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Collective brainstorming to imagine a feminist labour collective

[By Siddharth de Souza and Siddhi Gupta]

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

Co-creating, imagining and speculating

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding understandings

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

Workshop output
Image credit: Justice Adda / FemLab.Co

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

Some preliminary connections

People

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

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

Places

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

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

Resources

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

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

Governance

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Workshop output
Image credit: Justice Adda / FemLab.Co

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Proactive contracting for platform work: Making the design of terms and conditions more participatory

[By Siddharth de Souza]

As the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, platform economy workers are increasingly vulnerable due to a lack of benefits such as minimum wages, health and security as well as the opportunity to organise collectively and build work-life communities. In India over the past few months, workers at companies such as Swiggy have been protesting a reduction in the minimum delivery charge per order as well as the reduction and change in terms of incentives.

With new labour law changes in India over the past month, understanding the material implications of how platforms work in practice has become even more urgent. Leading Civil Society Organizations and labour unions recently came together to issue a statement addressing the rights of platform workers. Among the key issues raised is the question of misclassification of workers and contractors, highlighting that the labour codes in India do not account for how platform companies exercise control in terms of how work is assigned, compensated and performed.

In this blog, I focus on one particular aspect of the relationship between platforms and workers by examining the terms and conditions that platform companies use to control their workers. I argue for the need to develop more participatory methods of contracting to involve workers in the decision-making process, drawing from research on ‘proactive law’.

Platform companies argue that their workers are independent contractors with flexibility to determine the nature of their engagement. But in reality, as a report from ILO discusses, the terms and conditions for their engagement on platforms are determined unilaterally by the companies, along with the methods for evaluation, payment and terms of grievance redressal. Over the past few years, platform companies such as Ola have reserved the right to change terms of service while also placing the responsibility on the user to be up to date with such changes.

Across many platforms, workers are first expected to agree to the terms before having access to potential work opportunities. As a result, there is little scope for dialogue or discussion on the terms of the contract. Some of the challenges of terms of service employed by platform companies include the use of complex and technical language, poor protections of basic contractual rights such as in terms of data protection, conflict resolution, and in matters of termination of the contract. As a result, it is difficult for workers to articulate their grievances.

Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

Can these terms and conditions be constructed and developed in a manner that reflects independent contracting fairly, in a manner that accounts for rights of workers, and forces more accountability on platform companies? Can the process of contracting be made more participatory?

Terms and conditions, in the cases of platform companies, are designed to respond to potential disputes, problems or litigation, and seek to offer corrective measures to protect the company. These terms and conditions are determined with little or no involvement from the workers, and as a result there are consequences for both workers and platforms in terms of  future problems and disputes, precisely because they are designed for adversarial situations and in ways that protect the needs of one party (usually the company) at the expense of another (usually the worker).

I suggest that one way to rethink terms and conditions, is to draw from the work on a ‘proactive approach’ to law. This approach is based on the assumption that rather than seeing law as a constraint that parties need to comply with, or as a means to protect one’s interest at the cost of someone else, we use the law to create conditions that can foster value and successful relationships between parties. As Helena Haapio  (who has pioneered this approach) argues: “legal knowledge is at its best before things go wrong”. With proactive law there is a focus on examining and finding ways to eliminate causes of conflict through determining what the shared outcomes of the agreement could be. The European  Economic and Social Committee in 2009 in an opinion advanced that  “Proactive Law is about enabling and empowering — it is done by, with and for the users of the law, individuals and busi­nesses”. The approach is premised on the users knowing about their rights and duties, and using the law in a manner that helps them avoid disputes, or find resolutions to problems. This can be done by developing ways to co-create terms and conditions that meet the needs of all parties.

Building such an approach for platform companies would require that there is an acknowledgment of the legal needs and aspirations of both workers and companies. To do this, workers cannot be mere recipients in the process who simply accept terms and conditions, but effective participants in arriving at a common framework. The contracting will thus not be top down, but would be collaborative, taking into account how the law materialises in practice.

A proactive approach, as legal scholar Berger-Walliser advances, would use law in order to develop sustainable relationships, by moving beyond self-interest to accommodate different interests and build agreements that focus not on failures between parties but rather on how parties can collaboratively find satisfactory outcomes. Being outcome-oriented and proactive can also have economic value because it is built on trust and shared relationships between parties, centering on dispute pre-emption, instead of a reactive approach which is built on dispute resolution and management. Such user centric contracts would draw on the context of the use and practices of the contract, the social interactions around them and the ways in which the content is communicated. For instance,  Rob de Rooy, founder of Creative Contracts, has used illustrations and visual narratives  to make contracts accessible for workers who are not literate in South Africa. These graphic contracts are designed to faciliate communication between parties by translating complex, technical language into comicbook-like formats that can be understood and have been implemented for employment contracts, agreements between parents and schools and Non- Disclosure Agreements.

Video by Creative Contracts explaining “who are we and what do we do”

Visualization can be one way of building more accessible contracts for platform workers. However beyond that, there is a need to inculcate a spirit of co-creation in the development of terms and conditions. For both platform workers and companies, co-creation would involve bringing together different perspectives to identify and determine common goals; it would examine how to create value not just for one party as in an adversarial process, but rather concentrate on shared outcomes. It would involve focusing on the root causes of problems and eliminating them rather than expending effort on managing conflict. Further, in order to ensure the legitimacy of such participatory approaches, it would also be important to not be blind to matters related to representation and deliberation in the co-creation process, and ensure that matters such as gender perspectives or the distinctions between local and international contexts of workers are not treated lightly. Companies need to engage with workers in the spirit of them being partners; failing to do so will only solidify the case that workers in platform companies are self-employed in nothing but name.

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Making the law speak: Empowering workers through legal engagement

[By Siddharth de Souza]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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