Collective brainstorming to imagine a feminist labour collective

[By Siddharth de Souza and Siddhi Gupta]

In early July 2021, as a group at FemLab.Co, we explored how to think about the connections between feminism, feminist design, and labour collectives that emerged in our work as researchers, lawyers, activists and designers. As part of this exercise, we were interested in discussing the ways in which we could come together to identify the workings of a collective, ascertain and reflect on issues of power and inequality that we were seeing in our field work, as well as imagine and speculate on what we could do and see as we continued our work, and digital storytelling. For the purpose of the workshop, the group members contributed their views in their individual capacities but also gave insights from their sectors of work namely, construction, sanitation, garment, home-based salon services, ride-hailing, and petty artisanal work.

Co-creating, imagining and speculating

This piece is in part a reflection on the workshop and an outcome of contributions from the team members which we have summarised.  It also serves as a reflection on the format of adopting a speculative design workshop as a medium for discussion and sharing. The workshop was inspired by a framework from Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) that appeared in their exploratory toolkit called Feminist Realities Our Power in Action. AWID, a global, feminist, membership-based, movement-support organization believes “that feminist co-creation is driven by the desire to establish mutuality, equality and equity […]. It is collaborative, consensual and mutually-advantageous” where co-creation refers to a collaborative process in ”which stories are told and shared, dreams are dreamt and strategies for change are conceived”, and this was the guidance which we adopted for our discussions.

A key motivation of the workshop was to explore how to brainstorm collectively, without being weighed down by academic or technical knowledge of building a collective. We aspired to see if it was possible to co-create and collaborate on what people understood as structures for a feminist labour collective, and in doing so also unpack and imagine the elements of some of the constituent concepts including that of feminism and feminist design.

In order to be able to brainstorm, we felt that the best way to do so was to use the method of a workshop. The workshop was conducted online because the participants work across geographies and time zones. This established some constraints within which the workshop would operate. We were conscious as workshop facilitators that we were to drive a discussion on online platforms which can hinder communication and participation. For instance, only one person can speak at a time in an online meeting, there are network issues, and often not everyone is heard. Hence, the workshop was designed such that the participants could respond to the prompts in more ways than one. While responses could be verbalised in the Zoom room, participants could respond in writing on virtual sticky notes on the Miro board, which is an online collaborative tool.

This allowed multiple people to speak or record their responses, and as responses appeared in real time, it led to a collaboration where ideas emerged in response to what other participants had said. For instance, as a warmup to the workshop and Miro, which was a new platform for all our participants, we started with the game of ‘Yes, And’. The prompt was simple, “What would you like a feminist labour collective to be like?”. ‘Yes, And’ is a popular ice breaker in workshops where participants have to build on each other’s ideas. In our case, it was useful in enabling everyone to respond and to have all the voices in the room participate. It also set the stage for our next activity, where we would get into the details of imagining a feminist labour collective.

With everyone together in one Zoom room and one Miro board discussing parts of an issue, we were able to validate each other’s responses, draw linkages across ideas, and in a few cases articulate some very fundamental concepts that the larger group seemed to be resonating with. Participants could adjust the time they wanted to spend on the different parts of the workshop. They could revisit bits as well as go ahead if they felt they were done contributing to a certain section. Though we were moderating the workshop, it allowed flexibility to the group of around 7-8 persons to participate in a deliberative manner. None knew more than the other or had access to more or different information. It is the framework of a workshop that allowed these meta reflections to happen as it emphasized a do-it-yourself-work-in-progress type of atmosphere. From our discussions, it was apparent that if we were ultimately going to be talking about breaking hierarchies and power structures, this couldn’t have been done in an exchange where there are a few voices, or where some voices have more power than the other. Building a work-in-progress workshop in that sense meant less structure, but also more fluidity. However, we recognised that even in this format where things are open, there was a need to stop, and check that everyone in the room had the opportunity to contribute.

Understanding understandings

In setting out to imagine a collective we had a series of prompts. Drawing from the AWID workshop, we explored four aspects of a potential labour collective (see image below). The first was to understand the nature of the people that would make up the collective: examining their backgrounds, their motivations for joining, their opportunities to leave, as well as the kinds of relationships that they fostered. The second was to think of a place where a collective would come together and meet, what would define it as a space, what would ensure that it was a safe and secure space, and what kind of relationships would it afford. The third was to think in terms of the resources of the collective in terms of what resources are necessary to begin a collective, as well as to sustain and grow it. We also looked at how such resources could be shared and the ways in which resources could lead to community ownership. The final aspect was to think in terms of governance which was to think in terms of the values that govern the collective, the forms of accountability, and the ways to make it representative and visible.

Workshop output
Image credit: Justice Adda / FemLab.Co

In determining how to address some of these questions, the group identified two aspects that required further thinking. The first aspect was that of presence which included thinking about questions of identity, autonomy and representation in building a collective. The second aspect was that of process which involved the intent, the communicative aspects, the types of relationships and drivers of care that would inform the development of a collective. Through these two facets it became clear that there was also a need to be able to understand many worlds and recognise an epistemic diversity of the different members and the communities that the group were working with, thereby imagining a collective not in terms of key criteria, but rather, as multitudes with competing, complementary and even conflicting views. It became apparent that as we imagined what a feminist labour collective could look like, we also needed to think as a collective in terms of addressing the challenges of people, place, resources and governance that influence us personally and professionally.

Some preliminary connections


Comment from a participant to the question “What are the relationships between the different kinds of people?”

In the discussion on people, the group identified challenges of hierarchy, agency, motivations, stakeholders, external influences (like societal and familial). They raised questions of who made decisions and what methods were used. The group was interested in how agency was distributed and how transparency could be maintained for all stakeholders.


Response from a participant to the question “What kind of relationships do people form in this place?”

There were many questions about access in physical and digital spaces while discussing the component of Places. There were discussions on the plurality of digital spaces, about borders and boundaries in spaces and how time affects those who experience these places. The group also addressed how space should be one that could nurture growth, and create feelings of care, trust and confidentiality.


A response to the prompt “What does it take to build a collective?”

In the discussion on the resources needed for a collective, there was a mention of tangible and intangible resources which ranged from considerations of safe spaces and questions of access and engagement, of associations of value with resources that are non-monetary and built on non-capitalistic systems, and the ability to create resources for the collective. There was acknowledgement of economic, social and cultural capital as well as the commonality of experiences that are all essentials for building a collective.


Response to the prompt “What values govern the collective?”

The discussion on Governance touched upon how maximum representation from different social groups could be achieved. Questions of transparency, recognising personal and professional priorities, different aspects of accountability were discussed in addition to decentralisation, and developing codes of conduct.


In brainstorming around the tenets of building a  feminist labour collective, we aspired to create a discussion where, as Dunne and Raby explain, “design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems, to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely.” The workshop as a method allowed us an opportunity to do so.

It provided a space where the team would discuss with a disciplinary openness, such that interventions could be both substantive and process based. There was a capacity to work with experiential ideas, such that the interventions were grounded in the ways in which people lived and understood their everyday acts and connections to feminism and how these could be understood in the design of ordinary things.  In doing so, the workshop afforded flexibility, fluidity and more importantly capacity to collaborate, one that gave freedom for new ideas, but also capacity to think through the limitations of existing ones.

Workshop output
Image credit: Justice Adda / FemLab.Co


How a women’s organization in Kerala stood up for the right to sit

[By Anila Backer A P]

It hasn’t always been easy for women to attain and enjoy their rights. When we look back into history, most of the fundamental human rights have been won by women by protesting, taking to the streets in strikes and boycotts and fighting in the courtrooms. This is particularly true for women who have fought for a better workplace that often considered women as the ‘other’ and was blind to women’s needs and other basic rights that also have implications for their well-being, dignity, safety, and in the long-term even impacting productivity. This article tells the story of one such movement – ­for the simple right to sit; where a women’s organisation and workers in Kerala’s textile sector stood up to sit. 

