both Heny and Grace benefit from the opportunity to connect to the internet – and in turn, the wider world – through the reliable network available at their respective workplaces. This is not true for many, but in a world where a personal internet subscription remains unaffordable for millions, public access projects share the cost burden of connectivity among a wider number of users to benefit from a higher-quality connection, typically over Wi-Fi.

These public access points add to the mosaic of shared infrastructure and sharing strategies that individuals use to spread connectivity among family members and friends. Public access solutions scale the same logic of a shared mobile phone or SIM card to a larger number, spread the cost to more people, and create a new layer of cooperative economic efficiency where data tariffs keep millions offline.

‘Meaningful’ is a contested term. What constitutes ‘meaningful’? For Heny, the ability to share photos and post regularly on social media is the lifeblood of her marketing strategy, and that is widely acknowledged as productive. However, just spending time on social media sites has been reported in the media as bad for our health, our wellbeing, and our democracies. Is the fact that Dululu watches cartoons online a bad thing? The networks we built cannot pre-judge the ‘meaningfulness’ of the bytes it serves to users, and similarly our interpretations of when connectivity becomes meaningful should be open to someone’s individual flourishing and that path being unique to them.

But it’s a Catch-22 situation. We want meaningful connectivity so that women can make use of digital technologies, that will see women increasingly becoming knowledge creators and content producers. The reality is that, while being connected allows for faster engagement with customers, there is missing content from women. Our findings are reflective of this. Men were far more likely to engage in a range of online activities, including:

  • Posting comments about political, social, or economic issues (men 29% more likely than women).
  • Selling products or advertising a service (men 29% more likely).
  • Publishing a blog post (men 22% more likely).

Without women’s full participation as creators, the internet will continue to be built with a bias towards male perspectives and miss out on the full knowledge, talent, and contributions of all of society. Working towards meaningful connectivity demands advocating for online spaces that will enhance women’s activities on digital platforms rather than silence them when they  do join. It’s not just about being able to produce content and knowledge but also the trust and safety of being on digital platforms as we think of meaningful connectivity. Women are more concerned about their privacy online especially on personal information such asprivate messages, home addresses, and healthcare information. Those who participated in our  focus groups shared the consequences of having their personal data misused – including experiencing and witnessing online harassment and online abuse. This increased online vulnerability with safety and security concerns means the right to privacy and data protection is particularly important when women engage with digital platforms.

Image credit: Karen Vermeulen / Web Foundation

In the end, we want a digital space that works for women and girls to fully make use of it for their entrepreneurial activities. Adopting the meaningful connectivity framework as a strategy to tackle the gender gap would be an initial step. The meaningful connectivity targets give a fuller picture of the quality of internet access people experience and can help policymakers design better policies to close the digital gender gap and connect more people to a useful, empowering internet.

But we must also go beyond the infrastructure. As digital literacy is a challenge, we advocate for the investment and promotion by governments and other key stakeholders in building up the necessary skills to use the internet and create content that would boost businesses. As these women go online to sell their products, there is also a need to ensure that they are included in designing and developing technology solutions for commercial transactions and supported in developing content as part of local content creation strategies. Most importantly, their safety must be assured. Both governments and companies have a role to play in keeping people safe by protecting the right to privacy – which in turn makes the web safer for women and for everyone.

Only by ensuring policies and solutions of addressing these challenges can we move toward a world where the internet becomes a force to achieve gender equality.


Teddy Woodhouse is the research manager for access and affordability at the Web Foundation and coordinates research projects for the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). He first joined the Foundation in early 2016 and has since helped co-author a number of publications, including the Affordability Reports 2018-2020 and other reports on quality of service and device affordability in low- and middle-income countries. Teddy holds an MA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of St Andrews and an MSc in Global Politics (Global Civil Society) from the London School of Economics.

Chenai Chair is a digital policy researcher who has extensively focused on understanding the impact of technology in society in order to better public interest policy. She is currently World Wide Web Foundation’s Research Manager focused on Gender and Digital Rights.  Her work has included research on ICT access and use issues from a youth perspective, net neutrality and zero rating and unpacking the gendered digital divide through a feminist perspective

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When women’s employment equals family disgrace: A Case from Rural India

[By Renza Iqbal]

Fariha, 19 years, belongs to a middle-class family. Though her family could afford to get her a smartphone, it was not deemed necessary. Fariha’s first smartphone was gifted to her by her husband. She sought her husband’s approval before installing WhatsApp on her phone. She had been married off soon after her schooling and had no hope of pursuing further education or employment. However, this is not a story of a girl from some “backward” place. Fariha is from one of India’s most progressive states—Kerala.

As a PhD scholar at Erasmus University Rotterdam working on digital inequality in rural India, I carried out a month long pilot study in rural Wayanad – a district in the north of Kerala, conducting a focus group discussion and 25 in-depth interviews to understand how the Kerala state fares in terms of digital access and usage. My findings revealed a bigger problem. Though my focus was on the usage and access to mobile phones and the internet, these digital barriers appeared to be culturally induced, embedded in long standing gendered notions of education, employment, and leisure.

