Superbrands, super evil?

[By René König]

For FemLab.Co I spoke to Linnea Thompson. Her article ‘Crowdsourcing as a platform for digital labor unions’ with Payal Arora served as an early inspiration for our project and she now works as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) specialist for the Norwegian fashion retailer Varner. Our conversation helped me to overcome some of my prejudices towards big brands. Maybe it will help you, too?

Superbrands – popular and hated

If somebody would ask you to name a clothing company known for its abusive working conditions, which would you choose? Let me guess: It’s one of the big well-known brands. Certainly, that is what would have come to my mind if somebody had raised that question not too long ago. I spent my transformative years towards adulthood in the 1990s in Germany. Communism was defeated and capitalism emerged as the big winner of the cold war. At least, that is how it appeared for a little while, prompting Francis Fukuyama to announce the “end of history”.

While governments worldwide embraced neoliberal strategies, an anti-capitalist counter-movement was on the rise. In 1998, the NGO Attac was founded in resistance to the seemingly limitless power of globalized corporations. A year later, 40.000 protestors turned against a conference of the World Trade Organization, clashing with police in what has come to be known as the iconic “Battle of Seattle.”

By the time I started studying sociology at Bielefeld University in the early 2000s, it was pretty much common sense among my peers to blame global corporations for almost everything that was going wrong in the world. Like many others, I was impressed by Naomi Klein’s bestselling book “No Logo,” a work that fundamentally criticized the overwhelming power of superbrands and their often-exploitative practices hidden behind the shiny facades created by marketing specialists:

“Since many of today’s best-known manufacturers no longer produce products and advertise them, but rather buy products and ‘brand’ them, these companies are forever on the prowl for creative new ways to build and strengthen their brand images.” (Klein 2010, p. 5)

Looking back at the book two decades later, Dan Hancox portrays the atmosphere of that time like this:

“The battle lines were clear, as ordinary citizens around the world stood in opposition to corporate greed, sweatshops, union-busting, ‘McJobs’, privatisation and environmental destruction: and the avatar for them all, the increasingly unavoidable logos of western ‘superbrands’.”

Klein wrote about a movement that emerged which tried to fight corporations with their own weapons. “Adbusting” built on the same powerful mechanisms as advertising – but it smeared brands instead of promoting them.

Anti-Nike spoof-ad. Image credit: Adbusters Media Foundation

The campaigners had more than enough material at their hands. From environmental catastrophes to never-ending reports on terrible working conditions – there was no shortage of reasons to scratch the shiny facade of big brands. At the same time, their omnipresent advertising guaranteed an endless supply of material that could be weaponized. Take this simple but effective modification of an Exxon advertisement, shortly after their vessel Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in a disaster that affects the region even today:

Adbusting by the “Billboard Liberation Front” in 1989

Just like Exxon Valdez’s oil keeps poisoning the ocean, nothing has fundamentally changed regarding brands and their perception. Major corporations continue dominating the markets. Scandals keep surfacing just as predictably as the riots and protests waiting in the wings of the next WTO summit. Occasions and names may change, the basic driving forces remain the same: Greedy global corporations exploit vulnerable local populations, covered by corrupt governments. While a few ‘conscious consumers’ may resist, the vast uncritical majority keeps the machinery running. In fact, the situation may have gotten worse due to the new superbrands of the digital economy as Dan Hancox remarks in his article reflecting on Klein’s book:

“Proud of yourself for not buying books or gifts from Amazon? Fair enough, but it is also the largest cloud service provider, with a 32% market share; your favourite activist website is probably using Amazon Web Services.” 

The internet era started with the promise of endless possibilities. Yet, a smartphone user in 2021 can merely choose whether to feed Apple’s or Google’s data-hungry systems. Klein’s book seems as relevant today as it was during the battle of Seattle. Superbrands are to blame. Who could argue with that?  

A look behind the black and white facades

Although they have contrary intentions, advertisers and adbusters have one motivation in common: They paint a very one-sided picture of the story. The problem with that is not just that this approach rarely leads to accurate perception. What´s worse is that consumers are driven to a state of learned helplessness, a weird mixture of willful naiveté, when we give in to the constant bombardment of glossy advertising, paired with occasional outbursts of inconsequential rage when we stumble over another scandal. All this obscures not only that we don’t live in a black and white world but also that there is much that can be done to improve it – and is in fact done on a daily basis. Including by superbrands. Maybe – and my socialization makes it hard to write this – especially by superbrands.

My interview partner Linnea is the one who is giving me this hard time. When I ask her, what got her into the field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), her initial reply still neatly fits my worldview:

“When I studied media and communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam, I wanted to know how businesses really work (in contrast to what they are communicating). To me, CSR is so important but obviously, there was and is also a lot of green washing going on. When I was a student, we were all very critical. Our papers were dedicated to finding out ‘who is just green washing and who is actually doing good work?’ because it´s often very difficult to distinguish the two.”

Sure, superbrands talk a lot about social responsibility. It’s part of their marketing strategy. But digging deeper into Linnea’s motivations, I begin to understand that marketing is certainly not what is driving her:

“I´ve always been super interested in following up production chains, wondering how one could make them more responsible and what businesses can do to improve them. In part, that´s for personal reasons: When I was young, my mom was working as an advisor for businesses to create better working conditions with regards to human rights and sustainability. She told me all about it, which got me into this field.”

Working for the business side has made Linnea not less critical but enabled her to take a more granular point of view: 

“The perspective I had as a student became a bit more nuanced after I started working in the field. It´s easier for me now to differentiate marketing from actual corporate responsibility. Any brand, big or small, wants to be perceived as ‘good’, and in the end it’s up to the consumer to distinguish between marketing and responsible business practice. A sustainable image might be just that: an image.”

I immediately have a picture of one of those seemingly close-to-nature outdoor brands in my mind. I probably still have a piece by such a company in my closet from one of my little nature adventures. I recognize myself as the prototype customer who would get allured by the romantic marketing vision created by a Nordic outdoor brand. I was critical but my anger was targeted against the big corporations, not those seemingly sustainable small companies. My intuition let me down as I realize when Linnea elaborates:

“A lot of people have this perspective that the big corporations are the bad ones. But really, the more research you do on this, the more you will realize that this perception is often not true. The reason is simple: these big companies actually have the resources to put their words into action.”

Corporate Social Responsibility – more than marketing

Maybe more money doesn’t necessarily translate to more exploitation. Yet, we intuitively take the side of the underdog. It’s deeply rooted in our culture. From David vs. Goliath to Slumdog Millionaire – we love and cherish the narrative of the disenfranchised who beat the odds. But as attractive as these stories are, they might not be the best guides for conscious consumption. Marketing specialists already took notice of our preference for the underdog and many try to portray their company as one – regardless of whether this portrayal is based in fact.