On September 6, 2021, the Tamil Nadu government presented a bill to make it mandatory to provide seating arrangements to workers in shops and commercial establishments in the state. Tamil Nadu is the second state in India to recognise the workers’ right to sit and bring legal dimensions to it. The law was first implemented in Kerala in 2018 following the ’Right to Sit” movement undertaken by a women’s organisation and workers in the textile sector.

The movement was spearheaded by ‘Penkoottu’ (women for each other) women’s collective in Kozhikode, Kerala, and its trade union, AMTU (Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union – Unorganised Sector Workers’ Union). Through the movement, the human rights violation at the workplace, particularly in the textile sector where women form the primary workforce, came into public. The saleswomen in the textile sector had to assume the role of mannequins, being commodified, displaying the dress materials and catering to the customers’ needs by standing during their entire work time. Despite the amendment of the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act in the state, making workers’ right to sit a legal assurance, it is not a practice in most of the shops, and ‘Penkoottu’ and AMTU are still striving to get it implemented, making ‘Right to Sit’ an ongoing movement. It further raises questions in the assurance of the right in Tamil Nadu as well. 

I was part of the movement activities after the implementation of the law in Kerala as part of my doctoral field work and gained insights into the movement through the conversations and interviews I had with the organisation members. 

‘Penkoottu’, AMTU and the Right to Sit movement

On the International Labour Day on May 1, 2014, a few textile workers and other activists – all members of Penkoottu’s women-led trade union, AMTU, set out for a sit-in and rally in SM Street, Kozhikode, Kerala, carrying chairs on their heads. Through this protest titled ‘Irikkal Samaram’ (right to sit protest), the public came to know that the textile sector’s sales workers could not sit during their long working hours. The movement’s interpreting and raising the issue as human rights violation also emphasized the women’s exploitation in the sector. It brought up other grievances of textile workers, including long working hours without break times, job insecurity, gender-based wage disparity, and several other workplace issues. 

A sit-in organised as part of the Right to Sit movement by Penkoottu and AMTU in SM Street, Kozhikode, Kerala on May 1, 2014.
Image credit: AMTU Kerala

“Is there any law that states that workers can sit at the workplace, is what the authorities asked when a meeting was convened on behalf of the labour commission when we protested for the right to sit in 2014,” Viji P, popularly known as Viji Penkoottu, the founder and secretary of Penkoottu and AMTU told me as she spoke about the movement. “We responded to it, asking them if there is any law that prohibits us from sitting,” she continued. 

This was the nature of the authorities’ response when the movement raised the issue for the first time, and it was Penkoottu’s continuous struggle that led to the implementation of the law. 

The protest at Kalyan Sarees, Thrissur

The movement was taken up later in December 2014 by six saleswomen of Kalyan Sarees, a major textile showroom in Thrissur in Kerala, under the aegis of AMTU. They organised a sit-in protest in front of the textile showroom. Though their protest was mainly focused on their transfer to a different showroom because they had joined the trade union, AMTU, the strike that lasted for more than 100 days shed light on the exploitations in the textile showroom. It addressed several workplace issues, including being not allowed to sit, meagre wages, long working hours without a break, and imposing fines for leaning against the wall, talking, and taking toilet breaks beyond the specified number. 

“There was nothing like seats or chairs for us to sit at the shop and tired by standing, we used to sit at the toilets steps when we go to the toilets or during the lunch break. We thought about all these exploitations when we heard about the Right to Sit protest initiated by Penkoottu and AMTU and joined the trade union. We were also concerned about the gender-based wage gap and thought unionising would help us fight our rights. But the textile management transferred six of us from our home location to Thiruvanathapuram where we would have to spend for rent as well, which was not possible with the meagre wages we receive,”

points out Mayadevi when I interviewed her during my fieldwork. She was one of the six employees who took part in the Right to Sit protest at Kalyan Sarees. 

Despite presenting the inhumane and precarious working conditions at textile showrooms through the case of Kalyan Sarees, the movement was not given any attention by the mainstream media but gained immense social media support. “Boycott Kalyan” was trending at that time on Facebook. The social media also critiqued mainstream media for not covering the protest and the exploitations at the textile showroom, citing fear of losing advertisement revenue as the reason. The Facebook supporters of the movement reached the protest site and expressed solidarity to the protestors. After numerous discussions, the sit-in strike was later withdrawn when the management agreed to take back the protesting workers. 

Employees at another textile centre later took up the movement to address several workplace issues. This continuous struggle led to the Kerala government’s amendment of the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act in 2018.

Digital support in the organisation and mobilisation of the movement

While the mobilisation of the movement in its initial stage took place through the door-to-door campaigning in shops conducted by the members of AMTU and Penkoottu in Kozhikode in 2014, the activists who come and go within the organisation articulated the need for the movement and why they are protesting with the aid of a blog, titled, “Asamghatitham”. It mainly carried the content of the pamphlets and newsletters that were distributed among the public and other posts detailing the essence of the movement.

The movement received immense support from activists in Facebook during the Kalyan Sarees protest. Apart from this, the Facebook pages of Penkoottu and AMTU Kerala, though not that much active, also carried out campaigns at all the stages of the movement to mobilise support. Currently, the organisation is making use of WhatsApp groups to mobilise and organise campaigns in this regard. The organisation has WhatsApp groups respectively for Penkoottu and AMTU members, and an additional group for Penkoottu comprising feminists and activists across the state and uses the groups to provide information about the campaigns it conducts. Through WhatsApp groups, the organisation mobilised its members for a campaign in association with the International Labour Day in May 2019 to make the right to sit a norm in workplaces and ensure that the right is protected.   

Penkoottu campaign
Image credit: Anila Backer A P

The struggle to make Right to Sit a norm in shops 

Despite the implementation of the law, the organisation continues with the movement to make it a norm as it has not been put into practice in the majority of the shops in Kerala. During the campaign it conducted in May, 2019 in Kozhikode, in which I participated, apart from creating awareness among the workers and employers, we also checked whether the shops are providing seating arrangements for the workers to sit and notified the authorities about those who are not implementing the law. Though seating arrangements are being provided in many shops and workers are encouraged to sit occasionally, it was evident through the campaign and the checking that most employers haven’t taken the law seriously and are not ready to implement it. The workers who are afraid of losing their job supported their employers, saying that they have no restriction in sitting, although the lack of seating arrangements communicated that the right is still being violated.

This situation further raises concerns on the assurance of the right in Tamil Nadu as well. However, this does not negate the fact that the introduction of the bill itself is a revolutionary move. But it needs to be put into practice and for that, workers need to be aware of their rights and must again stand for it. Let’s hope that the situation will change soon and the workers will avail their rights and protection of the law. 

Anila Backer A P is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad. She works on gender and social movements. Her research interests lies on women’s movements, movement performances, gender, feminist communication studies and spatiality.  She had been working as a reporter with The New Indian Express before joining University of Hyderabad. 


Women in Digital – the organization that has trained thousands of female coders in Bangladesh

[By Jamil Wyne]

Greater inclusion in the technology sector – specifically ensuring that women and other under-represented groups can find gainful employment within it and make meaningful contributions to the sector – is predicated on building computing capacity of these demographics. Teaching coding skills, and broadening individuals’ exposure to digital industries writ large is a critical first step to achieving this reality.

Achia Nila is the founder of Women in Digital, a hybrid coding academy and digital agency based in Bangladesh, with operations throughout the country. WiD is 100% female owned and run. The academy exclusively trains female coders in Bangladesh and has also built a small presence in Nepal. Nila founded the company in 2013 in response to the large underrepresentation of females pursuing computer engineering jobs in the country. An engineer herself, Nila worked in the industry for nine years and during this time observed a dearth of women entering this field, a lingering challenge in the journey towards gender equity in the country, as well as a missed opportunity to cultivate talent and generate returns from it. As she ventured down her own career path, time and again she sought to employ female engineers, but often found the talent pool minimal. 

Achia Nila
Image credit: Achia Nila/WiD

Thus, Nila and her team at WiD endeavor to empower women with computer engineering training and give them an opportunity to command better salaries as well as more senior, influential positions in their companies. 