Kerala’s women: The most educated and the least empowered

Among the states in India, Kerala often gains the spotlight for its exceptional achievements. It tops the indices in education, gender ratio, health and governance. When the country records 48.5% of its population as female, the state of Kerala boasts a 52.02% female population. But the series of remarkable achievements by the state’s government seems to have had little effect on improving the number of women in the workforce. It is a curious case of education not being converted into employment or empowerment.

Women in the state have a higher education level compared to women in other states in the country. Yet, women’s participation in the labour market has been consistently lower than men, and the wage gap compared to men remains high. It doesn’t end here. According to the Gender Statistics 2017-18 report by the Economics and Statistics Department of the State, around 75% of the female population in the state is considered to be economically inactive. So how is it that a state with the highest female literacy rate is also the state with the highest female unemployment? Add to that the fact that girls in Kerala consistently outperform boys in national-level achievement tests and language tests., you start to see a pattern—a suppressive social order at work.     

Formal education, a mere formality

Education does not necessarily lead to empowerment. I have witnessed this my whole life. As someone who grew up in a traditional Muslim family in Kerala, I bore witness to patriarchy’s hand at work. I have experienced, both within my family and around me, women with tremendous intellectual capacity being married off early, to take on their predetermined life role of carrying out household chores and responsibilities. In my community, education for women is understood as an acceptable engagement until marriage—a mere formality. This notion is so ingrained that one often finds families waiting outside college gates on the lookout to identify potential brides. This goes beyond this particular community; restricting women’s potential is found in almost every community in Kerala, just in different ways.

Image credit: Pippa Ranger/DFID – UK Department for International Development

Caution, women at work

A 2019 study on women’s labour in Kerala gives us better insight into the cultural influences on women’s low representation in workspaces. It found that working women in Kerala are seen as representing the inadequacy of the primary male bread earners’ capacity to provide sufficiently for the family. For women coming from the privileged classes and castes, engaging in employment outside the confines of their home is even considered disgraceful for the family. Paid work is regarded as a threat to their femininity arising from the shared fear that working women could be exposed to sexual harassment. Those who dare to challenge these norms are often ostracized. The most readily accepted solution to protect women from unwanted advances is to restrict women’s access to public spaces. This keeps them from becoming financially independent.

Welcoming a digital Indian!

While growing up, women are monitored by the family on who they are engaging with on their devices. The amount of time they can spend on their devices are also often restricted. That is, if they manage to pass all hurdles to finally get access to smartphones.

During the pilot study for my research, I had the opportunity to engage with young people and listen to their experiences on the gendered differences in mobile internet usage and how education, employment and leisure influenced their behavior online. Among the participants, of those who did not own a smartphone – 70% were women. My study also shows a gendered difference in the age at which they first attain a personal smartphone, with it being 15 for males and 18 for females. Some young men engage in part-time jobs from when they are teenagers and buy their own smartphone. Women seldom get the opportunity.

15-year-old Nihas tells me that “girls use their mother’s phones. They do not generally have a personal phone.” Young women’s mobile phone and internet usage is both controlled and monitored, fearing they would engage in romance. Even being seen speaking with a stranger of the opposite sex can bring shame to the woman and her family. 23-year-old Thresiya was instructed by her family, not to engage in phone conversations when outside the house, as there is a possibility that the local people would assume that she is in a relationship. Fear looms around the impact of gossip on the reputation of the family. Romance outside marriage is taboo in these communities; therefore, a constant effort to reduce their interaction with strangers is a must, even if it means confining them to their homes.

Other aspects from the pilot study surfaced, reflecting the socio-digital life of an average woman in rural India:

  • Most young get intermittent access to their mother’s smartphone around the age of 15.
  • Many women, irrespective of their academic interests and performance, will be married off anywhere between 18 and early 20’s; uprooted to a new life under the supervision of their husband and his family.
  • Further education is at the mercy of the husband and his family, who in most cases, do not see it as necessary.
  • They are rendered financially dependent.
  • Their household responsibilities begin; they succumb to their gender role set and protected by society.
  • This reduces their leisure time, giving them less time to explore internet possibilities, and learning by trial and error.
  • This makes them less skilled at using the phone or the internet compared to their male counterparts.

Nowhere in the timeline do women in rural Kerala get to exercise their independence, financially or otherwise. But not everything is in despair; there is a silver lining. An interesting finding from my study is that unlike middle and upper-class women, for women belonging to economically backward tribal communities, engaging in employment is acceptable. Rarely did it affect family honour or reputation negatively; rather, womenfolk being capable of earning enhanced their prestige. In their case, any contribution to the family’s finances is welcome – even if it is as little as the women taking care of their expenses. Women feel empowered when engaging in employment; they also develop healthy relationships and networks outside their family. Women from these communities often bought a smartphone for themselves using their salaries, or in some cases, scholarship funds. Two of my participants from the Kuruma, a financially “backward” tribal community, shared their experiences. Gopika works as a teacher, whereas Archa is a Master’s student – the two made use of their salary and scholarship fund respectively to purchase a phone – and they are proud of their achievements.

