Categories
Blog

Making opportunities inclusive for first-time digital users

[By Shrinath V]

A couple of years ago, our house help came in early. She brought her daughter with her. The daughter was working at a nearby fashion store as a salesgirl after her graduation. The previous night, she had arrived home from work, distraught and weeping. The mother could not understand what she was upset about. She thought my wife could help calm her.

After having some coffee, the daughter calmed down a bit and spoke about what had happened the previous day at the store. The store owner was unhappy with her using her mobile during working hours. He had threatened to put up photos of her slacking on Facebook. This had terrified her, as she thought her reputation amongst her friends and her local community was at stake. She could not sleep that night, fearing that she and her family would lose face.

After she narrated the incident, we checked whether the sales manager was a Facebook friend. He was not. She later confessed that she had deleted her Facebook account a while ago. Why was she so agitated then? She assumed that any photos of hers posted there would be seen by all her friends. Facebook’s privacy settings had been too complex for her to understand, so she assumed the worst. We had to reassure her that once she deleted her Facebook account, no one could tag her or make any content public. Even if she had not deleted her account, she could remove tags from photos others posted before any of her friends could see them. It took her a while to get convinced about this, but when she left, she was a lot calmer than she came.  

This incident got me thinking.

I live in Bangalore, often called India’s Silicon Valley. Bangalore has a huge population working in the technology domain. Most college students carry smartphones. Here was a college educated salesgirl in an urban fashion store. We would assume that she would be comfortable with social media usage. And yet, she was so confused by the controls on the site that she thought it was a threat to her reputation. Finer aspects like abuse of power and violation of privacy were tough for her to comprehend. A threat about posting photos on Facebook from someone who was not even her friend had turned her into a nervous wreck.

Image credit: Victorgrigas 

The truth is that this girl is representative of many first-time digital users across growth economies. Thanks to cheaper smartphones and data plans, many users are getting their first taste of the internet. But many aspects that seem trivial to long-time technology users are seen very differently by such new adopters.

New opportunities and challenges

Smartphones have fueled the imagination of many who have just started understanding the power of the internet. In some ways, this has been timely. We are already seeing that the world post COVID-19 will rely a lot more on digital technologies. As we shift to transacting more online, we will see a larger number of gig jobs. From entertainment to education, smartphones, apps, and online services will play a greater role in lives of the new digital initiates.

A lot of this, no doubt, will improve the lives of billions. Going online is opening new vistas for exploration and providing new opportunities. Thanks to smartphones, new entrepreneurs and business models are aplenty. We see housewives post extra plates of lunch on WhatsApp groups for others in their locality to order. Local teachers take to Telegram to coach students appearing for exams. Drivers-on-hire get you and your car safely back home after a late night at the bar, so you need not drive when drunk.

And yet, there are unexpected challenges. Internet-driven models and services are largely designed for people who are comfortable with digital literacy. There are a lot of assumptions baked into how these are designed or delivered. As first-time digital users start using these services, many of these assumptions do not hold.

As digital technologies are likely to play a bigger role in the future of work, here are some points to consider.

Better terminology & representations

Websites and apps often have different privacy and consent policies. These are difficult enough for us to understand but can be befuddling to first-time digital users. Most are written in legal language that is difficult for common users to understand. They are made easy to click through so the apps can claim they received approval from users. As these vary per app or website, it is often easy to lose track of what one has agreed to. A more inclusive design could involve a common set of representations for terms like privacy and consent, preferably with videos explaining what the users are signing up for. For gig workers, this could greatly improve their understanding of what permissions the business asks of them. For example, knowing that you are being tracked only when you are on the job and not otherwise can be reassuring.  

