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Domestic work in Africa: Essential but precarious

[By Sharmi Surianarain & Julia Taylor]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic worker in Kenya. Image credit: Solidarity Center

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[By Shweta Mahendra Chandrashekhar]

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

Image credit: Safal karki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making the law speak: Empowering workers through legal engagement

[By Siddharth de Souza]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Research that hurts – On the practice of care in fieldwork

[By Rawshon Akhter]

Many ethical concerns connected to fieldwork are already a matter of established and routinized practice. For example, the privacy of respondents is protected by anonymizing their identity. In recent decades, we have further pushed these methodological norms. Ethnographers grapple with their legacy of an extractive culture, making a compelling case for ethical action: to incorporate the rights of respondents in the sharing of the benefits (monetary and non-monetary) and the responsibilities of researchers towards their respondents.

In monetary terms, there is a need to address intellectual property rights of respondents to help in our research innovations. For example, Farnsworth reported that out of 119 drugs produced from extracting chemical components from plants, 74% have their use in traditional medicine which isn’t protected sufficiently, often due to their oral knowledge cultures. The non-monetary angle is even less attended to in terms of giving back to the community through supportive mechanisms. This is often overlooked, especially when it comes to trauma and related emotional risks of the respondents.

A report by Action Aid Bangladesh noted that women respondents during in-depth interviews usually become emotional when they share personal stories, especially given that sexual abuse is often part of these narratives. Women in these contexts also tend to hesitate to share stories of abuse, fearing reprisals from employers including job loss, or stigma and harassment from co-workers. I recall an incident that took place during fieldwork I was doing for another project:  a divorced mother of three young daughters became faint when she recounted her experience of domestic abuse meted out to her for failing to give birth to a male child. I had to call for help as she was close to collapsing.

Before going into the field, I think we researchers need to map out the potential affective risks of the study, especially the psychological stress experienced by respondents, and outline a plan to address them. The goal should be to enhance the wellbeing of our respondents. Granted, this is no easy task. Researchers are not psychologists nor social workers. However, they may find themselves playing these roles unconsciously as they try to be of help to their respondents. After all, fieldwork is about relationship building.

In the FemLab.Co project, we anticipate such encounters as we are dealing with a group that is likely to be burdened with numerous vulnerabilities. Out of a total of 4.1 million workers from the readymade garments sector in Bangladesh, one-third are aged between 16 and 20, and are new entrants to urban modernity. Many of them are illiterate (35%) migrants from villages with no formal qualifications and little awareness of the working conditions in the industry, including the hazards in a city (e.g., transport and housing), industrial life (physical safety at the workplace), and harassment (gender-based violence) within factories and security (safe commute to and from the workplace). Low wages (193$ minimum monthly payment in 2018), violence, abuse and harassment (mostly sexual) are regular phenomena in the lives of garment workers.

Image credit: Wallpaper Flare

Research on this subject (e.g., Action Aid in Bangladesh, 2019, CPD working paper, 2018) reveals that around 70-80 percent female garment workers either experience or witness abuse at work. They are subjected to at least one type of harassment and abuse such as (a) having been sexually harassed; (b) molested or assaulted while working; (c) having been subjected to extreme verbal abuse at work; and, (d) having seen a factory manager or supervisor abuse and harass other women. Due to the dearth of bargaining agencies or worker unions (only around 10 percent factories are unionised) to protect their rights and the fear of further harassment or losing the job, most avoid disclosing these events. Harassment and abuse in the workplace and outside have traumatised these women workers. Due to their plight, many of them might feel apprehensive about sharing their experiences.

This requires psychological support during the interviews. In qualitative interview design, we researchers need to draw on counselling support when engaging with such vulnerable populations. It is necessary to explore the involvement of psychologists and experienced counsellors, possibly during the interview, which might help respondents to minimise their trauma. Given that such participants are from a disadvantaged section of society and may feel uncomfortable sharing their grievances due to strong social stigma against mental health issues, we need to repackage such counselling, perhaps as ‘friendship networks’ that could be acceptable in these contexts.