The future of her

For many women like Fariha and Thresiya, education doesn’t equal empowerment. What we need is a reform that tackles societal and gender roles. If in a supposedly progressive state women are not encouraged to leverage on their education to contribute to the labour economy and not valued for their formal work, then maybe, it is not women who need to be educated. The trends change; if it was education restriction yesterday, it is fully autonomous access to smartphones today. Before the dawn of the next regressive trend, let us address the root of the problem: patriarchy.

Women’s employment has to be normalised if we are to develop healthier societies. Women’s liberty and autonomy to engage with the internet and mobile phones could open up numerous employment and growth opportunities. In a time when there is an increasing focus on digitisation across spheres, it is essential to pay attention to the existing structural inequalities and resolve them. Besides, one cannot truly call it digital India till women have unrestricted access to this new basic need


Renza Iqbal is an external PhD candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a Fellow at MICA, Ahmedabad. She works in the area of digital inequality and is particularly interested in the intersection of gender and rurality. Renza has previous experience working in diverse areas such as education, media and advertising. 

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The future of ‘dishonourable’ work

[By Payal Arora]

I was a waitress for three and a half years at an Indian restaurant in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Having been brought up in a privileged family in Bangalore, the ‘waiting’ on people was a novel experience for me. I was excited though as it was my first job abroad and I saw it as performing a part. We waitresses had to wear salwar kameez, traditional Indian attire, and namaste people as they entered. When the restaurant closed each night, the staff got to eat their dinner for free before heading home. There was a ritual to that. The owners, an old Gujarati couple, sat at the front desk, the waitresses and the cooks ate their meals on the floor of the kitchen, and the Mexican dishwasher had his dinner in the backroom storage space. What now strikes me as odd was how quickly I slipped into this social arrangement. At the time, it did not occur to me to ask why we didn’t all just sit at the table and eat together, using the nice restaurant cutlery.

Dirty work, dirty people?

It is easy to fall into the explanation of the Indian caste system as a way of sorting ‘our worth’ based on the ‘purity’ of our occupation, ‘once a servant, always a servant’ logic. This was one of the most imaginative social ordering inventions of rationalizing group hierarchies along arbitrary principles, including that of occupation. This system of applied status has somehow stood the test of time and persists in the global and modern economy.

What is remarkable is how this valuation of human virtue based on the work we do has manifested across the world, albeit in different ways. For instance, Sara Asselman, a researcher at the City University of New York, paints a vivid picture of Filipina domestic workers’ struggle for respect and recognition in Morocco as what they do is largely considered “dishonorable work”. The stigmatization that comes with engaging in the economy of care has an added ethnic dimension in this context, given that majority of their domestic workers are migrant women from the Philippines.

Image credit: UN Women / Flickr

Naturalizing an entire group of people based on their gender, ethnic and citizenship status as intrinsically adept at a given industry and simultaneously degrading that industry as ‘lesser than’ has served the political economy of global supply chains through reduced wages. We see this through the circulating of global clichés, from women as naturally good at care work,  to Chinese as not the ‘creative type’ but the ‘manufacturing type’. As Carly Fiorina, a former boss of Hewlett-Packard argued in The Economist interview:

“YEAH, the Chinese can take a test, but…they’re not terribly imaginative. They’re not entrepreneurial. They don’t innovate—that’s why they’re stealing our intellectual property.”

The social labelling of entire groups as innately good or bad at certain kinds of work, becomes more complicated as the ‘virtue’ of that work shifts over time. If we follow social progression over the ages, under traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs, work was considered penance for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Greeks viewed work as a curse while Romans saw artisanal work as “vulgar.” The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century turned this around, webbing as Max Weber argued, morality and virtue to an ‘honest day’s work.’ As Gayle Porter, Organizational Change Management scholar explains, “the meaning of work has varied across time and culture – a curse, a calling, a social obligation, a natural activity, a means to better life, or simply what we do because we have to.”

Respecting “disgusting work”

Choice is a privilege. In Corona times, the choice of work is an astounding luxury to most people, particularly in precarious and vulnerable contexts. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) more than 1.7 million Kenyans lost their jobs in the first three months of the pandemic. The Kenyan government is offering hundreds of thousands of such citizens alternative urban maintenance jobs, many of which are considered undignified work. In Kibera, one of the largest informal settlements in Nairobi, Abdul Aziz, a driver who lost his job, scoops up plastic bottles, dirty nappies, and garbage from the open sewer, trying his best to dodge the “flying toilets” of human faeces that is swung out from homes while he toils. “It’s disgusting work,” says Aziz, but he recognizes that it’s still better than staying at home, “hungry and jobless.”