At the very least, small businesses usually stay under the radar while superbrands are always in the spotlight, making them giant targets that are hard to miss. Adbusting is one example for how this prominence can backfire but brand communication is generally a balancing act with many pitfalls, especially when it comes to corporate responsibility as Linnea explains:

“I understand now how difficult it is to balance the communication of your CSR efforts. Especially in the media in Norway we see, for example, H&M who received intense criticism because they marketed their CSR strategies as better than how experts judged them. So, they end up in this position in which they are perceived as ‘all bad’ – while they´re actually one of the best companies when it comes to following up their supply chain. They have been very innovative on that front.”

There is not much room for nuance in our polarized world and its fast-paced media landscape. What shapes our thinking are the big headlines, scandals, and crazy stories. Like the one from 2014, when Primark shoppers found labels in their clothes with sentences such as “Forced to work exhausting hours” or “Degrading sweatshop conditions”. While it remains unclear if these labels were even authored by actual workers, the story is too remarkable to forget. What remains untold are the far more stories in which workers found better channels to express their grievances due to CSR programs and other activities to help workers. Accordingly, when I ask Linnea about common misconceptions that she would like to change, she answers:

“Many people think that the big fashion brands just order clothes from sweatshops. This is commonly portrayed in the media, but not the other side of the story where brands and suppliers collaborate closely to ensure fair and safe working conditions. This misconception does not help to make consumers respect the work that has been put into producing their clothes.”

My conversation with Linnea made me re-think my own misconceptions about big and small brands. I realized that the power of marketing images is a double-edged sword. Not only can it be turned against them, it also obscures a nuanced discussion of their practices. Sympathy for the underdog is an intuitive counter-reaction to the overbearing power of superbrands but it rests on the same questionable mechanism: image over facts. The truth is out there. It just takes a lot of effort to uncover it. As tempting as it may be, we should not fall for the shortcuts provided by marketing specialists – no matter who they represent.


Man or machine? Eliminating manual scavenging in India and Bangladesh

[By Sally Cawood and Amita Bhakta]

Manual scavenging – the hazardous removal of human waste from drains, latrines, septic tanks and sewers by hand or with basic tools – persists as a form of caste-based slavery in South Asia. Across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, men, women and children from low-caste, religious and ethnic minorities manually handle our waste, frequently resulting in injury, illness and even death. Since 2014, an estimated 156 people have died in septic tanks in Bangladesh alone, while in India one person dies every five days after entering septic tanks and sewers, often drowning after falling unconscious from toxic gases.

Over the last 5-10 years, there has been growing attention on the potential of robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machines to eliminate manual scavenging for good. Recent media and academic articles reveal opportunities and challenges brought about by mechanisation. We take this further and offer some avenues for inclusive practice on a process (mechanisation) seen by many as the only viable way to eliminate manual scavenging in our towns and cities.

A range of global technological innovations in sanitation have emerged in recent years, from sewer-cleaning robots such as ‘sewer crocs’ or ‘bandicoots’ and AI or manhole monitoring systems (to identify and resolve sewer blockages) to mechanical trucks (to suck out human waste from septic tanks) or Gulpers (hand-powered pumps). The creators of these innovations, including private technology companies, claim that they improve efficiency, safety and dignity of sanitation work, by removing or reducing the need for human contact with faeces. To help us understand some of the opportunities and challenges brought about by mechanisation, we first need to place this process into the deeper historical, social, political and economic context in South Asia into which it’s deployed, and ask: who is engaged in manual scavenging today, and has this changed over time?

In India, manual scavenging is most commonly associated with Dalit women (of various sub-castes, most notably Valmiki) collecting and dumping waste from dry latrines, often found in rural areas. Widows from the ghettos of Mumbai have also been found to do this work, often recruited upon the death of their husbands through manual scavenging, or ‘sewer deaths’. With the introduction of the 1993 and 2013 Elimination of Manual Scavenging Acts, subsequent directives to demolish dry latrines and improve sanitary facilities in line with the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), the mode of manual scavenging and gendered nature of the work is changing. Far from being eliminated, manual scavenging has simply adapted with modernisation, with a shift from dry latrines (though these also remain in some areas) to the removal of human waste from pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers – a task most commonly undertaken by Dalit men. In Bangladesh, too, low-caste men (largely from self-defined Harijan communities, or ‘children of God’ as they were originally referred to by Mahatma Gandhi) are predominantly involved in the handling of human waste, using their bare hands or basic tools, such as a bucket, rope, and spade. It is within these underlying social contexts that new technology is being trialled and gradually introduced, but to what effect?

Across India and Bangladesh, governments (national and local), international donors, NGOs and private companies have been instrumental in rolling out technologies and associated programmes to improve sanitation work, and sanitation services. In India, sewer-cleaning robots and machines such as the Bandicoot are slowly making their way to different municipalities and local authorities, most recently in Tiruppur Corporation to great jubilation (Tamil Nadu having the highest recorded number of sewer deaths across the country). In Bangladesh, Gulpers and mechanical trucks (known as Vacutags) have been introduced in a range of municipalities and city corporations. In both countries, the introduction of technology –  often accompanied by provision of uniforms, personal protective equipment (PPE; e.g. gloves, hat, boots, masks), skill training and, in some cases, higher wages, has helped to professionalise the sector. It also greatly improves health and safety, with workers better protected against chemical, physical and biological hazards, and some reporting greater respect from service users, though this is not always the case. The introduction of technology and PPE to safeguard the wellbeing of sanitation workers has also been supported by efforts to introduce social security schemes, such as the ‘Garima’ scheme in Odisha, India, covering 20,000 sanitation workers and their families.

A Mechanical Vacutag Truck in Bangladesh
Image credit: Sally Cawood

Whilst these interventions have brought about marked improvements, they have also brought tensions and contradictions. Two main points are noted here. First, the roll out of technology is still in early stages, with the majority of municipalities and local authorities being a while away from semi or full mechanisation due to the high cost, limited production of local materials, administrative hurdles, lack of political will or protests from workers. The lack of equipment or specialist skills required to repair machines, also means there are frequent operation and maintenance failures. In Bangladesh, for example, truck drivers and helpers complain that it takes a long time to replace parts on the trucks (mostly imported from overseas) when they break down, as they are not locally available (something that NGOs and businesses are working hard to resolve). In India, a sewer-jetting machine (to unclog sewers) of 6000 ltr capacity can cost Rs. 44 lakh (approximately 59-60,000 USD), making such technology unaffordable for many local authorities. Linked to this, PPE or other handheld equipment may be poorly designed for the climate, task at hand, and comfort of the wearer (an issue also reported by female road sweepers who often receive PPE designed for men). This frequently leads to non-use or the rapid wear-out of PPE that is not replaced. Yet, the provision of PPE for pit emptiers in Khulna, Bangladesh and in Lahore, Pakistan, shows some signs of increasing attention now being paid to this issue.   