WiD has a multi-pronged strategy that goes beyond simply building skill sets and helping women find jobs in the technology sector. In addition to its core mission, WiD is also an advisor and mentor for universities and employers, helping to raise awareness on both the need to educate women in the computer science space, as well as the business sense it makes to hire them. “When I started my computer engineering degree my mother had no idea what this career track could look like, so she was not able to guide me in my university,” Nila says. She hopes that as a byproduct of the training, women who have completed the courses can help guide their own daughters down the road to become engineers as well.

Here is how the model works: Women receive training in a wide range of digital and technological areas and then can join WiD’s adjacent digital agency, which carries out outsourced projects for various clients both in and outside of Bangladesh. All training until 2018 was given for free, and the trainings were financed through WiD’s digital agency (which serves as a digital outsourcing hub for companies), as well as grant funding. After 2018 Nila created a policy wherein students who could pay may do so, but those who couldn’t pay were enrolled for free. WiD has its own curriculum, which begins with soft skills training, digital skills training and English language training. From there, they progress into more advanced teaching, focusing on Java, Python, and other programming languages. WiD then gives the students internships, and can also help guide them negotiate the freelance market.

After the training, most graduates want to work in the large cities, though Nila wants to decentralize their graduate network so that women can work throughout the country, and thus WiD can expand its impact nationally. To help in this decentralization process, WiD has established five different training locations throughout Bangladesh. Each area offers different types of employment opportunities once students finish their training. For instance, in Dhaka, many graduates go on to work in digital agencies, including WiD’s, and are often in roles that require higher English proficiency levels. However, in rural areas jobs require less English language skills, and often focus on the e-commerce industry. Nila says that e-commerce has been particularly popular in rural areas because graduates living outside of urban areas (while often being less aware of the possibilities of work in the tech sector) have an easier time understanding the value of the e-commerce vertical in general, and thus are more open to enrolling in training programs, with the belief that it will lead to tangible job opportunities. 

WiD training program
Image credit: Achia Nila/WiD

Many women join WiD’s digital agency following completion of the coding program. Nila cites their motto “empowerment through technology” and explains that women in urban areas have been most receptive to embracing this motto, as they are often more aware of career paths in tech industries. Contrastingly, women in rural areas tend to be less aware of the value, as well as pathway, to finding jobs in this sector. Additionally, other reasons including few role models for women in the tech sector and general cultural norms that limit females’ role in the labour market have also been found to contribute to such barriers in similar contexts. Given this confluence of challenges, Nila and her team have to allocate more time to simply educating potential students and employees in rural areas on the benefits of pursuing this line of work. 

WiD’s impact to date is significant. Nila and her team have facilitated access to 7,000 jobs (both full-time and part-time, as well as with WiD’s agency and external employers), opened up five training centers that have trained more than 10,000 women. The company has helped to place women in roles ranging from software and web and mobile app developers and are now expanding into game creation as well. They have also trained 500 women and girls in Nepal. And Nila is far from finished. She is keen to build on the progress of the Nepal training program and to bring WiD’s services to more countries, while also continuing to promote women’s empowerment through technology training in her home country. 

However, the two largest mountains that Nila and WiD still have to climb concern the need to educate local populations and employers of the value of WiD’s work, as well as build a financially sustainable model. Regarding the first priority area, Nila says “Often I feel that what I am doing in Bangladesh is still underestimated by people in the country.” International clients tend to understand WiD’s mission and value-add better than locals. The market still might not be ready to absorb the female engineers. We have not gotten any local or government support, but we have received a lot of international support.”

While she does not face much, if any, interference locally either, simply convincing the market ­ e.g. women, their families, employers and universities ­ that WiD’s mission and vision are a worthwhile endeavor, is an ongoing hurdle. Achieving financial sustainability, another lingering challenge to date, can also help in this capacity, as building a profitable business model can contribute to building both legitimacy and long-term prospects for WiD. In doing so, women may also see that the “the stigma surrounding women working as engineers” as Nila puts it, is no longer an issue as this field can lead to enriching job prospects. Perhaps most importantly, by breaking down this stigma WiD is helping to lay a foundation from which the women who enroll in its programs receive relevant training that provides them with a skill set that they can use to immediately acquire, as well as sustain, gainful employment. Successful completion of the program can empower the women, enabling them to play an active role in their local economies, while also setting a precedent for others to follow in their footsteps. By giving Bangladesh’s women a versatile, in-demand expertise, WiD plays a key role in gradually shifting the landscape, as well as conversation, around gender equity and economic empowerment in the country.

Jamil Wyne is a fellow in New America’s International Security program. Wyne was previously a Senior Advisor at 17 Asset Management, an asset management company supporting the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Throughout his career he has specialized in emerging market development and investment, with a concentration on tech startups and social enterprises. Wyne has worked with the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, Ashoka, and Mercy Corps and has advised multiple governments, impact investment funds, and tech startups on strategy, partnerships, and research. He also founded the Wamda Research Lab, a research program for entrepreneurship in MENA, and a part of Wamda Capital, the region’s largest VC fund. He served as a Fulbright Fellow in Syria and Jordan, is currently a Truman National Security Fellow, and is on the advisory committees for several tech startups and social enterprises. He publishes often on the topics of emerging market entrepreneurship, social innovation, and impact investment, which have been featured or cited in in SSIR, WEF, McKinsey, World Bank and Wharton publications, as well as university curricula. He has an MA from Johns Hopkins SAIS, an MBA from INSEAD, and a BA from Bowdoin College.


Ethical consumerism: Gig economy’s road ahead

[By Brinda Gupta]

“PM Modi announces a 21-day nation-wide lockdown as COVID-19 toll touches 12” read the headlines of the Hindu newspaper on March 24th, 2020.

Offices indefinitely closed, shops shut, and gatherings banned. People pushed into their homes, unknown of what will happen next. A mask, a sanitizer, and a six-foot distance became the new normal. Drones captured images of roads that, once congested with traffic, were now empty. On the front, these empty roads portrayed a country fighting a catastrophe. But what remained unseen and unheard were the many in its backyard fighting another battle – a battle of survival. Amongst those who fought for their livelihood in a dwindling economy were India’s 8 million + gig workers. Soon news emerged of these workers going on strikes and demanding relief from companies as they lost their earnings with the diminished demand during the national lockdown.

One might ask, who are these workers and what is their story? Well, here it is.

Meet Digambar Bansal, a 40-year-old man, who migrated and joined Ola to benefit from improved financial prospects promised by these ride-hailing firms. Unemployment and past abysmal working conditions with meager monthly incomes of INR 15000 (USD 200) contributed to his motivation, like many others, to join the platform. In the early stages of these unicorns, he claimed to have earned INR 90,000 (USD 1,200) a month in an interview with Mumbai Mirror. This led him to purchase vehicles and auxiliaries through third-party credits in hopes of an uplifted livelihood. This illusion, however, was short-lasting.

In recent years, his earnings have declined to INR 20,000-30,000 (USD 270-400) per month. With an EMI (equated monthly installment) of INR 10,000 (USD 135) and fuel worth Rs 500 (USD 6.75), along with car maintenance, Bansal faced difficulties in making ends meet back home. “Half of my income goes towards paying my EMI, and with what remains, I am torn between either providing for my family or spending on the car’s maintenance. We drivers are in a terrible state financially’’ claimed another driver, Thorat, aged 36, in the same interview with Mumbai Mirror.

From dreams to debts

These stories of drivers like Bansal and Thorat are not exceptional but represent the experiences of numerous drivers engaged with these platforms. The entry of ride-hailing firms accelerated the growth of the gig economy – a labour market characterized by freelance work through contracts or platforms. These firms hired workers like Bansal in enormous numbers by creating a pseudo formal sector based on volatile incentives and incomes. However, over the years, increased fuel costs, decreased rates per kilometre, and withdrawal of incentives have contributed to drivers’ financial attenuation. Yet, despite these setbacks, drivers have continued to work for the platform as they find themselves with principal repayments and increasing interests to pay for investments incurred on these false hopes given. Unfortunately, the financial distress does not end here.