Often these traumas are made worse by the choice of the interview location. To avoid this kind of risk, we need to get the interviewees away from their home. This continues to serve as a major challenge in fieldwork. One strategy can be to provide a community building project where the women’s family can be supportive, allowing for more autonomy of movement and privacy. Through the creation of such safe spaces, we can unwrap the layered issues of exploitation and violence, while also developing strategies of resilience.

I have noticed that rapport building through regular telephone calls or mobile chatting in advance of field study can be an advantage to building an understanding of respondents, so we can tailor our questions in ways that can reduce the trauma. Digital tools clearly can be leveraged to benefit our respondents as it can provide more privacy and freedom to express themselves to us. However, we cannot be naïve about their communicative data, which if leaked into the wrong hands, can compromise the well-being of our participants, who are already in a vulnerable position.

The fact is that in studying vulnerable populations, researchers have to step out of their academic mentality and look at their respondents beyond the informant paradigm – to people who require more nurturing and empowering networks, knowledge, and possible pathways to enable them to improve their social conditions.

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Gendered data dilemmas and feminist design

[By Payal Arora]

From media headlines such as “Why Do Women Make Such Good Leaders During COVID-19?” to the “Rise in Domestic Violence during Lockdown,” COVID-19 has acquired a deep gendered dimension, albeit a seemingly schizophrenic one. Women particularly in low-income communities are at once framed as leaders and victims – positioned at the forefront of this COVID-19 battle while simultaneously serving as fodder for the “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence. This peripheral paradox echoes a larger conversation on the politics of categories and feminist data dilemmas as collective organizing and mobilizing go online.

It matters how women are conceptualized as a group, as a category and as a cluster in today’s algorithmic age as data collectives enable the amplifying of a narrative, an audience, and even policymaking. Neutralizing gender categories does not work as Peru and Panama governments learnt very quickly. Both governments were compelled to reverse their regulations on travel limitations by gender which instituted men and women to go out on alternate days. It turned out that this measure forced women to gather in large groups on their given days as domestic work was relegated to them. Moreover, there was backlash from LGBTQ+ activists “because transgender and non-binary people faced increased street harassment by police.”

Glorifying women hardly works either. When Barack Obama in solidarity and support for women announced how women are better leaders than men, this inadvertently tapped into the long standing burdens women have faced in being the moral guardians of society, the virtuous gender, bearing the burden of all that is best and pure of a community. When they fail, there is often severe social punishment in terms of loss of reputation, loss of status, and even loss of life to preserve the community’s honor.

Other forms of misrepresentation pervade – the masculinization of certain work sectors. A typical image of a farmer or a construction worker is usually male. The pervasive media narrative builds empathy for the male worker struggling to put food on the table for his family. The reality however is that women constitute either a dominant or at least a substantial part of these sectors across the global south. For instance, half of India’s 30 million construction workers are women. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, women hold the key to food production in most parts of the world. Women grow 70 percent of Africa’s food; they account for an estimated two-thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers. Oftentimes, these women fall through the cracks as they engage in subsistence farming and thereby their labor is deemed invisible to the GDP. This matters in COVID-19 times as national bailouts are often tied to formalized arrangements of labor and mediated through the datafication of welfare systems.

Female farmers in Nepal (Image credit: pxfuel)

When work is feminized such as the growing attention to the ‘care economy’ where healthcare and education take precedence, we often find a de-valuation of women’s labour, reflected for instance in pay gaps between women and men and lowered status jobs. This stands as a remarkable irony as automation in the future of work already signals how such caregiving is hard to automate and will increasingly become more desirable and in demand as services for the grey economy.