Image credit: Claude Renault / Wikimedia

Inserting honour in this equation is perverse. Yet, this social ‘quality’ that somehow people at the margins have found themselves needing to defend and to preserve seems to accompany several types of jobs they engage with, such as tailoring, butchering, artisanal work, domestic care, and sanitation. But, what is honour though? It is a resource that can be accumulated and/or reduced based on established behavioural codes, signalling one’s inherent worth. These codes are often distinctly gendered across societies.  In honour cultures, typically women working outside the house, and with and alongside strangers, is looked upon with “a tinge of immorality”—shop girls, daytime security personnel, airline hostesses, traffic cops, beauty tec­­­hnicians, tuk-tuk drivers, and even as trekking guides.

The management of reputation has become even more confounding as women workers are compelled to take to social media platforms, as in the case of Bangladesh garment workers to resell wares. Given that honour can be taken away by inappropriate and visible behaviour, social media poses specific and new forms of threats for women as they struggle to manage their self-impressions online while conducting their day to day work activities. Katy Pearce, a communications scholar from University of Washington captures the spectrum of fears as young women in the ‘honour culture’ of Azerbaijan go online. The ‘right’ women’s behavioural codes require them to be modest, quiet, decent, and chaste, else they would bring dishonour to their families and communities. One of her participants shares her experience of regularly receiving disapproving comments on every Facebook post—even if just a photo of a sunset—saying things like, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Eventually, she blocked most of her friends and family members to avoid the harassment, although that resulted in her self-ostracism.

Online tactics of manufacturing honour

While social status can appear as frozen and immovable, collective ingenuity and socio-technical change can open pathways to game the system in ways that can help women workers manufacture and acquire honour for themselves and their group of belonging.

In Nepal, many rural women have moved to the city to work and send money home. Kabita, a first-generation wage earner is a case in point. She works as a tourist guide and is aware of the thin line she treads as she interacts with “open” lifestyles of the city in terms of social freedoms, perceived as dishonourable to her community. While she enjoys the pleasure of being independent, she crafts her identity online to show to her family back home that she is still a “good girl” through her modest choice of clothing. Further, she leverages on the digital remittance economy, a conventional pathway for earning honour by sons who send money back home and make their families proud. The “assumption is that a daughter engaged in a ‘dishonorable’ profession would be too ashamed to send any of her earnings to her parents,” argues Barbara Grossman-Thompson, International Studies scholar at California State University Long Beach.

Other strategies by women workers to manage their “honour”  has been to obscure their identities by using stock photos for their profiles, self-censorship, posting only about “serious things” and business related matters, and holding often multiple accounts, handles and profiles. Collective self-presentation is also important as women work together to manufacture the reputation of their industry, their work and thereby themselves through tactical tagging and sharing with the right social networks to reinforce certain impressions of their work to those back home.

While these tactical collectives are impressive, what we should really aim for is to dismantle the notion of honour, as historically and culturally constructed as individual virtue/vice dependent on the work we do. No human being should be valued based on what work they engage in, rather it should be on the level of integrity they bring to that job, whether as a sweeper in Bangalore or a Wall street executive in New York. Do we need this added layer of self and group degradation in the face of precarity and misfortune? Given that human beings can’t help but imbibe meaning from their toil, can we move away from a template that devalues us by what we do and instead fuel an alternative paradigm that centres on the dignity of labour? 

As long as honour holds a place in the world of labour, it will always serve as a cancer that eats into the fabric of human dignity.

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Proactive contracting for platform work: Making the design of terms and conditions more participatory

[By Siddharth de Souza]

As the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, platform economy workers are increasingly vulnerable due to a lack of benefits such as minimum wages, health and security as well as the opportunity to organise collectively and build work-life communities. In India over the past few months, workers at companies such as Swiggy have been protesting a reduction in the minimum delivery charge per order as well as the reduction and change in terms of incentives.

With new labour law changes in India over the past month, understanding the material implications of how platforms work in practice has become even more urgent. Leading Civil Society Organizations and labour unions recently came together to issue a statement addressing the rights of platform workers. Among the key issues raised is the question of misclassification of workers and contractors, highlighting that the labour codes in India do not account for how platform companies exercise control in terms of how work is assigned, compensated and performed.

In this blog, I focus on one particular aspect of the relationship between platforms and workers by examining the terms and conditions that platform companies use to control their workers. I argue for the need to develop more participatory methods of contracting to involve workers in the decision-making process, drawing from research on ‘proactive law’.

Platform companies argue that their workers are independent contractors with flexibility to determine the nature of their engagement. But in reality, as a report from ILO discusses, the terms and conditions for their engagement on platforms are determined unilaterally by the companies, along with the methods for evaluation, payment and terms of grievance redressal. Over the past few years, platform companies such as Ola have reserved the right to change terms of service while also placing the responsibility on the user to be up to date with such changes.

