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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!

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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.

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

[By Usha Raman]

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

Image credit: Sissssou / Wikimedia

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

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

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

Image credit: Lakshmi Prabhala

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Lakshmi Prabhala

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

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

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

[By Rawshon Akhter and Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Armanaziz / Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Kamrul.vb / Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Domestic work in Africa: Essential but precarious

[By Sharmi Surianarain & Julia Taylor]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic worker in Kenya. Image credit: Solidarity Center

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[By Shweta Mahendra Chandrashekhar]

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

Image credit: Safal karki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.