Second, and a particularly recurrent theme from fieldwork in Bangladesh, is that the most marginalised workers involved in manual scavenging or emptying are often not able to access improved sanitation work or alternative livelihood options, due to entrenched stigma linked to identity, occupation and place of residence, as well as bribery, nepotism and corruption. Some manual emptiers also fear job loss associated with the switch to mechanisation. Likewise, in India, fears over job redundancy and takeover among Dalit workers are supported by evidence that indicates higher-caste or other socio-economic groups (predominantly men) are more likely to own or operate machinery and, even, to access rehabilitation support under the remit of ‘manual scavenger’. In both countries, improved or alternative livelihood options also require scrutiny, as many ‘liberated’ manual scavengers also remain in low-paid, informal or exploitative work arrangements, even if it is regarded as a step-up from handling human waste (for example, road sweeping or solid waste collection  –  which can, in fact, also expose workers to faeces). Whilst many may argue that job takeover by other (non-Dalit) groups can reduce stigma around sanitation work (an important avenue for future research and action), these challenges raise critical questions over who actually benefits from mechanisation, and who these technological innovations are designed for in the first place.

The road ahead

It is clear that societal attitudes, personal aspirations after hundreds of years of dehumanisation and viable alternatives for manual scavengers will not change, right away, in line with mechanisation. As we show above, mechanisation can also reinforce gendered, classed and casteist inequalities. This might be especially so when interventions oriented primarily towards profit, efficiency, proving one’s ‘business model’ or prototype, takes precedence over the realities of those cleaning our waste. With this in mind, we end here with some tentative avenues for further research, discussion and action among academics, activists, journalists, governments, NGOs, private businesses and workers themselves:

  • Place greater attention on the priorities of manual scavengers relating to improved or alternative livelihood options, especially the new generation of educated youth. For example, via education, vocational and skill-based training, business grants.
  • Integrate ‘transition plans’ into sanitation interventions for workers to prepare for mechanisation, including skill-development training to operate machines, or in the case that fewer jobs are available, appropriate re-deployment or support in seeking alternative (non-sanitation) work.
  • Improve working environments for all ‘sanitary workers’, including appropriate PPE, health insurance and work benefits (pensions, maternity leave, annual leave), which are currently lacking.
  • Support workers to organise (via unions, cooperatives or associations), to bargain with employers for improved pay and more regular, secure work, which remains a major challenge in light of informal subcontracting.
  • Deepen and expand our understandings of the impacts of mechanisation on manual scavenging within and outside of India and Bangladesh, for example, to Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal, where these caste-based occupations also exist, and persist.

In the midst of this focus on mechanisation, sanitation workers will remain integral to the operation of this technology. Mechanisation in sanitation services should also include improving sanitation for workers themselves, to ensure their health and wellbeing. Yet, Dalits remain excluded from services, including toilets for their own homes, leading many to defecate in the open. The SBM’s construction of toilets without improvements in sewage systems (increasing the number of pit latrines and septic tanks requiring emptying) also means that manual scavengers will remain in India, denying other employment opportunities and worsening caste oppression. More research and activism is sorely needed to deepen our understanding of the impacts of mechanisation and ‘improved’ sanitation, and propose inclusive solutions and responsive alternatives, to make sure that not one more life is lost in manual scavenging.

Dr Sally Cawood is a Global Challenges Fellow at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (USP), University of Sheffield, UK. Sally is currently leading a Global Challenges Research Funded (GCRF) project with WaterAid on gender, caste and sanitation work in India and Bangladesh.

Dr Amita Bhakta is a freelance consultant in the UK. Amita specialises in delivering inclusive infrastructural services in the global South, particularly in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector.

Blog Series: Re-thinking a crippled society

Re-thinking a crippled society – Part I: Productivity

This is the first part of a three-part series by Soumita Basu. Soumita is a social- development-practitioner-turned-entrepreneur. When she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, her views on society transformed. This experience made her realize how much is wrong with our society and the way we organize it. Join her reflections on re-thinking productivity, inclusivity, and entrepreneurship.

The value of my every hour

[By Soumita Basu]

“Now, I’m neither productive nor reproductive,” she said with a wry smile, skilfully turning it into a giggle. We were soaking in the warmth of the rare pre-spring sun beside the canals of Den Haag. It was a spontaneous meeting. We had a lot of respect for each other. What we lacked in chemistry, we made up for in our common quest to find our place in a world we had suddenly become alienated from. Words moved effortlessly as we sat beside each other on the wooden bench, munching on a mixed bag of nuts.

When she suddenly remarked on her productivity, I was staring at the tall, almost barren purple tree across the canal. I missed how the words looked on her. I turned to meet her eyes and found tiredness wrapped in smiles and giggles. A few months ago, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She wasn’t thinking of death. She was looking for life as she knew it for over four and a half decades. While I had fifteen less years to boost, my relationship with life was changing rapidly too. My (then) undiagnosed autoimmune disorder had started ruling much of any conversation.

Unless, they were with friends.

Friends bring out the deeper value of our existence. Something, we all need to cherish from time to time. Our value in the lives of our loved ones isn’t defined. Its sacred territory. This is the single most important thing that brings life to our days. But what about livelihoods? And the distinct identity we draw from our productive avatars? In a world where ones’ ‘usefulness’ is often judged by how productive they are, finding the space that allows you to be productive becomes imperative for ones’ existence. Yet, for most of us, it is also about existence itself. About the means to survival.

Image credit: Pixabay

Countries with strong social protection programs for the chronically ill or with disabilities are very few. While social protection programs ensure survival, it doesn’t give meaning to it. That can come only when we co-exist and co-create. Having chronic illnesses or disabilities systematically excludes us from having this feeling of contributing. It deprives us of a sense of belonging. Slowly the spiral of questioning our self-worth begins to grow. At every turn we ask if we are a ‘burden’. I had to restart my career in my mid-thirties when I acquired an autoimmune disorder and started to gradually lose my mobility. The more mobility I lost, the less work I got. And finally, I stopped working completely. I had no income, while the medical bills were piling. I leaned on my family. Anxiety started surfacing. I wasn’t worried about the constant chronic bulldozing pain that I experienced every second of everyday. I wasn’t worried about death either. I was worried about living, about being able to buy my medicines and put food in my mouth. I was worried about survival. I was worried and I was guilty. There are not enough words to suggest how guilt can engulf you without any trigger when you feel like a burden, when you cannot financially support your aging parents. In fact, your illness demands every penny ever saved as a family. Everyone told me I wasn’t being rational, especially since my family was so supportive. But it wasn’t about my family.

The world around me was not rational either. It only talked the language of productivity. It rated people based on a hazy relationship between input and output, where the output is very vaguely defined and the input is usually just reduced to the movements of the hour hand on our clocks. It’s completely irrational. Or at least very overpowering because most people usually cheat (often, themselves). In most white-collar jobs, people work unrecorded, and unpaid, ‘overtime’. News of burnouts have become common stories in any sector. We don’t just burn the mid night oil, but often ourselves in the name of passion, and dedication. However, when we work a few hours less, our compensation packages get adjusted accordingly. The relationship with our organisations and their employees is guided by mistrust, rather than faith. This mistrust becomes even more pronounced in case of persons with disabilities as there are often ill-founded doubts on their work-related abilities. The organisation-staff relationship is driven by ambition, instead of empathy. Completing the task gains importance over how that is achieved. Often, this alienates from the people of the organisation. It colours the people with monochrome, instead of multidimensional beings.