Drivers like Bansal are gig workers termed as “partners” of the firms who utilize the platform to connect with customers and provide services. Hence, they are not considered company employees and are devoid of social security provisions like health care. Although firms have claimed to provide insurances, the on-ground reality speaks a different story. 95.3% of respondents stated to have no form of insurance in a survey carried out in November 2019. It also noted that if drivers do have insurance, many were unaware of its possession or how to claim it. Furthermore, like Bansal, many drivers are married, thus bearing the responsibility of their families. After accounting for costs and basic needs, these drivers are left with little to invest in health and education – a dimension of their life to which they solely contribute. At a time when these drivers were already struggling to make ends meet, their financial despair was intensified with the sudden enforcement of the national lockdown in March 2020 as COVID-19 struck India.

The economy came to a standstill, and demand for cabs dwindled. The Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) carried out four surveys from March-June 2020, which recorded that the drivers’ average weekly income commencing April 15 was less than INR 2500(USD 33). The Reserve Bank of India extended the moratorium till August 31st 2020 but did not waive off the interest. Similarly, funds set up by the ride-hailing firms were limited to the cost of disease or necessary supplies and did not include finances like EMIs. This piling interest compelled drivers to work in a low-demand economy, exposing themselves to the virus, despite being devoid of health insurance and sick leaves. Many drivers feared getting infected, not because of deteriorating health concerns but because it meant missing out on weekly earnings to cover the debts. The first wave of COVID-19 pandemic exposed that being sick is also a luxury not everyone can afford.

Gendered hope through legal reform

Amidst this upheaval came a ray of hope for these drivers as the government announced the Social Security Code 2020, the first law to recognize gig and platform workers formally. Under the code, the government aims to set up a social security fund for these workers. The aggregators have also been instructed to contribute 1-2% of their annual turnover towards the fund. Moreover, the National Social Security Board will act for the gig workers and platform workers under this code instead of only unorganized workers in the 2019 bill.

Although this initialization of labour laws depicts recognition of a long-ignored community, the sector’s small community of women who have been further pushed back during the Pandemic are yet to be recognized.

The affliction runs deeper as one takes a bird-eye view and notices the differentiated gender access to these gig platforms. The primary reason behind the sector’s low engagement of women is the initial investment in vehicles. A report by Aapti institute ­ an institute that generates policy-relevant accessible knowledge to support the creation of a fair and equitable society ­ noted that women often relied on family savings for initial funding as opposed to third-party loans due to inaccessibility to lenders. Obstacles that further hinder their investment in vehicles are unplanned pregnancies and care of families, which halt the earnings required to cover interests and EMIs. Moreover, mechanisms for safety and protection against harassment when going to unknown locations to pick up customers have not been ensured. 

It is vital that these labour laws provide resources to help women get back on their feet as they can no longer rely on family savings, which have been exhausted during the pandemic. Measures to boost their entry, like maternity leave and extension of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013, should be carried out as security at workplace is a right of every individual. Lastly, channels to ensure women can use the social security funds at their discretion need to be implemented. 

For the larger community of gig workers, some aspects of the code require further work. A clearer distinction between gig and platform workers is required as presently workers engaged in these platforms can be categorized as both. Moreover, to obtain the benefits, the central government requires workers’ digital registration and regular update of details –  a digital know-how many workers do not possess. It has also bifurcated social security measures for the centre and state, making the implementation difficult for the workers to understand. These drawbacks are impediments that need to be tackled to complement the government’s mission to formalize the platform economy and make the new labour laws indispensable towards ensuring workers’ social security. 

From consumers to contributors

One can now say thatthe gig economy is evolving. However, these labour law initiatives are being financed by the government and companies through a fixed annual contribution. Consumers, the demand driving force of the economy­, have long ridden on the competition-fuelled low-cost ride-hailing firm services. To sustain upliftment, a partial cost shift to consumers is required. However, they are not moral actors who will arbitrarily accept appreciated prices. Hence, necessitating incorporation of novel means by stakeholders mentioned to persuade consumers in order to annually increase the monetary social security contribution and witness a long-term change is a must.

Image credit: Noel Tock

In general, consumers tend to humanize frontline employees and feel compassionate towards them. Hence, we suggest that ride-hailing firms should add a personal touch to their app by providing more than basic driver details such as a short introduction and family background, hence humanizing them more to facilitate a better connection ­ a priming effect to persuade consumers to contribute. Contribute for what? For example, Zomato under its Feed India initiative automatically rounds off the bill with the balance amount going to its Feed India fund – an optional tip that consumers have the autonomy to remove. However, this mechanism provides a nudge to consumers to contribute rather than simply asking them if they wish to tip or not. These ride-hailing firms can incorporate a similar structure with proceeds going to workers’ social security. This is the first step towards monetary consumer contribution, an optional one – since no company in this era of market capitalization would risk permanently increasing cost and losing market share. However, in the long run, upliftment can thrive only when partial permanent cost is shifted towards consumers, requiring other stakeholders to help burst consumers’ bubble of the cab-aggregator economy.

What role stakeholders have to burst this bubble?

Research suggests that consumers’ positive attitude towards gig labour can be due to make-believe worker-consumer interaction imperative to maintain favourable ratings, thus obscuring consumers’ view of workers’ experience. This holds importance as a consumer’s perception of working conditions affects their intention to both, use and recommend a service. Moreover, research notes that ethical labour practices often can command a greater monetary consideration from consumers in markets. Hence, we call for organizations and trade unions to voice stories of these workers to create consumer awareness and elicit an empathetic consumer response. Also, to support companies to devise ways of charging premium by promoting investment in labour practices as the reason behind the price appreciation. Further, to help them recognise socially conscious groups of their customer segment. A study suggests that women and educated people are particularly socially conscious; hence these companies could benefit from such segments suggestively through means of optional higher surge from corporate cabs and cab-for-women initiatives. Lastly, for the government to ensure proceeds from implementation of phased partial dispersal of burden on consumers go towards upliftment of workers only.

It is time to employ a sustainable long-term solution to uplift the lives of workers like Thorat and Bansal. On this road ahead, ethical consumerism would be the turning point to help them overcome the hurdles of this pseudo-formal economy and go the next mile!


No Woman’s Land: Female Cab Drivers On Indian Roads

[By Pallavi Bansal]

The traditional taxis have always remained heavily male-dominated, but female drivers have always posed a serious threat to the long-established ideas of patriarchy and masculinity.

“If you are driving, I need to check my insurance,” “Will you be able to reverse the car? And what about parking? Do you need me to do it for you?” “Why are you using both hands on the steering wheel and leaning forward?” “Please concentrate on the road. I don’t want to die,” “Oh, there is a woman driving behind us. Let’s check her out,” “I am sure a woman is driving this car because its moving slower than a bullock cart.”

If you are a woman, that too an Indian, you must have been subjected to these stereotypical statements, often masquerading as ‘jokes’, at some point in your life. And not to forget the frequent stares and the occasional honking if you slow down your vehicle.

Read the full article at Outlook India.


The future of development innovation and finance is feminist

[By Ramona Liberoff]

Over more than 25 years of working in innovation and impact, I came to two conclusions: the first is that our public and international finance system needed significant reform for a more just world. The second is that despite the welcome appearance of female leaders like Christine Lagarde and Kristalina Giorgieva, the first women to lead two of the most powerful public finance institutions, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the investment agenda needs to follow at all levels. While both Lagarde and Giorgieva have been outspoken about the need to ‘build back better,’ and have mentioned women, low wage workers, and climate in ways their predecessors did not, they lead large organisations whose working practices and resource allocation do not always align with the ambition or rhetoric at the top.

I started my career in the mid 1990s in corporate innovation. Innovation – an overused word – in this context meant taking a consumer product and figuring out how to price it and market it to more buyers. Fifteen or so years later, I was working with large multinationals and their teams all over the world. Something kept bugging me: the places and the things that needed innovation most weren’t getting new solutions or attention, while there was all this brutal competition and stupendous talent busy launching another brand of toothpaste or mobile phone tariff.