Across many platforms, workers are first expected to agree to the terms before having access to potential work opportunities. As a result, there is little scope for dialogue or discussion on the terms of the contract. Some of the challenges of terms of service employed by platform companies include the use of complex and technical language, poor protections of basic contractual rights such as in terms of data protection, conflict resolution, and in matters of termination of the contract. As a result, it is difficult for workers to articulate their grievances.

Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

Can these terms and conditions be constructed and developed in a manner that reflects independent contracting fairly, in a manner that accounts for rights of workers, and forces more accountability on platform companies? Can the process of contracting be made more participatory?

Terms and conditions, in the cases of platform companies, are designed to respond to potential disputes, problems or litigation, and seek to offer corrective measures to protect the company. These terms and conditions are determined with little or no involvement from the workers, and as a result there are consequences for both workers and platforms in terms of  future problems and disputes, precisely because they are designed for adversarial situations and in ways that protect the needs of one party (usually the company) at the expense of another (usually the worker).

I suggest that one way to rethink terms and conditions, is to draw from the work on a ‘proactive approach’ to law. This approach is based on the assumption that rather than seeing law as a constraint that parties need to comply with, or as a means to protect one’s interest at the cost of someone else, we use the law to create conditions that can foster value and successful relationships between parties. As Helena Haapio  (who has pioneered this approach) argues: “legal knowledge is at its best before things go wrong”. With proactive law there is a focus on examining and finding ways to eliminate causes of conflict through determining what the shared outcomes of the agreement could be. The European  Economic and Social Committee in 2009 in an opinion advanced that  “Proactive Law is about enabling and empowering — it is done by, with and for the users of the law, individuals and busi­nesses”. The approach is premised on the users knowing about their rights and duties, and using the law in a manner that helps them avoid disputes, or find resolutions to problems. This can be done by developing ways to co-create terms and conditions that meet the needs of all parties.

Building such an approach for platform companies would require that there is an acknowledgment of the legal needs and aspirations of both workers and companies. To do this, workers cannot be mere recipients in the process who simply accept terms and conditions, but effective participants in arriving at a common framework. The contracting will thus not be top down, but would be collaborative, taking into account how the law materialises in practice.

A proactive approach, as legal scholar Berger-Walliser advances, would use law in order to develop sustainable relationships, by moving beyond self-interest to accommodate different interests and build agreements that focus not on failures between parties but rather on how parties can collaboratively find satisfactory outcomes. Being outcome-oriented and proactive can also have economic value because it is built on trust and shared relationships between parties, centering on dispute pre-emption, instead of a reactive approach which is built on dispute resolution and management. Such user centric contracts would draw on the context of the use and practices of the contract, the social interactions around them and the ways in which the content is communicated. For instance,  Rob de Rooy, founder of Creative Contracts, has used illustrations and visual narratives  to make contracts accessible for workers who are not literate in South Africa. These graphic contracts are designed to faciliate communication between parties by translating complex, technical language into comicbook-like formats that can be understood and have been implemented for employment contracts, agreements between parents and schools and Non- Disclosure Agreements.

Video by Creative Contracts explaining “who are we and what do we do”

Visualization can be one way of building more accessible contracts for platform workers. However beyond that, there is a need to inculcate a spirit of co-creation in the development of terms and conditions. For both platform workers and companies, co-creation would involve bringing together different perspectives to identify and determine common goals; it would examine how to create value not just for one party as in an adversarial process, but rather concentrate on shared outcomes. It would involve focusing on the root causes of problems and eliminating them rather than expending effort on managing conflict. Further, in order to ensure the legitimacy of such participatory approaches, it would also be important to not be blind to matters related to representation and deliberation in the co-creation process, and ensure that matters such as gender perspectives or the distinctions between local and international contexts of workers are not treated lightly. Companies need to engage with workers in the spirit of them being partners; failing to do so will only solidify the case that workers in platform companies are self-employed in nothing but name.

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“Side hustle” is not a swear word: How to make gigs work for young Africans

[By Sharmi Surianarain and Julia Taylor]

Across the African continent, the concept of a “side hustle” is not new. Slow job growth, accompanied by a high number of labour market entrants, has meant that young people have for a long time been engaging in informal ‘side’ work to make ends meet. Young people in African countries experience unemployment rates double that of adults (UN, 2017). Around 63 % of the labour force in Africa is involved in some type of self-employment (McKinsey and Company, 2012), and even in South Africa, famous for its inexplicably small informal sector, 30 % of millennials have a side hustle (Geopoll, 2017).

However, the connotation has almost always been pejorative—even the terms used for this kind of work are belittling. Side hustle—something that you do on the side, with a hidden meaning that you aren’t serious. Informal. This is not formal enough, and formal is what is desirable. Young people and societies alike have relatively little respect for these ‘jobs’; informal or gig workers are under-valued and they remain perched on the margin of our imaginations and our institutions. Governments have long been focused on how to formalize informal business to increase the tax base, when in fact formalization is not always the right step (often because it doesn’t work), and social protection and support for such workers would be more valuable (Rogan & Skinner, 2019).