This doesn’t mean we should be without ambition. We need ambition to grow. It is important even for individuals within the organisation. However, we need to be driven by empathy at the core, with ambitions in the periphery instead of the other way around. A paradigm shift towards redefining our relationship with our organisations and redefining the identity of the organisation is imperative to be inclusive. Instead of focusing on linear one on one relationships with each individual staff and the organism, we need to build an organism as one unit with geometric networked relationships between the individual members. Here, tasks are not assigned to individuals but to teams. So, while the team completes the task, the individual members may contribute with ease. There could be the young parent needing to be back home early afternoon every day or someone who can work late evenings but needs a three week break every quarter. The design thinker with spurts of creativity and the focussed repetitive organised worker find equally comfortable space. Workspaces need to be designed to encourage collaboration instead of fanning the notion of survival of the fittest.

Being disability friendly demands a healthy environment. The culture of a place needs to be healthy and friendly for everyone before it can become disability friendly. In other words, being disability friendly and inclusive ensures a healthy environment for everyone. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally, too. It is an impossible feat to be disability friendly for just one person or a few select people. It’s a culture, a way of life, not something that can be practiced in silos. We need to rethink not hiring practices but also our work integration. Organisations truly invested in inclusion have started to reengineer their work processes to ensure more talent can participate.

The function of the society is to ensure its members operate at their full potential, creating a harmony that would otherwise be unknown. However, when the society choreographs its moves to only allow for a chosen few, it is not a healthy society. There are many people who have certain disabilities. Probably, if we look across the spectrum, we will find more people with disabilities than otherwise. Often, they might not even identify as a person with disabilities. Yet, the social structures favour the chosen few, and label others as marginalized. If we look deeply, even if there are people with disabilities, it is the society that’s disabled.

How do we evaluate the productivity of such a crippled society?

Our self-worth is silently driven by how useful we feel. I realised I needed to fulfil this existential need of mine. There was one year when I was completely without work; my sense of worth was shaken. I thought of the home makers. But they work at their homes, I thought. It was unpaid labour but at least there was tangible labour. I couldn’t do that either. I felt “neither productive, nor reproductive”. I took rescue in the locks of my hair. I cut them to donate to patients of cancer and alopecia. I needed to feel useful. I needed to be part of some story.

Soumita Basu is the founder CEO of Zyenika Inclusive Fashion, a company that designs clothes for all body types and physical abilities. Her work at Zyenika has been recognised with the Entrepreneurial India Award, 2021. She is the India Inclusion Fellow, 2020 and recognised as an Industry Disruptor by DO School, Berlin, UNWomen and the European Union. Soumita started her career as a journalist and then specialised as a social development practitioner and researcher, particularly in the domains of livelihoods, governance, and heath. Soumita’s focus has always been on cross-cutting issues like gender, inclusion, and equality. She is waiting for the publication of her reimagination of popular fairytales with a feminist lens. Soumita has earned a PG Diploma in Journalism, from Asian College of Journalism, and a Masters in Development Studies from ISS, The Hague, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She was awarded a fellow position at the Netherlands Fellowship Programme.


Centered but invisible – On the contradictions of service design at Urban Company

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

Ting! A beauty worker checks her mobile. A ‘lead’ appears on her mobile screen from the platform service aggregator she has registered with. She accepts it, calls the customer through the platform that has helped her become a microentrepreneur, confirms the request and location of the customer and rides off to the location. She rings the bell. Once the customer greets her, the worker does what has become a routine since the onset of COVID-19: She sanitises her hands, dons a fresh pair of gloves, face mask, and face shield before entering the house. She sets her products neatly and gets to work. Once finished, she sprays everything she has touched with sanitiser, from the doorbell she rang to the tap she used in the customer’s washroom to fill water for a pedicure session. She packs all her belongings and collects soiled products (used waxed strips and such) to dispose of them on her way to another gig.

Meanwhile, the now relaxed customer is asked by the app to rank the beauty worker on her hygiene: Did she wear a mask? What about gloves? Did she leave any used products behind? In short, how successful was the worker in her attempts to disappear without leaving any proof of her physical presence?

Behind all this is a Standard Operating Procedure that regulates the worker’s behaviour, which is then monitored by the app with the help of the data provided by the customer. Based on this feedback, the worker receives a hygiene rating. Moreover, Machine Learning (ML) is utilized to recognize if the worker was wearing masks and gloves through pictures that the worker has to provide before the gig.

The above describes a day in the life of service partners (who provide services and are variously refereed to as service partners, providers or professionals) and customers (who avail services through the platform) associated with the app-based, on-demand platform aggregators. On-demand platforms (like Urban Company and Housejoy) match service partners or ‘pros’ with customers in need of home-based services such as cleaning or salon treatments, through leads. To do this, they charge a commission. Any hitch or issue within the service partner app or the customer app leads to the breakdown of the entire ecosystem. This is where the Software Development Engineers step in. They ensure that the entire experience from booking a service to feedback remains seamless. These engineers must at all times remain alert to whatever complaints arise, either from service partners or customers, even while working to eliminate manual intervention in other aspects. I spoke with a couple of Software Development Engineers (on the condition of anonymity) working for Urban Company to gather insights about their role within the organization, the importance of service partners and customers in process of designing technologies.

Image credit: ivabalk / Pixabay

Role of Software Development Engineers (SDEs)

On-demand platforms are veered towards maximising customers’ experience (which has long been established as a brand on its own). This is also reflected in the kind of words one uses in industrial design and innovation—such as experience economy or service economy. In order to keep up with such a fundamental organizational change, companies turn towards the concept of ‘service design’.

Speaking about what companies expect Software Development Engineers to do, SDE 2 explains:

“we translate all the business fundamentals, business logics into tech solutions. Essentially, automate the entire process. So, this is what the expectation is from you when you are working as a software developer.”

But this is not the only requirement. The idea, another SDE from Urban Company says, is to make sure that the service partners and customers (who book services on the app) are comfortable with the environment provided for them within their separate apps:

“[…] for instance, we need to create a solution to the problem of auto-suggestion of products. If a service partner working in the beauty segment is ordering products, we have to work with the team that predicts market trends and make sure that their suggestions appear at the top of the page. Then we must take into account if pros are comfortable with that placing. Should it appear right at the very top of the page, or when they go to the particular product’s page, is that where the prompt should go?” (SDE 3)

The SDEs I spoke with agree that creating smooth environments for service partners or pros is more complicated than the flows involved with customers. Therefore, more engineers work on the service partner app. SDE 4 notes that the design of the interface is such that one must take into account what the service partners are making of any new feature launched (whether in terms of understanding what it does or ease of use). SDEs must also co-ordinate with other teams that are most likely to be affected by changes they make. They must also adhere to the company’s business goals in order to create something that works, fixes, and reduces the burden of manual intervention. Although, the SDE says, “you cannot always predict how something might turn out to be, but that is what makes it exciting as well”. This mostly invisible work of making sure that features do all these things–enhance customer experience, reduce manual intervention, help service partners make decisions, but above all improve the business logic of profit-making for the company is done by the SDEs.