Image credit: pxfuel

I wanted to know who was working on innovations to increase access and lower the cost of affordable energy, clean water, health care, education, and all the other things the world needed most. While there were small social innovation or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) units in my client’s companies, they usually had no more than ten people. They would control very little budget directly, amounts less than promotional fees for new shampoo.  I also noticed that majority of decision-makers were men, even though their teams of employees were women, and most expected consumers.  Finally, though the companies were global and the workforce international, most people came from the highest, best educated elites-and had never known poverty. It was rare for them to take an interest in making a product more affordable or a business model more inclusive.

In 2010 I left big corporate and went to work for a new kind of company, an “impact business,” that delivered an innovation to connect the more than a billion people who did not have access to mobile phones, particularly women, smallholder farmers and merchants and other excluded or non-urban populations in Africa and Asia.

Given the size of the problem – and the opportunity – I started to get curious about how all these innovations and innovative companies developing solutions to meet fundamental needs get funded. That’s when I learned about development finance: its history, its present, and the fact that it’s not doing the job of funding much of what the world needs most.

What is the definition and history of development finance?

Most countries in the Global North, particularly Western Europe, Scandinavia, the US, Canada, and Australia, have had long standing commitments to provide 0.7% of their GDP toward international development. The history of this target is often aspirational and subject to political whim. There is even an article on most common criticisms at Britannica.

There is something strange about previous colonisers giving back a fraction of what they took from their colonies and calling it “aid”.

Leaving aside any political or philosophical challenges about strategy, power or objectivity in development spending, there is also a very practical one: is the money being spent in the most effective way? Critics like Owen Barder have pointed out that the answer is no.

These funds are much more important now than ever before to meet the world’s Sustainable Development Goals. Development finance money from wealthy countries is supposed to de-risk investment in poorer ones so that private sector money can follow along, which we need in to move ‘billions’ (public money) to ‘trillions’ (private money).

There are a few issues with this setup. For a start, development finance money is fundamentally yours and my money from taxes, but citizens rarely have a visibility or a say in how it’s spent. The organisations who administer this budget are often caught between two paradigms: use money to achieve outcomes or use it to achieve financial returns. The development banks often have charters that do not allow for them to take risk. Therefore, the innovative high growth start-ups go unfunded, while public money invests in what are already good investments, just in geographies less well served by private investors: bridges or power plants, not an edtech start-up. Whole sets of the sustainable development goals are underfunded: for instance, landscape restoration, because the business models and established practices of the development banks do not know how to invest in them.

Changing how this works is difficult, as there is little diversity in the development finance talent pool, and few people who challenge how it works from the inside. The management is usually recruited from mainstream finance organisations, is the elite of the population, and is not required to consult diverse voices from the countries in question about what they want. Economic development is seen as a good in itself. While finance is needed to transition the infrastructure of countries in critical areas as health systems, infrastructure, energy (increasingly although not yet exclusively renewable), and governance, the process of getting it there is more technocratic than democratic.

Why should we as citizens care about development finance?

First, it’s our money, raised from the tax base, which as the recent ProPublica investigation shows, comes disproportionately from our earnings rather than from the wealthy or from businesses. Second, the development budget has often been used as a wrecking ball by the media or political interest without much knowledge about how it is actually being used or how effective it is and without disclosure of the raft of benefits that accrue from its spend to the country. Many ‘aid’ departments have now been folded in under a ‘trade’ department, as in the Australian creation of AusAID and the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO). This leaves the development finance organisations with less support to figure out how their investments matter beyond financial risk and return.

More than anything, money is power. If we want to develop a new paradigm of how to use power wisely, we need to distinguish between classic, narrow investment logic of risk and return, to a much richer, restorative, and participative kind of finance – one which is respectful of what communities want and keeps the long term in mind. This would mean shifting toward investing in regenerative agriculture rather than food processing plants, in climate adaptation rather than energy generation, and in education and skills.

How can development finance be more feminist?

The post COVID recovery gives us an opportunity to re-include voices and perspectives that are often left out of the discussion. Good development finance should serve the citizens and the future over the investors. The benefit of these innovations accrues to us all: with better resilience, countries would avoid conflicts over resources exacerbated by climate change such as water and food security. Greater access to opportunities can be delivered by technology and entrepreneurship. Stronger and more transparent governance of capital markets can strengthen weak states. Financial inclusion and innovation would allow those not in the country’s elite circles access to finance.

Image credit: Claude Renault / Wikimedia

And why is this more feminist? At a working session for Finance in Common, feminist finance is defined as “challenging the status quo to rethink systems and unlock possibilities for transformative change that is inclusive and sustainable.”

The feminist future would see more community involvement in the design and deployment of development finance, more visibility and critique of the current practice, and more funding for grounded entrepreneurs and innovators whose goal is inclusion.

In conclusion…

Whatever finance we provide from public institutions needs to be just, future-oriented, and climate smart. In the areas of innovative and blended finance (the combination of public and private finance) and social enterprise, the majority of practitioners are female. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I believe those outside the system are best placed to question it and come up with alternatives that work better for more people. Now, we just need the money and the power to follow.

Ramona Liberoff is Lead, Strategic Initiatives at Roots of Impact. Roots of Impact is a specialized advisory firm dedicated to making finance work for positive impact on people and planet. We collaborate closely with public funders and impact investors across the globe to scale high-performing enterprises and innovations with strong potential for impact.

Before joining Roots of Impact, Ramona had been CEO of SPRING Accelerator, supporting nearly 80 companies to innovate products and services to improve the lives of millions of adolescent girls in Africa and South Asia, Senior Vice President at Nielsen Innovation, working with Unilever and a team of over 600 innovation experts, and a founder of several start-ups and investor and advisor to many more, including Drinkwell in Bangladesh, Civocracy in Germany, and The Dots and Thermify in the UK. Her passions are people, climate, and innovation to create better futures for both. She holds masters’ degrees from the London School of Economics and Yale University and lives in Berlin.


“The support has to come from home”: Evidence-based assessment of platform work in India

[By Sreelakshmi Ramachandran]

When considering the strategies for India’s economic rebound, it is imprudent to overlook the potential of the wider digital economy, as this all-pervasive technology has altered urban landscapes and living in the last decade in the country. An explosive combination of cheap handsets, lowest data costs in the world and rapid advances in vernacular language processing, has led us to this moment. Therefore, a platform economy of service providers and users can prove to be a robust vehicle for post-pandemic growth. Platform sectors span mobility, logistics, home improvement, beauty & wellness and many others, and the workers deriving their livelihoods from these jobs stand to gain from the safety and hygiene measures put in place to transition to an economy opening up.

Mahalakshmi is a Bangalore citizen in her mid-thirties. Her greatest joys are her ability to support herself in life and driving. She is a partner with a ride-hailing aggregator service in India, and regularly takes up trips in her self-owned sedan during the night – at least, till the pandemic hit and lockdowns and other restrictions were put in place. Through her children, whom she has enrolled in ICSE schools (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education; a school syllabus regarded as more competitive, elite and expensive by India’s mean income standards) to attain world-class education, she vicariously lives her unfulfilled academic dreams that ended in high school. Mahalakshmi represents many platform-entrepreneurs, especially women workers, whose lives have been transformed by the digital revolution and advent of the platform economy in India.

Women like Mahalakshmi still are a rarity in the mobility platform economy of India, despite best efforts directed at increasing representation of women in unconventional jobs like driving or delivery work. In the Indian society, conservative dictums situate women’s “proper” place in the domestic sphere, let alone in service jobs like driving which have traditionally been men’s forte. But it is important for women to be ridesharing service providers, from not just the perspective of their economic mobility; it also makes streets safer, mobility more accessible to women, and brings gender parity to public spaces that are otherwise dominated by  men.

Mahalakshmi, who especially enjoys the longer trips outside her regular city beat, is one of an even rarer group, but signals a shift of gears. There is an active effort by digital mobility platforms tailored towards skilling women in such jobs, mediating their financial access to improve their chances at micro-entrepreneurship through the platform economy, and in acknowledging that structural changes – such as hygienic public restrooms and gender-sensitised traffic police, toll booth operators, male drivers, etc. – are needed. By increasing women’s public participation in this sector, social change is expected to follow.