While there is no doubt that these jobs have been plagued by precariousness, the myth and promise of the ‘formal sector job’ must be challenged. Formal sector jobs have long been held in high prestige—built on the narrative that a college degree and a steady desk job signal success and prosperity. Side hustles are seen just as stepping stones to a more stable and prosperous future.

But, as country after country across Africa, and indeed the world, fail to deliver on this promise, the false narrative of an aspirational linear pathway—from school to college to work—has to be interrogated. Recent data from an intervention by Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa finds that young people are divided 50/50 between wanting a job and wanting to start a business. We need more realistic and viable pathways to both options.

Without romanticizing the precariousness of side hustles, we must accept that they are here to stay. Informal work and businesses have been around for a long time, especially in low-income countries, and the precarity of work is only increasing. African institutions—our schools, financial institutions and governments—have to reconfigure themselves to adapt to the world of the side hustles, making these opportunities work for young people, rather than ignoring them and hoping they go away or using regulation to fight against their existence.

Firstly, education and training institutions need to shift to keep up with young people’s lived reality. Young people who do not have a formal job are rarely idle,often keeping busy through volunteering, hustling, or doing piece work alongside many other responsibilities including secondary and higher education. But rarely does a side hustle transform into a more meaningful opportunity. Young people often rely on sheer luck to break out of the cycle of low-level equilibrium gigs.

Image credit: Minette Lontsie / Wikimedia Commons

Xoliswa “Lizzy” Skosana started We Like Cake while she was studying for her Master’s degree and also while concluding another business venture. Her passion for baking drew in her sister as well, who had completed matric (South Africa’s high school examination) and did not know where to go next. The pair started the business from their mother’s kitchen. Slowly, and with the help of the “university of YouTube”, they started growing and moved into a garage, kitted-out with professional equipment. The business grew alongside school and other work, but they continued to need significant support, and were lucky to receive this from family. From her mother’s kitchen to her garage, Lizzy now has a storefront in Booysens, in Johannesburg, and in the three years of running her business, only started as ‘full time’ this past year.

Our institutions—in this case schools and universities—need to accommodate Lizzy’s circumstances, potential, and ideas, instead of waiting for her to work around them to get to her next step, and figure it out. Schools and colleges need to not only offer training in entrepreneurship and importantly, financial literacy, but also actively encourage side hustles as part of their curriculum, providing flexibility for young people to start and continue such businesses. Schools and colleges could partner with an array of entrepreneur support organisations, financial institutions, and investors to actively encourage young people on their side hustles—instead of exclusively focusing on a linear path through to graduation and employment. Young people could be studying and earning cash from a side hustle and this should be encouraged and accommodated by schools and universities.

Secondly, financial services institutions should keep up with the times. There are many examples of young women and men who struggle to access financial services products that suit their circumstances—whether loans and startup capital, or products to improve their business productivity such as vending platforms and mobile banking. These products, importantly, need to be accompanied by the basic financial literacy training that is needed for young people to sustain and grow their gigs.

Take the case of Masingita Maluleke, a partner of Harambee from Soweto, Johannesburg. Armed with a bucket and soap, she started her side hustle while still in college, working to make ends meet. When Masingita’s high school teacher said to her “you won’t pass matric”, because she was unable to read and write on account of her dyslexia, she fell into a deep depression, even attempting suicide. She partnered up with a friend to start a cleaning and laundry business and slowly got it off the ground by using her networks at church and handing out flyers at the local mall. They started attracting more clients and when someone suggested they apply for a tender they had no idea what to do as they did not have a bank account, and they did not know how to register the business. Getting all the documents in order to register took a lot of time and money, as they had to pay someone to help them, even though the process should not cost anything. Managing the finances and administration became a huge burden and they were frustrated and ready to give up. The time lost on the administration meant lost business. Eventually, with some luck in meeting mentors and investors, the side hustle took off, and now Masingita has two licensed businesses under her belt and is also employing others. Had Masingita not found someone willing to support her to get her business investment-ready, she would have lost a lot more time. For many young people, such delays could push them irretrievably into poverty.

Innovations like A2Pay and Yoco in South Africa (fintech companies that provide simple digital technology to support emerging traders to drive growth, efficiency, financial oversight and more) fill a critical need in South Africa, where mobile banking is still in its infancy. By meeting informal and gig workers where they are instead of waiting for infrastructure to improve and coupling these innovations with community-based interventions that drive financial education, we can improve productivity. Community based organisations can also act as “ombudsmen” of these products—flagging malfeasance and exploitation and encouraging inclusion and fair practices.

Lastly, public institutions and labour market platforms need to reconfigure to this new normal. Everything about labour market institutions in Africa and much of the world is informed by labour norms of nearly a century ago—our laws, policies, regulations, and ideas around what constitutes ‘work.’