Better explanation of downside risk

Many first-time digital users sign up for gigs based on referrals from friends. But often, the downside risks are not well understood. A while ago, I took an auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk) to office. As I chatted with the driver, I realized that he had earlier signed up as a cab driver for one of the many ride-hailing apps. As part of the deal, he purchased his taxi on a loan arranged by them. After a few months, he wanted to take a vacation and get home. He parked his taxi at their designated garage. When he returned, he was told that he had to pay a huge per-day parking charge before he could take his vehicle. This shocked him, but the company agent said it was part of the initial agreement he had signed. He did not know enough to debate them. After a few days, he realized his negotiation was going nowhere, and the taxi loan payments were due.

Image credit:  Andy Gray

He finally opted to forego the taxi and the money he had paid for the loan as he felt there was no other choice. This made him wary of gig opportunities in the future, and he decided to take up a safer, though less remunerative, option. He would have understood things much better if the downside risks had been better explained. This could again be done by using tools like video in languages that gig workers are comfortable with.

Better avenues for grievance redressal

A food delivery executive I spoke to recently complained about a late-night delivery he had to make a couple of days ago. He had picked up the food but was accosted by local bullies on the way. He could keep his phone, but they grabbed the food. When he rang up the food tech firm, he was told that he would have to pay for the food stolen from his remuneration. As online businesses grow, we will see many such cases of grievances that come up. First-time digital users may not be aware of grievance redressal mechanisms in place. More education on these and better policies will help.


Shrinath V is a product management consultant and founder of The Better Product Studio. In his last corporate role, he was the Head of products for location services on Nokia’s phones built for the Next Billion Users. He has been a mentor to various startups building for this segment over the last several years. 

Categories
Blog

Women resellers in India’s gig economy: From access to confidence

[By Achyutha Sharma]

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of conversation around the gig economy that will impact how we view labour and the skilled workforce globally. In India, both the ‘gig economy’ and the gig workers have always existed and been pervasive, especially in the unorganised sectors. From a vegetable vendor, tea shop, an artisan to an entrepreneur or a reseller on our Meesho platform, workers in the informal sector are at the heart of India’s gig economy. Many women in India, especially housewives who want to work from home have leveraged platforms like Meesho to enter the commercial realm.

A reseller is someone who sources a product and sells to the end customer without the parent company or supplier source involved. This is different from a seller/ retailer (represents a brand/company) or dealer (wholesaler) who don’t engage with customers directly.

Mission rise event where women resellers network and learn from each other.
Image credit: Meesho events team

As per the 2018 estimate, India has approximately 300 million women in the age group 20 – 49 years. If we consider 5 % of this population as being literate to semi-literate women across urban, semi-urban and rural areas that have digital access via the mobile phone, then we have a potential reseller who can become a Meesho entrepreneur. Meesho brings suppliers and resellers on a social ecommerce platform that manages the end-to-end process from product selection to end-customer delivery. Meesho has engaged over 10 million women over the last 5 years on the platform.

A reseller like Geetha (name changed), a 35-year-old housewife in semi-urban India,  uses the Meesho app to select and order products which she can then sell to end customers in her area or anywhere in India. Meesho procures the product from its warehouse or from the supplier and delivers to the customer on behalf of Geetha. The accumulated commission from all orders is transferred by Meesho every fortnight to Geetha’s account. She continues to scale her business (under her brand name, Geetha Style Boutique) with more orders and earns a regular income from the platform. Many such resellers over a period of time have gone on to become Meesho entrepreneurs earning a minimum of 250 – 500 USD per month (this is equivalent to an urban middle-class individual income in India). Meesho in some sense is formalising women and men as ‘gig workers’ from the informal sector by linking them to the formal financial system where the commission from the platform gets transferred to their registered bank account. 

In order to further the company’s key objective of ensuring resellers’ success, a user research function was set up to study their motivations and behaviour and dig deeper into problems they may face on the platform or in the course of conducting their business. This involves conducting qualitative, generative research along with UX (user experience) validation and usability testing of the Meesho platform across product features and user experience. The results from this study have been insightful for me, to say the least, while leading user research function at this late growth stage of the business. We have been able to produce actionable insights about our resellers for product and design teams, built frameworks and models on reseller behaviours, in addition to sharing these insights across functions in the company. Currently, we have over 2 million women actively reselling on our platform. These women represent the gig economy, a unique case study of women resellers on an entrepreneurial journey. I share some of my learnings here.