The fact is that any kind of dichotomous design such as the gender divide and the digital divide is problematic as it negates the fact that being human is essentially a contradiction of roles, statuses and interests, reflecting the complexity of social life. It is simplistic to believe that access to technology, upskilling or bridging the pay gap can achieve gender equity. Gender equity is very much a “wicked problem,” where the solution of one problem,  for example increasing women’s participation in the work force can create other issues especially in patriarchal societies, such as the rise of violence against them due to spousal jealousy and other regressive gender norms. In our approach to designing feminist systems, both socio-economic and digital, we need to first de-mystify the framing of women groups/clusters and allow them the chance of being diverse and might I say, even ordinary.

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Design for one: Centering the inadequacy of technology

[By Chinar Mehta]

The first computer in my own home, years ago, was kept in the only room with air conditioning; my parents’ bedroom. The tangle of wires positioned my parents as the authority in the household – there was nothing we could do on the “personal” computer that could escape their notice. Few of us can deny the significance of the place of the computer, the television, or the telephone in our homes. Chairs and sofas point towards the television, and the location of the telephone censors who we call and how we talk to them. Even my first interactions with a mobile phone, otherwise designed to be for the individual, were on my mother’s phone; a cause of minor annoyance for her when the ringtone would be altered without her consent. My mobile phone today, however, has become much harder to share due to all that I need to protect. I keep it locked with my fingerprint. It contains access to my social networks, fusing a kind of personal identity with my phone. Even more importantly, my phone maps my bank account to me with apps like BHIM or Google Pay, DigiLocker allows me to carry valid digital copies of my identity documents, and Aarogya Setu rules me safe or unsafe from SARS-CoV 2 infection. The phone (and its accessory technologies) is increasingly designed to not just be on my person at all times, but being me. While this may seem like a runaway train at this point to many “digital natives”, we must be willing to denaturalise the mobile phone as a “private” object with design strategies that will be universally acceptable.

Phose users in India: Design for one? (Image credit: UN Women Gallery)

The design context of the smartphone is one where the positioning of the imagined user is severely limited. Many research studies speak to the wide digital divide between men and women in South Asian countries, particularly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In India, men are 33% more likely to own a phone than women, according to a study conducted by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The study attempts to explain this divide with reference to the gender norms that govern acceptable usage of mobile phones by women, positing the device as “challenging traditional gender norms”. 47% of the women who used mobile phones were borrowers of phones, and the study claims that this poses significant constraints on diversification and independence, especially when the phones are borrowed by women from their husbands. Moreover, the study also suggests that many more women use phones for a simple activity such as making a call, as opposed to something more complex, like using social media websites. These conclusions can be worrying considering research that suggests that access to internet technologies for women in developing nations exposes them to a wide range of benefits; empowering rural women in India and South Africa, helping Iranian women participate in the national discourse via blogging, social media aiding women entrepreneurs in Indonesia, among others. 

While it may be fruitful to examine the various gender norms that guide the rules and contexts of use of mobile phones in India, what generally escapes scrutiny is the assumption that sharing technology such as a mobile phone does not allow for it to be used in the best way possible. The technology itself evades examination. This points to a predilection of some social science research where questions “tend to be framed in terms of what is wrong with the person who is experiencing the problem, rather than in terms of what it is about the current social order that makes the problem likely”. This criticism of the framing of questions also holds true for when the design of the technology is not adequately addressed, but contextual social norms are.  The assumption here is that developing societies have restrictive social norms that do not allow for the use of technology that is seemingly designed for universal use. Internet technologies are driven by commercial or state interests, seldom being analysed as being inadequate for use by marginalised identities. The users of most technologies are imagined by their developers to be very different from those our team at FemLab.Co imagines as part of this project; normatively an “ungendered” white user. In this way, technologies fit into a larger ecosystem of a neoliberal economy of deeply gendered culture and design. The mobile phone, particularly, becomes by design a technology each individual must have access to and use in a certain way. 