Apart from the mobility economy, women platform entrepreneurs are found in the services of home-based spa and salon service providers. Women in India are regarded as primary caregivers of their families, and the conventional job market also prioritises women providers for services such as healthcare, primary education, childcare, geriatric care, or beauty work. Replicating such historic trends in care work, but with greater pay, perks and flexibility than available in any other type of jobs, women have found lucrative opportunities in the at-home services platform, and stand to gain the most when the economy reopens post-COVID: Platforms are prioritising partner vaccinations, compliance with COVID-Appropriate Behaviour (CAB) and ensuring safety and hygiene for all actors.

Image credit: Jorge Royan / Wikimedia

The Ola Mobility Institute (OMI) has undertaken extensive research on the Indian digital platform economy and documented trends across urban services sectors that are now online; primarily, the digital economy of services is found in mobility, e-commerce & logistics, on-demand food delivery and at-home services, including home maintenance and salon services. Platform companies focus on matching skilled professionals with urban consumers in need of their services, and essentially act as digital intermediaries or online marketplaces. OMI studies the Future of Work from the prism of platform partners as micro-entrepreneurs, while fully accounting for nuances in a market like India where the conventional economy has a high number of self-employed workers and an even higher proportion of wage workers. These trends are replicated within platform relationships, and makes for a comparative study between work in and outside of the platform economy.

In the report, “Unlocking Jobs in the Platform Economy: Propelling India’s post-Covid Recovery”, OMI has collected primary data and presents the trends in the mobility platform economy in mid-2019; it shows how pre-pandemic, workers associated with platforms consistently supported more dependents than those outside of it, earned a higher income based on hours inputted, accessed finance and bought assets for the sharing economy, all different from the trends spotted in the traditional economy. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the resultant economic shutdown, platform workers have accessed more immediate relief, welfare nets and found work in emergency response operations coordinated by platform companies, thus securing incomes in albeit small ways.

A platform-led recovery from the economic effects of COVID-19 cases surging in 2021 can be realised: combined with meaningful reform, platform work can be made more secure, remunerative and an effective form of micro-entrepreneurship. Self-employment has long been the mainstay of the Indian labour market: the challenge is to prevent it turning exploitative. The study from OMI reveals that self-employment and asset ownership have important roles to play in buoying incomes in and outside the platform economy, and this can be achieved through reforms in the financial sector and lending practices. Driver-partners such as Mahalakshmi also benefit from being asset owners, i.e., owners of the means of their work, such as a vehicle, in the case of the mobility economy, and therefore are able to attain socio-economic mobility rapidly, through the platform economy.

Much of the debate around regulating work hinges on ‘on-the-job-benefits’. Therefore, to achieve universalised social security, well-funded state-led social safety schemes such as family healthcare and small savings for dignified retirement, and beneficiary qualification independent of worker status has to be normalised. This would require the recognition that equitable schemes can be designed only based on:

  • recognising the variety of platform work
  • augmenting social security financing through innovative means (like multi-source funding including civil society contributions)
  • institutionalising scientific methods to design these schemes
  • supporting workers and ensuring benefits reach them,
  • and welfare-state governments like India can lead the charge in effective labour reform.

This is the spirit of the recommendations in the “RAISE framework” captured in OMI’s report on ways to achieve lucrative and secure platform jobs, without burdening the job creator alone.

Women like Mahalakshmi deserve the chance to explore productive micro entrepreneurship. Future of Work is about equitable access and remunerative jobs which accommodate flexible needs without penalising workers with respect to their social security. The digital economy is the perfect testing grounds for such a solution, to benefit skilled workers across the spectrum, and it is time to acknowledge that truly socialised security is the only way to equalise our job market.

Sreelakshmi Ramachandran leads the Future of Work track at the Ola Mobility Institute, where she works on the experience of mobility workers in and outside the platform economy, social security systems and opportunities for mobile-based skilling. She also examines job creation in the light of the sustainability push, as well as financing public infrastructures and asset creation. She holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from IIT-Madras and is interested in all things urban.


Another kind of silk road

[By Arvind Saraf]

Surat, a bustling city on the west coast of India, had been manufacturing silk and cotton since the 1700s. Entrepreneurs (including my family) poured in from all over India from the 1970s onwards, setting up their garment businesses. The city now has more than 40,000 power looms, about 400 dyeing and printing mills, thousands of embellishment units, and tens of thousands of manufacturing traders who work with these units and account for approximately 65% of synthetic fabric production in India. Traders from Surat supply to the wholesale markets in Chandni Chowk in Delhi, Kalba Devi in Mumbai, Bada Bazaar in Kolkata, Chickpet in Bangalore, and most other cities in India.

Dilip Shadeja runs an apparel retail shop named Sindh dresses in Varanasi, India. He buys his supply from the Surat wholesalers, and sells to a mix of existing and new walk-in customers. He is amongst the 18 million small retailers who make up more than 80% of retail in India.

The scale

The apparel industry, from manufacturers, traders and retailers, is dominated by small/medium businesses (SMBs, also referred to as SMEs), traditionally family-owned and run.

The sector is highly competitive, with net margins in single digit percentages. 70% of units in this sector have applied some form of digital tools but only 1% really use deep technology such as IoT, Artificial intelligence or Robotic process automation. While the total value of retail in India is $600 billion, close to $65 billion is lost annually due to supply chain inefficiencies.

I have had the opportunity to interact with these SMBs due to my family roots in Surat, along with my more recent experience of 8 years as an entrepreneur. The stress, challenge, and fear of survival amongst these SMBs is very real.

Relevant technology and digital solutions promise viability, survival, and growth of the businesses. More than any time in the past, the need and opportunity to adopt these tools is now.

The nature of business

Apparel manufacturing is a multi-step process, starting with raw material (natural or synthetic yarn) that gets woven into fabric, dyed, or printed, optionally embellished with surface work (e.g. embroidery, stonework, or handwork) and stitched. A trading manufacturer (esp. SMB) works on the designs to make and sell under his trade name, take the corresponding inventory risk, but often outsources many of the above manufacturing steps to other vendors or suppliers. Traditional SMB Apparel trading is low margin, with net margins in single digit percentages.

Image credit: PxHere

Apparel trading is inventory led – which means a business must buy the inventory before it can be sold. Most of these businesses (retailers or wholesalers) do not have access to institutional credit. They depend on their known supplier (wholesaler or manufacturer) to sell to them on credit with an agreed payment period. The payment credit period allows the buying trader the time to sell the product and repay back the supplier. The supplier makes the credit decision based on the buyer’s prior payment history or feedback from the other suppliers known to him (‘references’). A retailer with a period of poor sales could default on his payment to his supplying wholesaler, which may cascade these defaults to the manufacturing trader and their vendors. The credit risk limits the supplier options and hence design choices for the buyer.

Various auxiliary processes, critical to the industry, such as logistics, warehousing, marketing material creation (i.e. photo studios and printing) are also highly SMB dominated.

The opportunity

There are various business processes that must be run timely and efficiently, with minimal wastage for these businesses to be viable:

  1. Production and supply:
    1. Purchase of raw material or finished goods, aligned with planned production or projected sales.
    2. Coordination of work-in-progress inward or outward, including material requirement planning.
    3. Planning the usage and production of machines with the workforce.
  2. Marketing, sales, and distribution:
    1. Keeping existing customers (and new) informed of new products, inventory status, offers and discounts in a real time way; enabling buyers to track order dispatch and logistics status.
    2. Reaching out to new buyers, be they businesses or end customers.
    3. Assessing credit worthiness of buyers, including reference checks. Payment receivable tracking, starting with capturing trade terms and follow up on it.

Digitization opens the prospect of better tracking, visibility, and thus better decisions. Currently,

software to digitize above processes may not exist or are often entity-specific and not interoperable. Therefore, information gaps between the different companies remain.