Asked if engineers undergo any training since they design technologies for those who are marginalized due to multiple factors (gender, class, type of work they are engaged in), I received no definite answer.

The Urban Company ecosystem. Image credit: Sai Amulya Komarraju

Service design: From productivization to servitization

The concept rather the philosophy of service design is broadly understood as the activity of planning and organizing the resources of a business, i.e., people (in the case of the platform ecosystem: service partners, employees, customers), props (AI and ML based algorithms), and various other processes (workflows, Standard Operating Procedures and other dimensions involved in order to ensure smooth services) to directly improve the employees’ experience (in this case it is would include both SDEs and service partners). This ensures that every component is laid out and thought through in detail to ensure a smooth ecosystem. Ecosystems are best understood as collaborative environments where various resources of the company work together to co-create values.

The philosophy of service design shines through in what my interviewees explain: UC assumes that SDEs take into account the views of service partners during all stages of development of a feature. SDE 1 and 2 report that UC focuses on a ‘win-for-all’ approach. In fact, a recent study by Fairwork India has found that UC tops the list of companies that provide “fairwork” based on 5 principles: 1) Fair pay 2) Fair conditions 3) Fair contracts 4) Fair management 5) Fair representation. Confirming this, SDE 3 states that engineers regularly call partners (personal information is encrypted and not shared with anyone) to check if a particular feature seems okay to them. “It is common sense, you know, I mean you are making something for someone, whom to call, if not the recipient?” SDE 2 says that it is easier to guess what a customer wants “because you are one yourself… we have all availed services… but understanding the POV of the pros is difficult… we all call and talk with pros as and when required”. In fact, SDE 2 also admits that when she joined the platform, she was uncomfortable with “round the clock tracking” of service partners. However, when the service providers themselves expressed that this was an acceptable trade-off, she made her peace with it.

“I think the idea is you want them [service partners] to succeed as well. They do really work hard. So, again, no one tells you to do it, but you think about it, how do we give them the best chance to succeed and then create a feature” says SDE 4. For instance, SDEs collaborated closely with the business team to anticipate “sprees” (such as the sudden demand for roll-on waxing), so that service partners could stock up on products needed for such services. However, this view must be balanced by the fact that the business logic of profit-making is supreme, in the face of which even long-term, scalable tech solutions must take a backseat accruing what SDE 2 refers to as a “tech debt”.

This logic inevitably organizes the relationships within the ecosystem in a hierarchical fashion. Customers and their experience and satisfaction are placed at the apex since they bring business, and software engineers enable “extra-legal” mechanisms (rating, tracking etc.) to monitor the service partners through the app in order to ensure quality of services. Even though service partners are considered as a crucial resource (SDE 3), the oversupply of workers compared to the demand, and control mechanisms in the form of rating and reviews serve to maintain power asymmetries between the platform, customer, and the service partner.

The inadequacy of service design

In some sense, when SDEs speak of developing Standard Operating Procedures in order to provide a holistic experience for the customer, they move beyond thinking about mere productivity of service partners. But this does not take away from the fact that workers are still expected to display skill and dexterity at work. They are expected to take a minimum number of leads (which can be read as productivity of a particular partner) and their ratings and continued association with the platform depends on customer satisfaction.

The aim of service design is to move beyond thinking in narrow terms of providing “goods” to the broader concept of offering services. In short, not productivization but servitiziation is the goal. However, this necessarily requires productizing the worker’s skills. We need to problematize this move from good-dominant to service-dominant logic. The burden of delivering the actual experience ultimately falls squarely on the shoulders of service partners. This is especially so in the case of home-based services such as beauty and wellness, where a worker’s physical labor involved in the performance of beauty-work contributes the most in creating a feeling of wellbeing for customers. This burden is reinforced by the fact that their work is constantly supervised by both the app and the customers. The multitude of problems and the high degree of precarity gig workers in the home-based sector face is well documented. Therefore, despite of the human-centric focus of service design, the burden of delivering customer satisfaction with the goal to generate profit is felt more keenly by the service partner first and foremost.

My interviews reveal that SDEs do think about the service partners and that there is a modicum of care they feel towards them. Still, there is much left to be desired in terms of ensuring that all resources are equally empowered within the ecosystem. For human-centric design to live up to its name, it is imperative that businesses adopt an ethics of care within design that could help balance logics of business, technology and the needs of workers.


Is feminist design a solution to platform workers’ problems?

[By Pallavi Bansal]

Imagine a scenario in which you do not get shortlisted for a job interview – not because you are underqualified – but because the algorithms were trained on data sets that excluded or underrepresented your gender for that particular position. Similarly, you found out that you are consistently paid less than your colleagues in a sales job – not because of your inability to fetch clients or customers for the company – but because the rewarding algorithms favoured clients belonging to a certain religion, race or ethnicity. Further, you are asked to leave the company immediately without any notice or opportunity to interact with your manager – not because you committed a mistake – but because the clients rated you low based on prejudice.

While these biases, favouritism and discrimination could soon become a reality in mainstream workplaces due the exponential growth of decision-making algorithms, it is already causing disruption in the online gig economy. Recently, researchers at George Washington University found social bias in the algorithms related to dynamic pricing used by ride-hailing platforms Uber, Lyft and Via in Chicago, US. The study found “fares increased for neighbourhoods with a lower percentage of people above 40, a lower percentage of below median house price homes, a lower percentage of individuals with a high-school diploma or less, or a higher percentage of non-white individuals.” The authors of this paper Akshat Pandey and Aylin Caliskan told the American technology website, VentureBeat, “when machine learning is applied to social data, the algorithms learn the statistical regularities of the historical injustices and social biases embedded in these data sets.”

These irregularities are also spotted in relation to gender. A study conducted by Stanford researchers documented a 7% pay gap in favour of men, using a database of a million drivers on Uber in the United States. However, this study highlighted an even bigger problem that the researchers attributed to the following factors – differences in experience on the platform, constraints over where to work (drive), and preference for driving speed. A Cambridge University researcher Jennifer Cobbe told Forbes, “rather than showing that the pay gap is a natural consequence of our gendered differences, they have actually shown that systems designed to insistently ignore differences tend to become normed to the preferences of those who create them.” She said the researchers shifted the blame to women drivers for not driving fast enough and ignored why the performance is evaluated on the basis of speed and not other parameters such as safety. Further, in context to women workers in the Indian gig economy, it is imperative to understand whether these biases are socially inherent. For instance, if certain platform companies segregate occupations based on gender, then the resulting pool will inherently lack gender variation. This also compels us to ponder whether the concentration of female labour in beauty and wellness services, cleaning or formalised care work is a result of an inherent social bias or technical bias.