With this context, revisiting the mobile phone as a private object becomes crucial. The personal computer of the 1990s, and even the feature phone to a certain extent, was used in a manner that kept the connections between individual identity and the machine loose. It lent itself to a shared use in a household, and it was used as such. The smartphone, in this regard, precludes shared use by design. Social media applications add to this predicament; all of them are designed for use by one person using the device. And yet, surprisingly, according to research, an economic constraint is not the only reason why people may share mobile phones. Of course, social norms in some communities make it acceptable to share mobile phones between members of a family or even friends. Even relatively privileged women, sometimes, have little interest in owning a smartphone. When women do use smartphones, many of them do not make use of social media, which may require a particular kind of technical skill. This kind of skill can be assumed for those familiar with technology prior to the smartphone, like a computer for instance, but not for others. Again, this is not simply a question of teaching individuals to use technologies. Rather, I would like to pose a different question; what is it about a technology that prevents or limits its use? What do women workers in diverse industrial sectors in Hyderabad find lacking in any media technology? Moreover, as far as technical skill is concerned, are there opportunities to learn with shared devices within groups?

We should be concerned about the lack of ownership of mobile phones, but one way to mitigate the problem is to redesign smartphones as devices that become part of an existing pattern of media use (or communicative ecology). Therefore, I argue that if many women are not able to derive the full benefits of a smartphone because (among other reasons) they are sharing the phone with someone else, this stems partly from the design of the smartphone (and its applications) itself. It is essential to centre this inadequacy. Similarly, if women are negotiating with the intended use of the mobile phone, we have a lot to learn from these negotiations. It would be with this spirit that we, at FemLab.Co, would attempt to look at the communicative ecologies of women workers in Hyderabad. 

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Should researchers be activists?

[By René König]

For the longest time, scientists were idealized as objective observers of the world. Today, this ideal appears not only somewhat naïve, it is also increasingly regarded as not desirable. Instead, scientists are expected to be active members of society and vice versa; science is seen to be in need of becoming ‘democratized’, for instance, by involving citizens in some way in the research process. The lines between science and other sectors of society have become blurry. The FemLab.co project itself in an example for that: It is our stated mission not only to observe but to facilitate change. And we´re not alone. We´re conducting a stakeholder analysis on actors dealing with the Future of Work. Already at an early stage, we identified a number of research projects which also play a role as activists: Fairwork, Data Justice Lab and Datactive to name just a few. This made me reflect on my own education and work experience. I wonder: Should researchers actually be activists?

Scientists as activists (Image credit: Ivan Radic)

I worked in Technology Assessment (TA) for over a decade. It is an interdisciplinary and diverse field that emerged in the 1960s when societies became increasingly aware of the risks and ethical concerns related to technological developments. On the one hand, TA’s mission was very successful. There are now countless mechanisms for this purpose: Ethics boards, parliamentary control groups, scientific risk assessment, participatory procedures involving laypeople in decision-making processes etc. On the other hand, there is still a pervasive idealization of technology as some kind of savior that should help us overcome our worst problems, while mocking TA and related concepts as “technology arrestment”. Today, this perspective is particularly prevalent in Silicon Valley and critics like Evgeny Morozov have attacked it as “solutionism”.

This much is clear: the relationship between science, technology and society is complex, diverse and controversial. There are no simple answers. Working in TA, I saw this not just as a theoretical question but an everyday, practical problem. I experienced this field as one in a permanent identity crisis. Not only because of the complexity of these questions but the ambiguity of TA’s role itself. TA seeks to provide decision-makers with impartial expertise. But if technology is not neutral, such advice can hardly be neutral either, and perhaps the expectation that it should be is wrong.

Entire books have been dedicated to these questions. The conundrum is reflected in the ongoing struggle to position TA within the complex relationship between the many stakeholders that contribute to shaping science and technology. In the end, these tensions seep into areas beyond TA and emerge in debates around the role of social science in general. Social scientists are unavoidably closely connected to what they are researching: society. It will always remain hard to navigate between being a truth-seeking observer and an active member of what we try to understand.