Technology for social impact has been talked about for more than two decades, from the early wave of affordable computing (~2000-2005, e.g. MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop per Child, Simputer), improved communication around SMS (~2005-2010), to internet’s increased reach (e.g. growth of e-commerce). However, the opportunity now is much more real.

People have computing and connectivity in their hands, and they have been using it to further their business, with about 1 million businesses using WhatsApp to share product catalogue images, ledgers or general selling. Goods & Services Tax in 2016 and now COVID-19 has expedited the need to go digital. A decade ago, most apparel SMBs looked at technology startup innovation space as a separate world, not making sense to them, not applicable to them. Now, many look at it with curiosity, as a way out of challenges they see.

Mobile app first platforms now are enabling the following:

  1. B2B marketplaces, allowing manufacturers to list their products and retailers to buy from them. This allows global product discovery by the retailers, while also expanding reach and visibility of these businesses. Existing buyers can also see better retention.
  2. Enabling newer and lower fixed cost forms of retail. E-commerce has promised to take away some of the inventory risks, rental, and fixed costs from the merchants, but has not delivered financial viability yet. Social commerce is seeing innovation and adoption with similar promise.
  3. Enabling businesses to manage their existing channel sales better through technology and data. The channel could include direct customers, businesses, or a network of salesmen.
  4. SaaS (statistical software) solutions for businesses to manage some part of supply or book-keeping, tightly coupled to their buyers or suppliers use of WhatsApp.
  5. Platforms aggregating the highly fragmented logistics providers catering to this industry.
  6. Factoring out credit / working capital friction from the businesses by using prior transactions and references, beyond those used by banks and financial institutions.

Indian manufacturing and retail (overall, not limited to apparel) is different from North America, Europe or even China, but similar to most other emerging markets. SMBs are significant employment generators but now need technology driven efficiencies to survive. Technology products that work for India now have a much larger opportunity to deliver core impact globally. The success of some early startups is a sign of a promising future.

Arvind Saraf is a Computer scientist (trained at IIT, MIT & Google) and a Technology entrepreneur. He spent a decade setting up impact technology ventures in India – including co-founded a Ratan Tata backed healthcare social tech venture (Swasth India), digitized a bootstrapped apparel brand (Triveni sarees), and built and scaled a VC backed SMB focussed B2B fashion tech venture, Wishbook. He currently heads Engineering at Drishti – a company using AI to drive continuous improvement in manufacturing.

Blog Series: Re-thinking a crippled society

Re-thinking a crippled society – Part II: Inclusivity

This is the second part of a three-part series by Soumita Basu, a social-development-practitioner-turned-entrepreneur. When she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, Soumita’s 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.

Slipping through the shades of oblivion

[By Soumita Basu]

It was a day like any other, until it wasn’t. No, not days like just anybody’s. But like ours. The ones in which we have to make umpteen calls if we want to catch up with a friend over coffee. Or plan days in advance if we have to celebrate with a lovely dining out experience. No, our days are not like yours, because everything needs planning – to the last detail. And then not much is left to uncharted experience. I am like anyone else, sometimes wanting to tread carefully, and sometimes just wanting to jive spontaneously. Having to meticulously plan every single outing can be tiring.

I’m tempted to think this need for such extensive (and often, expensive) logistics is due to my disability. It all happens, because I can’t move easily; because I use a wheelchair; because my hands are feeble and crooked, deformed and grip-less. And then, I think again. It’s because ramps are rare; it’s because everyone is expected to be comfortable with the same spoon; it’s because everyone thinks lounging is more comfortable (no! It hurts. It actually hurts most people, irrespective of their disability). And then on such days, I realise that it’s something much more fundamental: it’s about having surroundings that are thoughtful. Its knowing that I’m not ostracised and that people have given me enough thought.

So what really had happened that day?

I had yet another experience where I was told I was asking for a lot of accommodations. Reminders at every step that I’m not really mainstream and am expected to stay on the margins. Yet another experience where I had to claim my space instead of feeling I naturally belong. This surely wasn’t my worst experience but definitely one of the most frustrating. Here’s why: I was invited on this program for my work on inclusion; the program was by an organisation that promotes inclusion, diversity and encourages empowerment. But I felt excluded by someone who claims to be dedicated to the cause of (women’s) empowerment – the main facilitator of this programme and here, we will call her Halodale.

In a snapshot: I was one of the finalists in a program for women entrepreneurs, curated and organised by an agency and one of the leading universities of the world. Due to the pandemic, most of the programme was adapted for an online delivery. After nearly 18 months, the last 3-day segment was held in person. My disabilities, by then, were well known to the organisers. I had been given a lot of spotlight on their social media, for my work and often my lived experience of physical disabilities. Yet, the hall arranged for this 3-day meeting was not accessible for me. In fact, when I wasn’t asked if I had any specific needs, I was happy to assume they knew how to ensure inclusion and diversity. It was only when I started asking about some specific accessible needs for the room I had been assigned for my stay (more out of habit!), that I realised no thought had been given to how I would navigate the space. Halodale then just left it to me to contact the venue and make the right arrangements, and I did. Apart from fixing accessibility in my room, I also shifted the meetings to an accessible hall within the same grounds. There was such a space; the organisers had only to ask.

When suddenly faced with it all, Halodale only asked me this: “Would you like to stay in your room when the women entrepreneurs’ group goes out for dinner together? It’s a part of the agenda on Day 1 and I don’t know if the restaurant we are going to is accessible, but I will be happy to arrange for your dinner in your room. Would you like me to?”

I felt a bit stumped. I asked her if the objective of the group dinner was networking (extremely important for entrepreneurs). She tried to dodge it initially and then agreed that it would help in networking. However, she insisted that staying back could be an easier option for me. I countered the insistence with a simple offer: I can suggest accessible restaurants if she is willing to consider it. (It wasn’t difficult to find these restaurants as some mobile food apps allows restaurants to mark themselves as accessible and disability-friendly). I sensed reluctance. She had already used some contacts to reserve tables. On probing I found the reservation was without any pre-payment. Although I must admit, even that should not be an obstacle to include a participant. She offered to carry me over any steps we might encounter. Neither my safety, nor my dignity mattered to her. I refused. Finally, she agreed to look for another place based on my suggestion.

After everything was settled, I cried. Ten minutes were washed away by my tears. No, I didn’t feel relieved that I was finally included. I was pained that even where I had made a mark for myself, I still had to fight to be included. I cried because I just went to war to make space for myself, in a place where my existence was already known, where I had earned my spot. I was included in the program, but was far from being integrated.

Can laws enforce integration?

The hotel where the meetings were held boasted of four stars. To ensure it retains all its stars, it had to abide by the laws passed under Right of Persons with Disabilities Act (2016). It had mobile ramps. They are always quickly hidden away as soon as a wheelchair crossed over it; brought out only when another wheelchair user asks for it and patiently waits for it to arrive. The ramps are so steep that no wheelchair user would be able to wheel herself up or down the ramp. In fact, they’re too steep even for a comfortable walk. At many places, there were heavy glass doors which could only be swung open manually. They had only one disability-friendly room and they couldn’t offer a hard mattress there. They explained that they only had hard mattresses the size of a single bed, and the disability friendly room had a double bed. People with lower back issues usually prefer hard mattresses. The hotel didn’t consider that, just like it ignored all other accessibility needs. This is not just a matter of empathy. It is bad business. What business sense does it make to spend on ramps that don’t do the job?

Image credit: Mahesh Basedia

Even some of the top hotels I have been to across the country, had similar issues. Every one of them had only one room designed as a disability-friendly room. Yet, none of these special rooms were actually disability-friendly. None of them considered many disabilities like blindness and deafness. Mobility impairment was the main focus and even for that, the rooms were not fully accessible. I could hear the walls whisper the underlying assumption in every design. The designer didn’t expect a person with disabilities to travel independently. They are always expected to be escorted.

From disogyny to kindness

Like me, you may be wondering as well why all rooms are not disability-friendly. Wouldn’t it be easier for other guests, too? Those with a slipped disc, lower back ache, knee pain, sore neck (I can go on). Wouldn’t it be easier for the elderly? Wouldn’t it make more business sense to offer more comfort, especially in the luxury hospitality sector? If all rooms were disability-friendly, we wouldn’t have to frantically ask for it. We wouldn’t feel so ‘different’, so ‘special’. You can design to integrate, you can design to include, or you can design to disable.

