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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.

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Unionized by phone ─ circumventing the male gatekeepers

[By Chinar Mehta]

Clashes between corporations and union representatives, where pro-corporate forces indiscriminately arrest members to bust the union, are common, as was the case with the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union in 2017. Management used various tactics to suppress the demands according to the workers, including slapping conspiracy charges on many union leaders and firing numerous workers. In a similar and noteworthy incident, Honda employees from Tapukara in Rajasthan came to Delhi in September 2016 to protest the exploitative working conditions of the contract labourers at the factory. Vijender Kumar, who was a permanent worker at the same plant, ‘liked’ some photos of the protest on Facebook without being a part of it. For expressing support for the hunger strike, Kumar was indefinitely suspended by the Honda management at the plant.

MSWU protests; Image credit: MSWU Facebook group

I had a conversation with Faiz Ullah, an expert on communication and labour movements at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai. We spoke about the impact of laborers using digital media to mobilize for their cause and the risks. In his work, he found that workers leveraged social media platforms to consolidate evidence and tackle obstacles without waiting for mainstream media to act on their behalf. He has been documenting how, during the MSIL (Maruti Suzuki India Limited) workers movement, text, photo, and video channels were used to bring alive the workers’ version of the events at the factory, all of which pointed to management excesses and state complicity.


CM: What’s your understanding of how digital communication can be used for workers’ movements and their collectivization?

FU: There has always been the need for simple and engaging communication resources, available in different languages, that could orient the workers. Depending on what kind of workers are being collectivised, the choice of medium will vary. From SMSs to robocalls, to existing mobile communication apps and social media platforms. Tech could provide really accessible solutions to this problem essential to the collectivisation process. Also, some other strategies that have worked very well in other contexts, like daily savings schemes, initiatives linked to health and recreation, could be used to form a bedrock for collectivising work. Collectivisation may be broken into two parts; organisational and campaign work. While tech works well, and under the radar, in the former – especially group chats and group pages – campaign work by its very nature is vulnerable to all kinds of surveillance. A couple of groups have tried to deal with the second problem in various ways. One, by fronting up as women workers and confounding the line managers, workplace security, law enforcement, etc who are never quite sure how to deal with them. This was one of the incidents that took place when I was doing my fieldwork, and such incidents are quite commonplace. But it really all depends upon what kind of worker and what kind of work one is concerned with. It might play out very differently in unorganised, home-based, and in even more fragmented nature of work/workplaces. Second is to avoid creating a leadership structure; tech allows for horizontal participation and that should be leveraged. Again, there’ve been a lot of cases where workers as a group have shielded each other instead of sacrificing/making vulnerable the visible and vocal leadership.

CM: Can you throw light on the incident you referred to regarding the harassment of a woman worker and the centrality of women’s issues in labour union demands?

FU: I think, unions are not the be-all and end-all of workers’ politics. In fact, there’s not a great deal of space for women’s issues in labour politics. One of the key things that came up in my research is that there’s an urgent need to address casual sexism and tolerance for misogyny in the wider workers’ movement. Most of the time women workers themselves take matters in their hands and initiate various kinds of actions. What I meant was that the ‘worker’ is a complex identity and most don’t take it seriously – managements, labour departments, government, police, courts. But when women workers assert themselves more fully, not only as workers, they begin to matter. Media may still not take working-class issues seriously but one of the big wins of the feminist movement is that they have begun to take women’s issues/gender issues seriously. So, it matters how one articulates one’s issues. Managements can spin workers’ assertions any way they like, and the media will help them, but it’s not so simple when it comes to gender issues.

CM: In your research, what have been the tools that workers are most comfortable with?

FU: Most of the workers I met were quite young – 22 to 30 years old – and had a great deal of comfort with tech. Certain people among the younger cohort either volunteer themselves or are tasked with visually documenting and general online coordination/communication work. As for Twitter, very few people used it then, mostly because it was thought as complicated – extremely textual, character limits, etc. But at the same time, there was the realisation that it was more useful than Facebook in reaching politicians, journalists, etc.


Faiz Ullah’s insights clarify that users have become more sophisticated with digital media and have used them strategically for their “leaderless movements,” a tactical way to diffuse and decenter the focus on any specific individuals or “leaders”, so nobody can be held accountable by the corporation or the state. We see this used time and again in the recent uprising in Hong Kong. Applications like Telegram, Whatsapp, or Signal allow for communication within the group that may otherwise be impeded by physical restrictions of space, location, and hierarchy.

Secondly, it opens up the question of the dearth of participation of women in union politics, which has long been dominated by men. It is not because women are less activist-oriented or concerned about workplace injustice. This is due to several reasons; union decisions such as where and when meetings take place are often based on the preferences of men without taking into account women’s domestic responsibilities and safety issues. Unions that provide women the autonomy over collective choices have shown progress in raising consciousness regarding workplace issues.

Lastly, a question is also raised about the possibilities of surveillance over labour activities due to participation on social media. There are discussions among some unions about the potential of corporates undertaking union-busting activities by monitoring and targeting employees on social media. Facebook may even be floating a tool marketed to employers which might enable them to censor employees’ discussions about organising and unions. More recently, it was alleged that Amazon was spying on its drivers’ to intercept plans to protest or strike. The risk here is not simply that social media corporations might hand over user information to law enforcement to curb dissent under the guise of terrorism, but also how a user is identified and made visible by being active on social media. However, even though there remains a high risk for workers to organize themselves online, these tools are often the only choices for them to mobilize, showing us these trade-offs come at a significant price, a price they are willing to pay for a little more justice.

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

[By René König]

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

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

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

From techno-optimism to techno-pessimism

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

Popular books on the negative impact of digital technologies

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

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

Trapped in the negativity loop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Charles Kenny, CGD)

Can Uber be empowering?

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

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

(Pollio 2019, p. 769)

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

(ibid.)

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

Uber’s shiny self-portrait

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

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

(Pollio 2019, p. 767)

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

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

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

(Charles Kenny, CGD)

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

Embracing experiences of empowerment

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

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

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

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

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

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

Image credit: Pikist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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