There have been long and intense discussions on how this problem should be tackled. Prominently (at least in German Sociology), Niklas Luhmann and Jürgen Habermas disagreed about the discipline’s purpose. Habermas pleaded for a rather ‘interventionist’ role, a perspective rooted in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. Luhmann on the other hand, was convinced that this normative approach would be limiting as it would bind the discipline to certain assumptions instead of aiming at a general theory and understanding of society.

While this theoretical debate was mostly concerned with the narrow disciplinary circle of sociology itself, wider audiences too have debated about actual or alleged normative biases among (social) scientists. In 2018, Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian effectively hoaxed numerous academic journals with a series of fake papers, including a chapter of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” rewritten to take on a feminist perspective. Their motivation was to reveal the biases of some parts of academia they labeled “Grievance Studies”. They stated:

“Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.”

Pluckrose et al. saw their point confirmed when some of the papers actually passed the peer review process, including the rewritten chapter from “Mein Kampf”. The story was picked up by several larger outlets, including The Atlantic and Wall Street Journal. Critics were quick to fire back, dismissing the hoax itself as being unscientific and ideology-driven.

Notwithstanding the merit of this particular case, the fear that political motivations may hinder academic rigor is certainly neither new nor unfounded. While Nazis in Germany and elsewhere attempted to justify their murderous policies through racist pseudoscience, the sociologist Robert K. Merton reflected on what the underlying ethos science is – or rather should be – built on. Among the “institutional imperatives” that he detailed is one that appears to be the extreme opposite of contemporary approaches like action research: disinterestedness. Merton saw the goal of science in the “extension of certified knowledge” (p. 270) and regarded an institutional and functional detachment from society and its political drivers as one of the keys to achieve this. He glorified this detachment as a benefit that science enjoys and barely concealed his disregard of laypeople:

“The scientist does not stand vis-a-vis a lay clientele in the same fashion as do the physician and lawyer, for example. The possibility of exploiting the credulity, ignorance, and dependence of the layman is thus considerably reduced.”

(p. 274)

We have come a long way since Merton wrote this, in 1942. Today, the metaphor of the ivory tower is frequently applied to parts of science that detach themselves too greatly from society. In fact, it has become desirable to deliberately involve laypeople in the production of scientific knowledge. Action research, co-research, citizen science, are some of the concepts one could mention here. As a way of coping with the risks that science and technology have created, there is an urge to ‘democratize’ science. Moreover, it is increasingly recognized that science has contributed greatly to global inequities and more and more call for a decolonization of different fields of knowledge and practice. Thus, the question posed in the title of this essay could be countered with another: How can researchers not be activists? How can researchers ignore increasingly obvious injustices, especially if their discipline was somehow involved in perpetuating them? 

It is important to notice that neither Merton nor Luhmann wanted researchers to be disengaged and apolitical. Rather, their point was to separate the institutional function of science from that of the political sphere. Arguably, the authority of science can be to a large extent attributed to its universal and non-partisan commitment to truth-seeking. The instances where the principles of science were violated or academic knowledge was abused for oppressive purposes only serve to emphasize their importance. These are arguments for more scientific rigor, not arguments against science as an institution. However, in the last few decades, we have learned some important lessons: Firstly, truth in itself is not a value. It doesn´t direct us as a society. Secondly, science does not happen in a vacuum. The authority that this type of knowledge has gained makes it very powerful and we need to use it responsibly.

In this sense, researchers absolutely should be activists. They should care about the consequences of their work as well as for society. But that does not mean they should sideline scientific principles in favor for the causes that move them. Perhaps another of Merton’s principles can help here: “Organized Skepticism”. As Merton explains: “The scientific investigator does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed” (p. 254). Sympathy for a cause should never allure scholars to lose their critical edge. In fact, giving up rigor in favor for loyalty towards a group or cause will most likely backfire in the end, as it detracts substantially from the power the research could have. Researchers can be activists but that binds them even more to scientific principles as they need to be cautious and skeptical towards their own biases – especially if they want to help their cause.  