Even though gig work can be precarious, it offers young people the flexibility to engage in a portfolio career. A formal job may not be the best option for all, and in fact, informal work may even be preferred. Blattman and Dercon’s study on textile workers in Ethiopia found that many of those who got a job—in a beverage bottler, garment factory, shoe factory and industrial greenhouse operations—soon changed their minds and quit those jobs, instead opting for gig jobs that their counterparts had—working on the family farm, construction, or even hawking. While these findings may be hardly generalizable, it is clear that our outdated notions of what constitutes an ideal job for young people may be failing both the market and young people themselves.

However, flexibility does not have to mean precariousness. Instead of presuming access to formal sector jobs, which get the bulk of protections in the form of unemployment insurance, governments should plan to design social protections around informal work as well as zig-zagging or unconventional pathways. These could range from conditional grants for young adults looking for work, to livelihood grants and business support to encourage young people to start their own work and side hustles. Such efforts could particularly shield informal and gig workers from crises like COVID-19.

Labour regulations need to be reformulated to suit this new reality, as Uber’s CEO outlines. We need to move away from the false binary of choosing between full time, formal, protected work, versus non-formal, unprotected and precarious work. Labour market platforms could build pooled benefits funds subsidized by the government and serving gig workers across multiple platforms. Gig work and linkages platforms should themselves be subject to ratings—to benefit from tax and other incentives.

The need to reimagine systems to support gig and informal work has never been more urgent.
In South Africa alone, 3 million people have thus far lost jobs due to COVID-19, and of those, two-thirds are women (Spaull et. al., 2020). The informal sector has been particularly impacted— and again, women, particularly those in informal self-employment, recorded large cuts in working hours and earnings. While some jobs may be recovered as the government finally eases lockdown measures and the economy hobbles back open, many jobs may be permanently lost. There is no doubt that gig and informal work are on the rise for many youths without other options in the months and years to come.

We need to actively invest in developing scenarios for institutional support of informal work and side hustles. Our institutions must be fundamentally reimagined—education, finance, governments, and linkages platforms—to unlock the potential of these gigs and to allow young people to reach their fullest potential.

Side hustles, given their increasing presence in lives (and economies) across the world, can no longer be relegated to the margins of institutional and regulatory systems. Indeed, they will form the main narrative of the book on the future of work.


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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Platform drivers: From algorithmizing humans to humanizing algorithms

[By Pallavi Bansal]

I remember getting stranded in the middle of the road a few years ago when an Ola cab driver remarked that my trip had stopped abruptly and he could not take me to my destination. Frantic, I still requested him to drop me home, but he refused saying he cannot complete the ride since the app stopped working. On another unfortunate day, I was unable to find a cab back home as the drivers kept refusing to take up what they saw as a long ride. When I eventually found a cab, the driver continuously complained about how multiple short rides benefit him more. I tried to tip him after he finished the ride, but instead he requested me to book the same cab again, for a few kilometres, as that would reap more rewards. While I wanted to oblige, I couldn’t find the same driver, even though he had parked his car right outside my house. In yet another incident, I spent the entire night at the airport as I was terrified to book a cab at that late hour. I regretted not checking the flight timings before confirming the booking, having overlooked the fact that women need to be cautious about these things. 

Image credit: Pixabay / Pexels

Although my first response was to blame the cab drivers for what I saw as an unprofessional attitude, it slowly dawned on me that they have their own constraints. In the first scenario, the app had actually stopped working, so he couldn’t complete the ride due to the fear of getting penalized, which also resulted in a bad rating by me. In the second situation, I wondered why the algorithms reward shorter rides rather than longer ones. Moreover, how do they assign drivers if proximity isn’t the only factor and why was my driver not aware of that? In the third instance, why couldn’t I be assigned a woman driver to make me feel safer when traveling late at night?

I spoke to a few senior managers and executives working at popular ride-sharing apps in India to find the answers.

Constant tracking

A senior manager of a well-known ride-sharing platform explained their tracking practices on condition of anonymity:

“The location of driver-partners is tracked every two-three seconds and if they deviate from their assigned destination, our system detects it immediately. Besides ensuring safety, this is done so that the drivers do not spoof their locations. It has been noticed that some drivers use counterfeit location technology to give fake information about their location – they could be sitting at their homes and their location would be miles away. If the system identifies anomalies in their geo-ping, we block the payment of the drivers.”

While this appears to be a legitimate strategy to address fraud, there is no clarity on how a driver can generate evidence when there is an actual GPS malfunction. Another interviewee, a person in a top management position of a ride-sharing company, said, “it is difficult to establish trust between platform companies and driver-partners, especially when we hear about drivers coming up with new strategies to outwit the system every second day.” For instance, some of the drivers had a technical hacker on board to ensure that booking could be made via a computer rather than a smartphone or artificially surging the price by collaborating with other drivers and turning their apps off and on again simultaneously.