A woman reseller’s success is her family’s success

Women resellers in our research are not just users; we found evidence and insights about them as contributors, influencers, movers and makers of family and community at large. For instance, Radha (name changed) was able to admit her children in a better private school after they had been forced to drop out for a year from a low-budget school when she lost her job. Sunitha who never had a job or managed money started contributing to the household savings after paying some of the family expenses—this was within 3 months of reselling, which augmented her savings to 2000 USD within a year. Pushpa (name changed), a housewife who had fallen into depression due to a lack of opportunities and self-doubt found a new life and self-confidence through Meesho’s reselling platform. Our qualitative research uncovered that motivations and ideas of success for women resellers went beyond earning an income to acquiring new skills, building self-identity, confidence and personal development.

Managing the household and scaling business

Popular search and targeting based on our marketing insights and data on acquiring new resellers for Meesho have been based on work from home, earn extra income or earn money from home. Our qualitative research also confirms that women resellers who are looking for work from home or earn extra income through social media or online search discovered Meesho platform. These ‘acquired’ women resellers on our platform are very clear about balancing household responsibilities and running their reselling business. They are not willing to compromise either, especially if they have found reselling personally fulfilling beyond earning an income. Their idea of managing time is not based on specific hours of reselling work but rather multi-tasking between household responsibilities and scaling or managing their reselling business. Many women have actively found support in their spouses and other family members to manage household chores, their business orders and customers.

Digital access to digital confidence

Often, women, no matter their background, have lacked exposure or opportunity to run a business. Our research showed that women have ‘negotiated’ social permission to try reselling, especially in rural and semi-urban areas where digital or mobile access for women is restricted. They negotiate permission with their husbands or family decision-makers (father/mother) to get their own mobile device, using internet for the Meesho app or to try reselling or online business through the platform. The family agrees with the intent that women would try this business while staying at home and managing household responsibilities at the same time. Thus, the women and their families are both building trust with Meesho and the reselling business to see if this way of earning is legitimate or authentic. This digital access leads to women using the Meesho app on a daily basis and over a period of time to gain a measure of digital ‘confidence’. This finding was backed up during our usability testing where women demonstrated their use of the app more confidently and were able to complete tasks in shorter time than expected. This also depended on what stage of reselling they are at and app usage frequency—whether they were new, intermediate or experienced resellers. Our approach to designing a quality user experience is closely aligned to women resellers’ journey of learning and using the app to gain confidence, both in the process of reselling and with the platform. 

Mission rise event organised by Meesho to celebrate women entrepreneurship.
Image credit: Meesho events team

Women resellers represent a big part of India’s gig economy. Our data and research have generated evidence that women resellers stand to gain considerably from platforms that are responsively designed. Their success is based on their ability to influence a potentially large base of customers and continually engage them in building a sustainable business. This is because women in India not only have strong relationships or influence their relatives or close friends but when supported by responsive tools, can acquire the ability to forge new relationships with strangers, among communities, social networks or circles across regions.


Achyutha Sharma has over 15 years of experience in Research, Brand and Design and is currently leading user research at Meesho. He has worked across themes in social sector understanding BoP demographic in addition to commercial retail experience gaining depth of insights on Indian consumers.

Categories
Blog

The street sweeper and her missing gloves

[By Usha Raman]

The two women walk down my street at around 7 a.m. every morning, noticeable in the navy-blue knee-length coats they wear over their sarees, and the colourful bandannas that cover their heads. Bhagya (name changed to maintain anonymity) has large kaajal-rimmed eyes and she flashes a bright smile if she happens to see me on the terrace. There’s a man with them, and the three form the team that sweeps and gathers the street rubbish every day in my part of Hyderabad city. Their blue coveralls are printed with the letters signifying the municipal authority that employs them.