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Beauty gig work in the time of Covid-19

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

In late March 2020, India declared a nation-wide lockdown, restricting the movement of people and services considered as non-essential in an effort to restrict the spread of Covid-19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call of “Jaan hai tho jahan hai” (loosely translated as health is wealth) was an effort to justify the sudden announcement of a complete lockdown, leaving millions of migrant workers to fend for themselves. Both the central and the state governments have announced several relief packages to those involved in the informal and unorganized sectors, and to BPL (below the poverty line) families. They have also requested employers everywhere to consider giving their employees paid leave. This effort overlooks those involved in the gig economy who are not employees but partners, and whose incomes are not fixed but directly proportional to the number of customers they are able to garner, even under ordinary conditions.

Beauty worker in India. Image Credit: innacoz

The effect of this lockdown on gig workers is not lost on companies such as Urban Company (UC, formerly Urban Clap), India’s largest at-home beauty service provider, based in Gurgaon, Haryana. A phased response was adopted by UC beginning with awareness programs aimed at “training service partners on how to maintain hygiene, the right technique of washing their hands”, providing personal protective equipment, leading up to the launch of a relief fund for its 30000+ (of the 50000+) partners. It offers income protection, health insurance, and even extend business advances in the form of soft loans to service providers to help them through this difficult time. As the lockdown measures were eased to allow the functioning of essential services, UC started taking bookings for some services (plumbing, cleaning, pest services were allowed but not grooming).

While all earning from gig work depends on the number of services offered, the beauty gig workers are particularly affected and the reasons are two-fold. Firstly, the target group UC has tried to bring into gig work almost entirely comprises of women (referred to as beauty and parlour didis—older sisters in Hindi) in low paying jobs (earning Rs. 15,000 or less than USD 200 per month) at beauty salons. UC states in their press release that salon chains and independent salons are exploitative enterprises that trap “beauticians in low paying jobs and prevents them from becoming micro-entrepreneurs because they can’t afford to buy their own kit” while “salon owners own fancy cars and live in expensive homes.” UC, on the other hand, trains beauticians, and also provides portable beauty kits costing Rs. 35,000 -40,000 on an instalment basis. Although there is no break up of workforce in terms of gender or geography (in the case of migrants), it is worth asking how these women (arguably from lower socio-economic strata) who perhaps do not have ration cards that entitle them to government subsidies, and who have undertaken the risk of engaging in gig work will cope financially. How will didis who may have availed loans extended by UC to equip themselves with the tools and materials manage, now that they find themselves out of work saddled with products that may have a short shelf life?

Sign advertising beauty services. Image credit: Michael Kohli

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the level of precarity women gig workers experience is also affected by how/what the government and the platform define as ‘essential’. For the government, essential services include those directly involved in disease prevention, mitigation or care measures. When lockdown regulations were eased, UC defined ‘essential’ to mean plumbing, electric, and pest control services. After further easing of  lockdown regulations (announced on May 4 2020),  UC has finally started accepting bookings for grooming services in zones that are designated by the government as “safe”, provided it is not in violation of the restrictions imposed by residents’ welfare associations and housing societies. However, it remains to be seen how many beauty gig workers can actually go back to work, and if their stories of unemployment will ever make it to mainstream media or social media.

It is also noteworthy that despite so many stories about migrant workers, there is a notable absence of the woman migrant worker, including and not limited to those employed in traditional parlours or work as domestic help. It is also problematic that the common pictures of migrant women are those of pregnant women and those with children, essentialising women as mothers, and effectively making invisible single women who come to the city for their livelihood. If these stories do not make headlines, then what chance do urban women workers in gig work have of their voices being heard?

Arundhathi Roy writes, “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. Perhaps, this pandemic is an entry point for us to start thinking about the very many groups of people who are differently disadvantaged. We now recognize that the lockdown has affected the informal sector in unprecedented ways. But what needs to be acknowledged is the many layers of that sector, and the nuances of the different kinds of labour that make up the whole.