To make sense of all of this and understand how we can improve the design of these digital labour platforms, I spoke to Uday Keith, a Senior AI Developer with Wipro Digital in Bengaluru. His responses drew my attention towards Informatics scholar Bardzell’s feminist human-computer interaction design paradigm, which I use to contextualize them.

Illustration by Pallavi Bansal

PB: How can we overcome biases in algorithms?

UK: First of all, algorithms are not biased, it is the datasets which are biased. The imbalances in the datasets can be corrected via a method known as SMOTE (Synthetic Minority Over-sampling Technique) where the researchers recommend over-sampling the minority and under-sampling the majority class. In order to achieve this, we need to bring diversity to our training datasets and identify all the missing demographic categories. If any category is underrepresented, then the models developed with this data will fail to scale properly. At the same time, it is essential for the AI developers to continuously monitor and flag these issues as the population demographics are dynamic in nature.

This points us toward the two core qualities proposed by Bardzell – Pluralism and Ecology.  According to her, it is important to investigate and nurture the marginal while resisting a universal or totalizing viewpoint. She stresses to consider the cultural, social, regional, and national differences in order to develop technology. The quality of ecology further urges designers to consider the broadest contexts of design artifacts while having an awareness of the widest range of stakeholders. This means AI developers cannot afford to leave out any stakeholder in the design process and should also consider if their algorithms would reproduce any social bias. 

PB: Can there be a substitute for the gamification model?

UK: To simplify the process and ensure equity in the gig economy, platform companies can advise AI developers to introduce a “rule”. This would mean fixing the number of minimum rides or tasks a platform worker gets in a day, which can also help in ensuring a minimum wage to them and provide a certain level of income security. The introduction of a fixed rule can even eliminate social biases as this would not result in a particular gender or social group getting less work. Further, the reward system can undergo a major overhaul. For instance, rather than incentivizing them to drive more and indulge in compulsive game-playing, platform companies can build algorithms that provide financial rewards when the drivers follow traffic rules and regulations, drive within permissible speed limits, and ensure a safe riding experience. In fact, we can even provide options to the customers where they could be given discount coupons if they allow drivers to take short breaks.

Elaborating on participation, Bardzell suggests ongoing dialogue between designers and users to explore understanding of work practices that could inform design. This also means if the platform companies and AI developers are oblivious to the needs and concerns of labour, they may end up designing technology that could unintentionally sabotage users. Secondly, an advocacy position should be taken up carefully. In the earlier example, “driving fast” was considered as a performance evaluator and not “safety”, which usually happens because the designers run the risk of imposing their own “male-oriented” values on users.

PB: How work allocation can be more transparent?

UK: Well, deep learning algorithms used by various companies have a “black box” property attached to them to a certain extent. These algorithms are dynamic in nature as they keep learning from new data during use. One can only make sense of this by continuously recording the weightage assigned to the pre-decided variables.

The quality of self-disclosure recommended by Bardzell calls for users’ awareness of how they are being computed by the system. The design should make visible the ways in which it affects people as subjects. For instance, platform companies can display the variables and the corresponding algorithmic weightage per task assigned on the smartphone screen of the workers. So, if a platform driver has not been allocated a certain ride due to his past behaviour, then the technology should be transparent to reveal that information to him. Uncovering the weightage given to various decision-making algorithms will enable the platform worker to reform their behaviour and gives them a chance to communicate back to the companies in case of discrepancies or issues.

PB: How can we improve the rating systems?

UK: The platform companies have started using qualitative labels that could help users to rate the workers better. However, we do need to see whether sufficient options are listed and suggest changes accordingly. Moreover, if we want to completely avoid the numerical rating system, we can ask the users to always describe their feedback by writing a sentence or two. This can be analysed using Natural Language Processing (NLP), a subfield of Artificial Intelligence that helps in understanding human language and derive meaning.

Bardzell writes about the quality of embodiment in respect to meaningful interactions with the technology and acknowledging the whole humanness of individuals to create products that do not discriminate based on gender, religion, race, age, physical ability, or other human features. This concept should also be applied in relation to how users rate workers and whether they discriminate on the basis of appearances or other factors. Hence, there is a strong need to include the qualitative rating systems along with the quantitative ones.

Additionally, Uday Keith recommends defining “ethics” and frequently conducting ethics-based training sessions since a diverse set of people form the team of data scientists, which comprises of roughly 10% of women in an urban Indian city Bengaluru. He concluded by remarking that the issues in the platform economy are more of a system design fault than that of an algorithmic design – the companies consciously want to operate in a certain way and hence do not adopt the above recommendations.

These pointers make the case for the adoption of a feminist design framework that could bring about inclusive labour reforms in the platform economy. As Bardzell says, “feminism has far more to offer than pointing out instances of sexism,” because it is committed to issues such as agency, fulfilment, identity, equity, empowerment, and social justice.


Tilting towards equality: Can nudges improve gender inclusion?

[By Helen Smith and Sharmi Surianarain]

In the fight for greater gender equality and inclusion, governments, NGOs and other stakeholders are increasingly recognising the power of nudges to change human behaviour. The results are promising.

Ever heard the question: “Would you like fries with your burger?” or “Do you want to supersize that drink?”

You’ve been nudged. When you are presented with the option of adding something to your order without necessarily having thought of it before, you’ve been presented with a new choice to consider. Do I want it or not?

Since 2008, behavioural nudges have gained traction globally. Governments, such as in the United Kingdom, have set up Nudge Units to influence policy decisions, drive environmental issues, maximise tax compliance and influence better health choices, to name a few.

Harambee work seeker working at BGR.
Image credit: Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, 2021

In 2016, the UK Government sent customized letters to 800 doctors stating: “80 percent of practices in your local area prescribe fewer antibiotics per head than yours,” offering three alternatives to antibiotic prescriptions instead. This trial led to 73,406 fewer antibiotic prescriptions and aseries of experiments to improve the collection of tax arrears, using information on peer compliance on tax regimes to improve collections.  It was so successful it was also replicated in Costa Rica and Poland.

Closer to home—Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya is Africa’s second largest informal settlement. Residents typically struggle with rampant lethal water borne diseases such as cholera. Despite interventions offering discount coupons for chlorine solutions (a relatively cheap and effective treatment), resident uptake was poor and disease persisted.

By applying nudge theory and by instead placing large containers with chlorine solutions near water sources, the programme made the path of least resistance more available. The result? The uptake of chlorine solutions increased from 10% to 60%.

So, what is a nudge?

In the words of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the influential 2008 book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness”:

“A nudge […] is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. […] The intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Nudging is not about compelling a certain choice. Rather, a nudge should encourage a certain choice through:

  • Transparency – the nudge does not hide options, rather it is obvious and clear;
  • Choice autonomy – a person is always empowered and enabled to make the final choice;
  • Clear benefits – the nudge has a clear upside for the person making the choice

Nudges have also received their fair share of criticism—with critics pointing out their coercive and infantilizing approach towards people’s behaviour. Others suggest that nudges are too short term, and that they are not powerful enough to shift systems and structural issues that led to challenges in the first place. However, we posit that nudges are not meant to act in isolation and are but one tool in a suite of interventions to target a range of issues.