So, why are these very evolved businesses not making enough business sense? Probably for the same reason Halodale was not very inclusive even as she works for the inclusion of women. Shrinath, a dear friend, calls it the problem of ‘disogyny’. We have coined this word to mean the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against people with disabilities. It enforces ableism by punishing those who reject an inferior status for people with disabilities.

Disogyny is systemically fanned. It has strong roots in our socialisation which emphasises homogeneity. We are made to think all our wants and needs are same and any difference is stigmatised. How often do we ask our guests if they have any food allergies before serving them? The person with allergies is expected to proactively ask and often gets something completely different from others, often served much before or after others. This is a small example from everyday life that shows how deeply the notion of uniformity is entrenched in us. It gives rise to assumptions, which we think are universal truths. But there is only one universal truth: kindness. Kindness doesn’t assume. It only asks “how can I help?”. Having that space to ask for help, the way you need and want it, is real empowerment.

While laws can help to push infrastructure to be inclusive, and nudge some thinking, it is people and thoughtfulness that can truly integrate. Thoughtful business is good business.

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.


The case for care as essential infrastructure

[By Sharmi Surianarain and Kate Boydell]

Picture this familiar sight: the political leader in a hard-hat on a construction site, promising public investment in basic infrastructure o create new jobs and unlock wider growth. It’s a photo-op and sound-bite we can expect to see repeatedly in the months ahead as governments around the world seek to reboot their economies, post-COVID. 

But before we shovel money into ‘shovel-ready’ projects, we should pause. Because if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the critical infrastructure that underpins our societies doesn’t always need a hard hat.

Another overlooked, human infrastructure underpins almost all human economic activity—one that isn’t extractive, that has no negative environmental impact, that doesn’t depend on imports and that’s resilient to macroeconomic forces.

We are talking about the infrastructure of caregiving. This infrastructure—spanning a range of jobs—helps meet society’s most fundamental needs: the physical, psychological and emotional needs of adults and children, old and young, frail and able-bodied.

Caring for our own families might not seem like an economic act, but how we organise it has huge economic and social consequences. These are especially felt by women, since care work (paid and unpaid) is usually performed by them as a routine part of their domestic or even professional roles. This has been acutely felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed the vital need for the large-scale provision of care—to children, the elderly, vulnerable and sick. School closures forced policy-makers to ask not just ‘how will children learn?’, but also ‘how will parents work?’ And, care giving is often the invisible glue that binds many activities together—strengthening our daily transactions with relational bonds.

Image credit: SmartStart

It is now clear that this “infrastructure of care” is just as vital as roads, ports and data networks, and it plays an important role across the human life cycle. Investing in early childhood care alone multiplies value at a grand scale—improving the health and educational outcomes for a generation of children, creating thousands of jobs, while also enabling caregivers to work outside the home.

So why don’t we talk about and invest in care work this way? There are many reasons.

One is simply a failure of political imaginations shaped by that persistent hard-hat image—and an inability to recognize caregiving as work. Second, due to powerful social norms, the work primarily done by women is tarred with the pernicious low-skill label which lowers the status of those who do it and those who study it.

But there is also a practical and immediately addressable reason we continually overlook the potential of care as an economic lever: we just didn’t know how to pull it.

Economists bring precision and broad consensus to how economic activity is counted and reported. They develop models that value it properly, including wider systemic effects. And they propose new investment mechanisms to shape and unlock that value. In other words, they define economic levers and how to use them. Historically neglected by mainstream economics, care work has as a result, been under-counted, under-valued and under-invested. Indeed, as a result, “care feminism has taken a backseat to career feminism.”

What if care feminism engaged with mainstream economics head on? We suggest three specific actions to recast care using feminist economics: Count it. Value it. Invest in it.

Count it.

“What gets counted, counts,” said data feminist Joni Seager.

Over 16 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day – a reality that many of us had to confront during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools and day-cares were shuttered.

If care work—as priceless as it is—was actually counted in real GDP estimates, this would be valued at over $11 trillion. If “care work” were an economy, it would rank only behind the United States and China.

But it is hard to put a price to something as intangible and priceless as care.

Many of us prickle at the act of counting it—as it relates to an act so fundamentally cherished and so human, one that evokes deep emotions. As if care were something that can be measured by money and economics alone.

But money and economics matter. Especially to the millions of those in this sector who are unpaid and under-valued.

And so, if what gets counted, does indeed count, then the act of “counting” the care economy—in our national accounts, and as “real work”—reveals its value.

Counting care work as work and accounting for it in our GDP is the first step, giving us a language with which to comprehend its many dimensions, to label it, categorise, and regulate it. Drawing on decades of activism for the decriminalization of sex work, for example, it allows for care work to be situated within a broader framework of worker’s rights.

Counting care work can allow for the design of policies that acknowledge that burden of care and allows for the regulation of work in this space. Formal recognition of care work as “work” takes it out of the shadows, where this work can be so easily ignored and exploited because it does not count.

Value it

Even if we did count care work in our national accounts or included this work in broader frameworks of workers’ rights, this still would not be enough. Valuing care work requires a fundamental shift in the way we not just count work—but also how we pay for it and protect it.

Women comprise more than 76% of the total care workforce of nearly 400 million—and this work is some of the least paid and most precarious in the world.

Care responsibilities often come at a cost—professional, and personal. The most well-known of these being the motherhood penalty—where women with young children record the lowest employment rates in the world. Care work is also exhausting, demanding, and fraught with physical and emotional complexities.

Image credit: SmartStart

As Ai-jen Poo reminds us “caregiving is most definitely work: physically strenuous, rigorous work that requires discernment and flexibility. As with all forms of labour, you put in a hard day’s work and you expect to be appreciated and compensated.”

What if we valued this work at a structural, systemic level, as well as paid for it, and protected it the way we should?

Recent insurance and divorce settlements in India and China point to a slow shift towards greater monetary valuing of the work done by women in the home. We need to amplify and institutionalize these trends.

Paid family leave for caregiving responsibilities has been shown to help women stay in the labour force and improve well-being for caregivers across the world. Including care and domestic worker rights in national frameworks for labour legislation, imposing minimum floors and clear frameworks to reduce abuse and exploitation can also make a difference.

Invest in it

The ILO estimates that over 2 billion people will need care by 2030—as a result of a growing and ageing population. Unlike many other economic sectors where jobless growth is the norm, the care economy represents huge possibilities.

Demographic trends of ageing and population growth suggests that over 400 million jobs could be generated across the world. Expanding the early childhood development infrastructure, to meet the need worldwide for early childhood care, could alone generate up to 43 million jobs.   

Organisations like Silver Angels in India are trying to focus on the elder care market and investable ideas and opportunities that can be harnessed. Early childhood is a growing focus area for investment by countries, donors, and private investors alike—with the World Bank alone committing over $6 billion in ECD and related investments over 15 years.

Indeed, if we truly valued the things we said we did, we would invest our resources in ideas that strengthen our support for those who need care without compromising its intrinsic value.

All the recent efforts to quantify care work, to evaluate investment in caregiving versus other industries, and to reimagine how it is provided show that the tide may be turning on how care work is viewed, spurred by the aftershocks of COVID as well as long-term demographic shifts.

We can choose to ignore the value of caregiving in our plans, or we can strengthen this invisible infrastructure and empower the millions that carry its weight.

It’s time to lay aside the hard hats and take a hard-headed approach to investing in caregiving – so it can become an engine of economic growth and human thriving.

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.

Kate Boydell is a writer and advisor with 25 years’ experience using the power of strategic stories to help leaders, movements and organisations bring about systems change. She has a particular focus on the future of work and of education, gender and parenthood, and purpose-driven leadership. She is a Fellow of the RSA, an Unreasonable Impact Mentor, a former Head of Strategy at change consulting firm SYPartners and former WPP Fellow.