Well…if the relationship they have with that authority can be termed “employment.” Bhagya and her companions are contracted by the municipality through a third party. They are perhaps somewhat more fortunate than many others who are hired on and off on daily wages, but less so than the 37 % or so that are estimated to be on the permanent rolls of any urban municipal corporation in India. They are part of the crew that is responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the city—an activity that was elevated to mission mode under the Central Government’s highly publicized “Swacch Bharath” (Clean India) scheme launched in 2014. While the building of toilets and eliminating open defecation were seen as top priorities under the scheme, the cleanliness of public spaces and ensuring safe and efficient waste disposal were also important goals. The scheme was dismissed by many as populist, and failing to tackle the real issues of caste-based inequity and deep-rooted social stigma faced by sanitation workers, but it did open up the discursive space around these issues.

Image credit: Pikist

The mission also succeeded in bringing more attention to the condition of workers like Bhagya—women and men working under precarious conditions of employment, subject to often unfair and nebulous contractual terms, and no safety net in case of health or other emergencies. An in-depth qualitative study by Dahlberg Advisors in 2017 categorized sanitation work into nine different types, ranging from cleaning latrines and drains to sweeping streets, each with its own challenges and vulnerabilities. More recently, a study by the NGO PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) Network points to four “predispositions” that are the reasons for the persistent marginalization of sanitation workers—gender, caste, geography and education.

One does not need to look deep into the fine print of such studies to perceive the challenges that women in sanitation work face, being doubly marginalized by caste and gender. The PRIA study also pointed to the lack of empathetic supervision and little consideration given to the specific issues of safety and protection that women workers might require. These issues have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, with all categories of sanitation workers becoming part of an invisible frontline in the fight against the pandemic. A phone-based survey of 214 sanitation workers in three north Indian cities during this pandemic, of whom 30 % were women, revealed that they had received no instructions or training related to safety during the pandemic, nor had any special arrangements been made for them at work. Bhagya, for instance, told me that she was issued one set of gloves when she started working for the municipality three years ago, which have since torn and have not been replaced. When I asked her about face masks and hand sanitizer, she shook her head: “We have to get them ourselves if we want.” A simple cloth scarf was wound around her face in lieu of a mask.

The lack of information and the failure to provide basic protections results in a high level of anxiety, often leading to desperate measures. A 60-year-old sweeper in Telangana was reported to have taken her own life by consuming pesticides, fearing that she had been infected by the SARS-CoV 2 virus after having swept the streets in what was later declared a containment zone. In this and other reports, women sanitation workers are often referred to as “Covid warriors” but this terminology belies the very real vulnerabilities they embody. A majority do not have any form of health insurance despite the fact that much lip-service is paid to the fact that they are on the front lines of the pandemic.

Worker protections exist—in theory, and to varying extent—across all sectors; however, there are gaps at the level of making these protections, and knowledge about them, available to workers. When I ask Bhagya whether her contractor is supposed to give her protective gear, she shrugs, and says “Who knows?” While one might see this as apathy or complacence, it’s more likely to be a simple lack of awareness of what one is due and how to demand it. Of course, there is also the possibility that the exercise of voice might just put her job at risk.

When we talk of communication rights, it is often limited to access to means of communication and the freedom of expression. But within a human rights framework, communication becomes the means by which we access a whole range of other rights—including the right to fair work.

Some days, as I look down from the terrace, I see Bhagya walking a few feet behind her companions, talking on her phone. What if this phone became a means—not only of domestic communication, but also, to access a checklist of protections, a means to report on lapses, and a way to connect with others in her cohort? What if it were not an instrument of surveillance (as has been used to monitor activity under Swacch Bharat in some regions) but an instrument of security, care and supportive connection?

I guess that’s a question for another day.