Thoughtfully designed nudges can indeed act as a force for good, as exemplified below. But can nudges only work to shape consumer preferences or improve tax collection? We outline the case for including nudges in our arsenal of interventions to address the ever-greater need for gender inclusion, below.

The fight for gender equality just got worse

As Oxfam International puts it, COVID-19 is the “inequality virus,” rolling back decades of progress made on gender and racial inequality. The pandemic has also been dubbed as a she-cession, with the world’s nearly 750 million women working in the informal economy seeing a fall in incomes of almost 60%.

In South Africa alone, two-thirds of the three million jobs lost during the hardest phase of the lockdown were experienced by women. They were impacted by both school closures and additional child care obligations, and are losing their livelihoods faster because they are more exposed to economic sectors that were hardest hit—like tourism and retail. Lockdowns throughout the world have triggered a significant increase in gender-based violence—the “shadow pandemic” that has trailed the virus as second-wave cases surge and lockdowns return. In the UK, over just one weekend in March, calls to domestic violence helplines rose by 65%.

Now, more than ever we need practical and pragmatic solutions to help women across the globe deal with the gender inequities now exacerbated by the pandemic.

So, what could nudges offer in the way of addressing these challenges?

Trying to change human behaviour for a desired outcome is not a new idea. The proverbial “carrot and stick” approach has been used for centuries. But nudges may offer a new and possibly more effective approach to behavioural change. Instead of mandating behaviour, nudges offer people the ability to make their own decisions.

Lisa Kepniski and Tinna Nielsen’s Inclusion Nudges approach uses nudge principles to design more inclusive communities and organisations—helping reduce bias, enhance inclusive collaboration, and reduce discrimination. As they suggest: “knowing is not enough—designing for inclusion is a must.”

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Iris Bohnet’s book, “What works: Gender Equality by Design” offers yet another example of behaviour-based solutions. Bohnet provides insight into research-based tools that focus on debiasing organisations not individuals. Using an understanding of and experimenting with human behaviour, Bohnet proffers solutions that tilt hiring and promotions in favour of a more gender equitable approach in both boardrooms and classrooms.

COVID-19 has exposed the volatility of women’s precarious incomes, witnessed a rise in gender-based violence, and seen the return of gender norms and stereotypes that further lock women out of the labour market We discuss three examples of where nudges can be used to promote gender inclusivity—to reduce violence, increase job applications, and promote financial inclusion.

Nudges can shift sexist attitudes towards women

Nudge theory and its application has become a new approach to tackling gender based violence (GBV), which at least one in every three women experience during their lifetime (World Health Organisation).  Moreover most violence experienced by women is at the hands of an intimate partner. In fact, 38% of all women murdered globally is as a consequence of a relationship with their male intimate partner.

Ideas 42 is a not for profit organisation applying behavioural science to drive social change. To tackle the issue of Intimate partner Violence (IPV) in Chennai, India, the Ideas 42 team partnered with local organisations by targeting alcohol consumption through the Beautiful Home Project. Using the behavioural nudge of reciprocity (getting something in return for what I do), rickshaw drivers were offered the option of money remitted into a savings account to remain sober during their workday. This nudge in the form of a financial incentive reduced daytime drinking, and IPV dropped by 30%.

More encouragingly, when financial incentives were coupled with short couples therapy interventions, IPV reduced by 50% in the treatment group.

With the doubling and tripling of GBV over the course of the pandemic, this remains a pressing issue for society to address. Governments all over the world are providing toll-free hotlines as well as options for discreet/ no-dial phone options for those unable to call using regular phones. These initiatives can be amplified and further strengthened with nudge theory, and provide a valuable addition to the expansion of social and psychological support services.

Nudges can encourage more women to apply for work

Women in In the United Kingdom are much more likely than men to make the transition to part-time work after the birth of their first child (Behavioural Insights Team). But the move to a part-time role can be detrimental to their career prospects with many women working part-time failing to acquire promotions within the workplace. COVID-19’s lockdowns and ensuing school closures has meant that the burden of care has fallen disproportionately to women, with many women opting out of the workplace entirely.

Even before COVID-19, Zurich Insurance in the United Kingdom sought to understand and address the causes of their gender pay gap and to seek remedies. Baseline studies showed that part-time staff were 35% less likely to apply for promotions. This was primarily driven by the assumption that progression was not possible without an equivalent increase in the number of hours worked.

Nudge theory suggests that as human beings we are likely to choose a course of action that is easy and friction-free. So, Zurich Insurance switched the “default” option for all new job vacancies to become open to part-time workers, job-share and or full-time employees. Hiring Managers were able to “opt-out” of including part time workers as eligible for the role they wished to advertise. However, this was only possible if they could provide a solid substantiation for doing so.

Three changes were then made to the hiring process:

  1. The heading of the job advertisement referenced the part-time working options
  2. Part-time working options were included at the beginning of the advert text
  3. The advert included a reference sentence to part-time work inclusivity

The nudge experiment ran for 12 months. Results showed a significant increase, 16.4% in the proportion of female applicants to roles at Zurich Insurance. Moreover, at a senior level the increase was even greater at 19.3%.

These nudges can be adapted in a COVID-19 world to encourage more women to return to the workplace in the face of additional care responsibilities.

With innovative experiments that encourage more flexible work-choices for women from the outset (at the application stage rather than in-employment), we could bias our global work-from-home experiment to instead make progress on the (re-)inclusion of women into the workplace.

Nudges can increase women’s financial inclusion

Financial inclusion as a pathway out of poverty has also been at the centre of nudge design. Empowering women with financial autonomy can be achieved through better access to digital financial services, and in particular through platforms like mobile money. For female-headed households, mobile money has proved effective in encouraging the accumulation of savings and by facilitating the switch to a business occupation.

Data produced by Financial Inclusion Insights shows the significant gender disparity in Pakistan regarding financial inclusion. The data presented further serves to highlight the work to be done in the provision of products to address this imbalance. In 2017 only 14% of Pakistan’s population were financially included. And while 60% of the population had mobile phones, only 39% of the female population had mobile phones as compared to 80% of the male population.

Moreover, only 13% of Pakistan’s people were utilising mobile money products. And whilst 20% of the men had mobile money, a mere 5% of women had.

Ideas 42, partnering with Women’s World Banking and Mobile Money provider Jazz Cash, whose female customer base was only 10-15%, conducted a series of nudge experiments. Using social norms, reciprocity (in the form of financial incentives) and text messages that were tested for greater appeal to women, for example by emphasizing their roles and context and more frequently using words like “sister” and “mother.” This was sent through a referral network, they targeted improved female financial inclusion. With the implementation of these nudges, it was projected that  new customers (via referrals) would increase by 31% and 10,000 of these would be women (full study here).