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Hanging by a thread: The unraveling of the garment industry in Bangladesh

[By Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

Around 4.1 million workers of the Bangladeshi apparel industry that exports ready-made garments to more than 165 countries across the world is facing a severe crisis amid the COVID19 epidemic. Many of them continue working in factories, to meet shipment deadlines, defying the government shut down order. Meanwhile, many factory owners are hard-pressed to provide salaries for their workers as their overseas buyers have either cancelled their work order or have neglected to pay for products that has already been exported. In such a context, the Bangladesh apparel industry is in dire straits.

Garment workers in Bangladesh (image credit: UNSGSA/Ismael Ferdous)

Industry insiders are concerned that without new orders and payments due for current orders, factories cannot pay their workers’ wages and cannot remain operational. The Government of Bangladesh has announced bailout packages to help factory owners overcome the crisis. However, most workers have yet to receive their month salary via Nagod (cash), an online-based wage payment system initiated last month. The World Justice Project, that works for the protection of fundamental labour rights expressed concern about the safety and non-payment of workers, mostly women working in more than 3,200 garments factories in two major hubs – Dhaka and Chittagong.

Even when workers are protected from physical risks, factory owners exploit lax labour regulation to skip paying benefits, design grueling production schedules with no rest days, and otherwise ignore the terms of employment contracts. The Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SKOP), a platform of 11 labour rights bodies, demanded that all industrial units in the country, including garment factories, ensure proper safety measures to protect workers from getting infected with COVID-19.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the apex body of this sector, could not take hardline decisions with regard to salary payments and the opening of the factories due to pressures from owners and overseas buyers. Amid the crisis, garment workers are protesting on the street in different industrial areas including Ashulia, Savar at Gazipur and Kalurghat and Nasirabad in Chittagong to press the government and authorities concerned to disburse their salaries before Eid ul Fitar, the biggest Muslim religious festival, scheduled to be celebrated in a few days (24th /25th May) via the online payment system. New technological platforms are coming to the aid of these protests such as blockchain technology to help in the monitoring of factory safety in global supply chains management.

Though layoffs had been approved under section-11 of the Bangladesh EPZ Labor Act, there continues to be serious tensions in this deployment of layoffs given that trade unions prevail in 90 percent of factories and the communications  between workers and industry management are currently fraught. Workers are thus seeking support from different stakeholders including the Ministry of Labour and Employment and BGMEA to pay dues from the Central Fund. The fund for the welfare of garment workers came into being in 2017 to which garment exporters have been contributing 0.03 percent of their export receipts.

This crisis in the garment sector has accelerated many disruptions: for instance, mobile payment platforms in Bangladesh are at last getting diversified, giving consumers choices. However, for this system to land on its feet, it needs to allow for fair competition. Nagad’s leveraging of the post-office makes sense and capitalizes on traditional and much used outlets, reducing costs in return; however, it also appears to bypass safeguards that other mobile payment systems are subjected to such as mandatory profiles of registrants to prevent money laundering. New technologies like blockchain are being repurposed to align with the self-organized labour protests and profile them and their interests within the larger global supply chain; however, it takes more than just digitization to encode the plight of the workers from “cogs in a broader supply chain” to ethical human-centered value chains. When it comes to the shameful abdication of responsibility of certain brands that can result in devastating disruption for the industry, there is hope that this can stir a global moral conscience and ride on a global outrage for redesigning of responsible business ecosystems that prioritize people over profit.

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Technology for a social cause: TikTok and Asia’s mobile-first nations

[By Payal Arora]
What does collective organizing look like in the digital age? Can we leverage on TikTok, the most downloaded app in 2020, to humanize the millions of informal laborers as they face unprecedented levels of precarity and help mobilize a global social conscience? Are there new geopolitical partnerships arising across governments, INGOs, the private sector, and social media influencers, as they tackle the vast ‘infodemic’ of COVID misinformation as well as help build a universal solidarity? Payal Arora contributes her thoughts on this to the Coronabrief blog by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Asia.

Image by Abir Das