Categories
Blog

Domestic work in Africa: Essential but precarious

[By Sharmi Surianarain & Julia Taylor]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic worker in Kenya. Image credit: Solidarity Center

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Categories
Blog

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

[By Shweta Mahendra Chandrashekhar]

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

Image credit: Safal karki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Blog

Beauty gig work in the time of Covid-19

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

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

Beauty worker in India. Image Credit: innacoz

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

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

Sign advertising beauty services. Image credit: Michael Kohli

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

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

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

Categories
Blog

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

[By Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Blog

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

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

Image by Abir Das
Categories
Blog

Building on empathy: can we broaden the conversation?

[By Usha Raman]

As India imposed a near-complete lockdown in March, accompanied by social distancing recommendations, things began to fall apart for the millions engaged in daily wage labour across multiple sectors. To them, the sudden absence of work meant the inability to pay for shelter and food, the barest needs to sustain oneself in a monetized economy. The central government and many state governments began announcing relief measures but alongside, civil society began to step up with small community led efforts. The emerging discourse of shared responsibility among the privileged classes holds promise for a wider appreciation of the rights of those in the unorganized sector, and a greater appreciation of the precarious nature of such work.

Writing in the Peoples Archive of Rural India the day after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on March 24, journalist P Sainath remarked: “Somehow, the better off and middle classes seem convinced that if we stay at home and practice social distancing, all will be well. That, at least, we will be insulated from the virus. There is no recognition of how the economic distress will work its way back to us.”

Sketch by Usha Raman

The economic distress he was referring to was, of course, the distress of the millions of daily wage earners, a majority of them migrants from the poorest states in the country—Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand. Soon the mainstream media purveyed hundreds of images of migrants stranded without shelter and food in cities that had turned hostile to them. Even as many began to exit cities in the thousands, in the hope of finding some succor in their native villages, many others, who had made a more permanent home in the city, were left with nowhere to go and no way to earn a living. Photographs in newspapers and videos circulating on social media told heart-rending stories of fear, confusion and hunger, whole families walking with their few belongings and being harangued by the police, whose job ironically was to ensure that citizens were protected from the disease. While the government’s hastily cobbled together relief measures—reactive rather than proactive and strategic—began to be implemented, many other groups swung into action. Moved by the stories of sudden displacement and deprivation, civil society groups, both organized and spontaneously formed, stepped into the vacuum caused by the loss of jobs and the absence of social security of any kind.

An analysis by IT4Change team members Sohel Sarkar and Deepthi Bharthur put it, the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has given us “a universal teachable moment”. While the cynical may point out that not all teachable moments lead to learning, one can discern in this moment the potential to refashion our imagination and understanding of what an equitable and just society should look like.

While precarity has been a recurrent theme in conversations about the future of work, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief what this could mean, not only for those in the shadow of automation and the network economy, but also for those engaged in, quite literally, the “brick and mortar” sectors of construction, sanitation, and the numerous other jobs that turn the wheels of the city’s machinery. Journalist Rukmini S writes that close to 12 percent of urban households rely on casual labour for their income, while many more may be classified as “self-employed” such as petty vendors, providers of low-skill services such as cobblers, dhobis (clothes washers) and workers contracted through platforms.

The Covid-19 conversation has brought new eyes and ears to attention. Middle class India is forced to see what life looks like for those who do not have the privileges that come with assured salaries, stable living arrangements, and for a few, the continuity provided by the means to work from home. This is not a new realization, but never before has the story been so consistently in the headlines and presented in such detail over and over again to the Indian middle-class media consumer. It is in this context that the “teachable moment” holds potential. From being a concern for a few do-gooders who advocate for workers’ rights, precarity has acquired the sharp contours of materiality—it leads to loss of shelter and food, and the inaccessibility to [what should be] the most ordinary of services like health and education and ultimately, dignity. Even for those who have been in the thick of the battle for workers’ rights, this moment pushes even further the need to demand not only fairness in wages and working conditions in the present, but also a security net that envisions precarity in the broadest way possible.