While nudges can be powerful and can shift one’s thinking, they need to be taken together with a suite of other programmes and interventions to affect deep and lasting change. When reducing barriers to women’s greater inclusion could be as simple as encouraging women to make referrals through text messages, making part time work a default option for hiring managers, or promoting reduced alcohol consumption and thus decreasing the risk of partner violence.

If we reimagine the world with women at the centre, perhaps we can tilt the world towards equality. Think about that the next time you hear “Do you want some fries with that?”

Helen Smith is a Solutions Design Lead at Harambee and brings over two decades of experience in the transformation of human capital in South Africa. One of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator’s founding employees, Helen has led the design and implementation of products and programmes to accelerate young people into work, partnering with some of South Africa’s biggest employers to prioritize inclusive hiring. As part of Harambee’s expansion into new markets, Helen was instrumental in developing contextualized products for youth employment in Rwanda. Prior to working in youth development Helen led large scale transformation programmes in the field of Human Resources and Change Management. Helen holds a Post Graduate Diploma from WITS Business School in Johannesburg and an honours degree in Social Anthropology, Gender Studies, from the University of South Africa.

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.


There’s little shine on these bangles for those who make them

[By Usha Raman]

The touristic imagination of Hyderabad city is marked by a few dominant images: the aromatic and spicy biryani, the 15th century structure known as Charminar, the historic pearl trade, and the stone-studded bangles of Laad Bazaar. Even as many visitors to the city stop on their way to the airport to pick up a “flight pack” of the famous biryani, they might also have, nestled within their suitcases, a box of what poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu called those “rainbow tinted circles of light”.

Image credit: Sissssou / Wikimedia

Laad Bazaar, or Chudi (bangle) Bazaar, a narrow street snaking westward from Charminar in the old city of Hyderabad, is lined with hundreds of shops that sell their signature ware—lacquer bangles closely embedded with glass and semi-precious stones. Kurta-clad men stand at store fronts shouting invitations to passers-by to take a look at the many varieties they stock, ranging in price from under Rs 100 to Rs 5000 (around USD 1.50 to 70) for a set. Customers—mostly women—throng the shops, leaning over counters to point to what they want, haggling over prices and quickly comparing what’s on offer at the next store. But on the other side of the counter, women are mostly absent.

The bangle trade in Hyderabad is estimated to employ nearly 15,000 people, with around 4000 engaged in the craft of bangle making. Hyderabadi bangles are exported across India as well as globally, with the daily local trade estimated at Rs 300,000 (USD 4100). Women represent 60% of the artisanal workforce. In what is largely a family business, men make the basic structure of the bangle—welding the metal frame, making the lacquer and pressing it into the frames—while the women embed the stones. It’s a painstaking process, involving long hours bent over the work surface handling tiny stones, getting the intricate designs just right. The first part of the process—making the frame—is done in what are essentially small workshops, known as “kharkhanas”, while the second is done by the women inside their homes.

This arrangement suits the social and cultural geography of the old city perfectly, where women are discouraged from entering public spaces. Hyderabad’s old city has in some sense been “left behind” by development, its Muslim-majority population having suffered for long from poor access to education and civic amenities, and in previous decades experienced violent communal tensions. Women in this area therefore may be seen as doubly marginalized, by gender and religion. A 2014 unpublished report by Tanay Agrawal commissioned by the NGO Shaheen Women’s Welfare and Resource Organization (and made available to FemLab.Co by Shaheen), revealed that many of the women working in the bangle trade had very little or no schooling, and found this a conducive occupation as it allowed them to work within the boundaries of what was permitted by the community. In most cases, the women are part of a small family enterprise, but some also receive work from larger kharkhanas. Jameela Nishat, founder and director of Shaheen, tells me that they are paid anywhere from Rs 150 to 200 (USD 2 to 3) a day for their work (a newspaper report quantifies this as Rs 100 [USD 1.20] for a set of 14 bangles).

Image credit: Lakshmi Prabhala

Based on his interviews with around 150 women from the old city, Agrawal notes that the women have no knowledge of the market process and rarely interact directly with the intermediaries, including those running larger kharkhanas, retailers, wholesale buyers, and independent agents who coordinate between the market and the makers. While women may work in small family groups, they do not interact with others in the trade.

Jameela Nishat notes that one of their objectives has been to collectivize women who work in various artisanal sectors in the old city, primarily bangle making, incense-stick rolling, and embroidery (the local craft known as zardozi). Their work has focused on educating the women about their legal rights, giving them a shared safe space within which they can talk about their lives and their challenges, and exploring ways to overcome these. “We’ve started a Mahila Mazdoor Sangham (women workers’ collective),” she says, “But it’s a collective with no money, and no bank account!” Still, the very sense of being part of a craft community—something that had been missing given the domestic location of their work—had given the women a sense of identity, and the space to also articulate more wide-ranging concerns. These include issues of access to education, occupational health and domestic violence—issues that were also reported in a study by social historian Rekha Pande, who found that the long working hours (9-10 hours a day) in poorly lit, cramped conditions led to chronic backache, migraines and eye strain.

Nishat also tells me about one young woman who escaped from a “sheikh marriage” (the practice of ‘selling’ young women as brides to older men from the Gulf region) and with the Shaheen’s support, was able to set up her own bangle kharkhana, and promises to take me there once we are past the pandemic restrictions.

The bangle trade was also affected adversely by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown, which closed the bazaars for several months. A devastating flood in August 2020 inundated several of the kharkhanas and cost many women their livelihoods. Nishat says the area is still recovering from these shocks, and it was relief efforts by Shaheen and other NGOs, along with some government aid, that has helped the community stay afloat.

Image credit: Lakshmi Prabhala

Becoming part of an artisanal community, recognizing that concerns are shared, and identifying as women who have valuable skills, might be the first steps towards bringing some glitter back into the lives of the bangle makers. Today, the bangle trade is seen as a boutique activity that is attracting young, university-educated entrepreneurs who want to streamline the supply chain and reach new markets. Organizations like SEWA in Gujarat have productively engaged with women artisans to not only expand markets but ensure fair compensation and social security, apart from fostering a strong sense of shared identity. Shaheen is also working to build digital literacy among the women who are part of their collective, allowing for lateral communication, and in time, possibly open up ways to reaching the market directly. There is a slow but growing market for ethically produced jewelry and an interest in heritage crafts, sustained by a committed minority, and the challenge is for these women to connect with such markets—and the digital could be the pathway to that.

Along with the kind of women’s entrepreneurship that Jameela Nishat recounts—these might be opportunities for collectivized women to demand better wages and some social security—and more important, bring recognition to their role in crafting those “rainbow tinted circles of light”.


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

[By Shweta Mahendra Chandrashekhar]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Coders’ dilemmas: The challenge of developing unbiased algorithms

[By Samarth Gupta]

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Pixnio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[By Rawshon Akhter and Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Armanaziz / Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Kamrul.vb / Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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