Though the ‘frauds’ committed by the drivers are out in the public domain, it is seldom discussed how constant surveillance reduces productivity and amplifies frustration resulting in ‘clever ways’ to fight it. The drivers are continuously tracked by ride-sharing apps and if they fail to follow any of the instructions provided by these apps, they either get penalized or banned from the platform. This technology-mediated attention can intensify drivers’ negativity and can have adverse effects on their mental health and psychological well-being.

Algorithmic-management

Algorithms control several aspects of the job for the drivers – from allocating rides to tracking workers’ behaviour and evaluating their performance. This lack of personal contact with the supervisors and other colleagues can be dehumanizing and disempowering and can result in the weakening of worker solidarities.

When asked if the algorithms can adjust the route for the drivers, especially for women, if they need to use the restroom, a platform executive said, “They always have the option not to accept the ride if there is a need to use the washroom. The customers cannot wait if the driver stops the car for restroom break and at the same time, who will pay for the waiting time?”

Image credit: Antonio Batinić / Pexels

While this makes sense at first glance, in reality, algorithms of a few ride-sharing platforms like Lyft penalize drivers in such cases by lowering their assignment acceptance rate (number of ride requests accepted by the driver divided by the total number of requests received). Lee and team, HCI (Human Computer Interaction) scholars from Carnegie Mellon University explored the impact of algorithmic-management on human workers in context of ride-sharing platforms and found:

 “The regulation of the acceptance rate threshold encouraged drivers to accept most requests, enabling more passengers to get rides. Keeping the assignment acceptance rate high was important, placing pressure on drivers. For example, P13 [one of the drivers] stated in response to why he accepted a particular request: ‘Because my acceptance rating has to be really high, and there’s lots of pressure to do that. […] I had no reason not to accept it, so […] I did. Because if, you know, you miss those pings, it kind of really affects that rating and Lyft doesn’t like that.’”

Uber no longer displays the assignment acceptance rate in the app and states that it does not have an impact on drivers’ promotions. Ola India’s terms and conditions state “the driver has sole and complete discretion to accept or reject each request for Service” without mentioning about the acceptance rate. However, Ola Australia indicate the following on their website: “Build your acceptance rate quickly to get prioritised for booking! The sooner and more often you accept rides (as soon as you are on-boarded), the greater the priority and access to MORE ride bookings!”

The lack of information coupled with ambiguity complicates the situation for drivers, who would try not to reject the rides under any circumstances. Moreover, the algorithms are designed to create persistent pressure on the drivers by using psychological tricks as pointed out by Noam Scheiber in an article for The New York Times:

“To keep drivers on the road, the company has exploited some people’s tendency to set earnings goals — alerting them that they are ever so close to hitting a precious target when they try to log off. It has even concocted an algorithm similar to a Netflix feature that automatically loads the next program, which many experts believe encourages binge-watching. In Uber’s case, this means sending drivers their next fare opportunity before their current ride is even over.”

The algorithmic decision-making also directs our attention to how the rides are allocated. The product manager of a popular ride-sharing app said:

“Apart from proximity, the algorithms keep in mind various parameters for assigning rides, such as past performance of the drivers, their loyalty towards the platform, feedback from the customers, if the drivers made enough money during the day etc. The weightage of these parameters keep changing and hence cannot be revealed.”

All the four people interviewed said that number of women driving professionally is considerably low. This makes it difficult for the algorithms to match women passengers with women drivers. Secondly, this may delay ride allocation for women passengers as the algorithms will first try to locate women drivers.

A lack of understanding of how algorithms assign tasks makes it difficult to hold these systems accountable. Consequently, a group of UK Uber drivers have decided to launch a legal bid to uncover how the app’s algorithms work – how the rides are allocated, who gets the short rides or who gets the nice rides. In a piece in The Guardian, the drivers’ claim says:

“Uber uses tags on drivers’ profiles, for example ‘inappropriate behaviour’ or simply ‘police tag’. Reports relate to ‘navigation – late arrival / missed ETA’ and ‘professionalism – cancelled on rider, inappropriate behaviour, attitude’. The drivers complain they were not being provided with this data or information on the underlying logic of how it was used. They want to [know] how that processing affects them, including on their driver score.”

The fact is that multiple, conflicting algorithms impact the driver’s trust in algorithms as elaborated in an ongoing study of ‘human-algorithm’ relationships.  The research scholars discovered that Uber’s algorithms often conflict with each other while assigning tasks, such as, drivers were expected to cover the airport area but at the same time, they received requests from a 20-mile radius. “The algorithm that emphasizes the driver’s role to cover the airport was at odds with the algorithm that emphasizes the driver’s duty to help all customers, resulting in a tug o’ war shuffling drivers back and forth.” Similarly, conflict is often created when drivers are in the surge area and they get pings to serve customers somewhere out of the way.

Ultimately, we need to shift from self-optimization as the end goal for workers to that of humane algorithms – that which centres workers’ pressures, stress, and concerns in this gig economy. This would also change the attitudes of the passengers, who need to see platform drivers as human drivers, facing challenges at work, like the rest of us.