Sketch by Usha Raman

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of MKSS, refer to the need for us to recognize the deep inequities that have persisted and made newly visible due to the Covid-19 lockdown: “Those who benefited most from this growth see this workforce in utilitarian, rather than human terms. The privileged must understand that if they do not want to be affected by impoverishment and insecurity that has afflicted these workers, a minimal level of livelihood security will have to be guaranteed to labour, farmers and workers in the informal sector.” This also calls for responses that go beyond charity and lead to structural and policy reforms that can build a more caring society, not just a more efficient one driven by narrow notions of economic productivity.

Our work in FemLab.Co attempts to understand what livelihood security could look like from the bottom up, for women workers in the selected sectors of the informal economy, and fill out the notion of precarity in real, experiential ways. These months under lock down will have, hopefully, engendered greater empathy among those who provide employment and those who have taken the city’s labour for granted, while possibly giving advocates a keener sense of how demands must be articulated.

Those whose lives are lived on the edge have always had a sense of precarity. The rest of us have now, second hand, had a glimpse of it.

Categories
News

And so we begin, by organizing ourselves…

[By Payal Arora & Usha Raman]

On January 27 2020, the team for ‘Feminist Approaches to Labour Collectives: Organizing Digitally in South Asia,’ a three-year grant funded project by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) Canadian agency, got together in Hyderabad, India, to launch this project.

Project meeting in Hyderabad

The goal for the meeting was to draw up a road map for the next two and a half years, think through the challenges we might face as well as devise strategies of outreach by capitalizing on existing stakeholders, and technologies. Over two days of brainstorming, we delved deeply into how to frame our sites, as well as the knowledge, methods and ethics that could enable us to optimize our resources most effectively.

The team is spread across four locations: India, The Netherlands, Bangladesh and Germany. This first meeting therefore offered an important opportunity to meet face-to-face (fortunately, just a month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit) and establish some common ground for working together across distance in a manner that would draw on our respective strengths and make room for synergies.

Responding to the rising precarity in conditions of work globally, particularly in the informal sector, the Feminist Approaches to Labour Collectives (FemLabCo) project has two main aims. First, we will explore ways to foster an understanding of female workers’ concerns, and everyday strategies to collectively organize themselves by accessing information on rights and sharing their working conditions using digital tools. Second, we have an action research component where we will design a digital storytelling toolkit and campaign based on the voices of these women. The goal is to use these digital tools to build awareness among our participants of their rights and collective opportunities and nudge behavioral change among consumers and businesses in alignment with ethical practice.

To this end, the project team will engage with women workers in India (Hyderabad) and Bangladesh, to map their communicative ecologies and the ways in which they build and nurture work-related community networks, and use the understanding we so derive to inform the action research. The members in The Netherlands and Germany then will take this formative research on board to build the digital storytelling toolkits that translate legal rights for instance into empowering and engaging material for workers and other interested parties. The goal is also to animate and engage consumers and other stakeholders across the global supply chain and to steer them towards responsible and ethical consumption practice when it comes to fair work in the global supply chain.

Even as the team had planned to begin initial scoping work in the two countries to identify research participants in the sectors of interest — garment workers, home-based artisans, sanitation workers, construction workers and beauty and wellness services providers in the gig-economy — the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and much of the globe was shut down. While this has put field work to a halt, it has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on the larger goals of the project and also consider more deeply the complexities of the contexts in which the most vulnerable women live and work. The media is infused with images of thousands of migrant workers, (many from the sectors of interest to our project) leaving cities for their villages, having lost their means of livelihood. This has brought to the forefront new aspects of precarity in the future of work as few of these workers enjoy a security net either from the state or their private-sector employers.

The current crisis also underscores the need to look at problems in all their complexity: to consider economic productivity in isolation from other aspects of life (health, community and family, environment, housing, etc.) is neither tenable nor just, as the response to the Covid-19 crisis has shown.

With this approach, the Bangladesh and India teams will over the next few months begin developing a familiarity with the selected sectors and identifying interlocutors who will help us connect with women workers and initiate an empathetic conversation that will continue over the year. This blog will serve as an initial talking post where we try out ideas for size and present some of our field based insights as they emerge.