As part of the Feminist Internet Research Network, we are including a series of short pieces on reflections by researchers on the ground, especially in relation to methods of research, interactions with community and participants, ethics and values of their research projects and experiential learnings. This series of four articles on research in relation to platform economy and domestic workers was put together by the researchers Aayush Rathi and Ambika Tandon. You can see other reflections on ethics, access, methodology from a feminist perspective here.
In August last year, I was approached by the Centre for Internet and Society to work with them on a project studying online platforms and domestic work. I was very nervous and had so many questions - what exactly are online platforms, and how would we find people who work on them? I have been working as a unionist and activist at Stree Jagruti Samiti since 2015, and work daily to organise women workers and protect their rights. Until this project started, I hadn’t met or heard of anyone who works on an online platform, and it was difficult to understand what they are and how many workers are getting work through it. I have done a small research project on placement agencies before, where I went undercover and posed as a worker to find the exploitative conditions workers face. I was curious to see how platforms are different from placement agencies and decided to join this project despite my apprehensions.
Finding workers on platforms turned out to be even tougher than I had anticipated. We first set out to find workers in unions and their networks who might have used a platform. Most workers, however, would get work through other workers, previous employers, and some through placement agencies. None of the workers we approached were aware of online platforms, and did not believe in or feel comfortable with the idea of a platform on the internet that would be able to get them work. I tried to speak to workers in different parts of the city, and found several placement agencies that had opaque operations, and in one case found an apartment complex with a single individual who would decide the salaries and leaves for workers. We found an agency that would place young migrant women workers as caretakers, not allow them to meet other workers, even when they were facing violence. They had contracts with workers but those were only so that workers could be controlled, and the agency also kept their identification cards. I tried to speak to the women and girls, but they were very scared and would not say anything. Even though we did not find workers on online platforms through this strategy, I found that middlemen always lower the self-esteem of workers by creating a communication gap between workers and employers, and reducing the ability of workers to negotiate.
Next, we tried to find workers at the offices of online platforms that CIS had already identified. We approached CrewOnJobs, an online platform for cleaning staff. After a lot of effort, they sent us to meet some workers who lived close to their offices - but also sent a representative from their company to accompany us for the interview. It was very difficult to speak freely with the workers because he was sitting with us in the same room during the interview. I was forced to not ask too many questions about the company, and if I did I would ask without overtly criticising them. Kavitha, the worker, opened up to us about the harassment she has faced at the workplace, and the representative from the company promised to help her and blacklisted the employer. I also asked the company representative about the support they offer workers and managed to interview him as well.
Kavitha, the worker, opened up to us about the harassment she has faced at the workplace.
The representative of the company denied permission to speak to workers without his presence, but I knew the community of workers well as our union had some contacts there. I contacted the worker independently and set up more interviews with workers on CrewOnJobs. The workers I spoke to talked to me about their experience as child labourers, and facing many instances of false allegations of theft, non-payment of wages, sexual harassment. I felt that the workers were able to share information freely only because the company representatives were not present. The women I spoke to were Dalit and had been very vulnerable to exploitation.
As I was trying to visit the offices of another company, I met a worker who has been working in an apartment building that uses MyGate, an app which publicly displays the schedule of workers to all the residents in the apartment, collects details about their working hours, personal information, as well as allows employers to control entry and exit of workers. She took me to her locality where I spoke to many migrant women workers who work in apartments that use MyGate. I found that workers were much more comfortable talking to me if I introduced myself through the work of the union rather than as a researcher.
One woman in that group told me that finding work in an apartment has always been controlled by security guards that work at the apartment, and the introduction of the app has not changed this. When she had joined years ago, she had to give all her personal information to a security guard who took a fee from her to allow her to find work in the apartment. This information was then entered into a digital database by the security guard. What has changed is the level of control employers have over the movements of workers because of the app - each visit of the worker to the apartment has to be approved by employers. This is very dangerous because workers will not be able to approach employers if their salaries are not paid on time, or in case of allegation of theft. Workers are left more vulnerable with the security and management directly giving the information and entry and exit times of workers to the police.
One woman in that group told me that finding work in an apartment has always been controlled by security guards that work at the apartment, and the introduction of the app has not changed this.
Workers are physically checked by the security every time they enter or exit the apartment, and have to carry a note from employers confirming that they have received their salaries in cash or the security suspects them of having stolen the money and does not let them exit. Workers feel criminalised and are made to undergo police verification, which also keeps them in control and fear of employers. If verification is happening, it should happen with both employers and workers but that is not the case.
The women also mentioned that no one in their community has been able to avail of government health services in Karnataka because their identification documents are from Andhra Pradesh. As a union, we have been demanding that domestic workers be registered and recognised by the government labour department to allow them easy access to identification as workers. The workers also directed questions at me about how I will be able to help them after receiving all this information, will I be able to help them receive benefits, and what is the point of opening up to me? I struggled with these since I will not be able to help them directly.
Workers are physically checked by the security every time they enter or exit the apartment, and have to carry a note from employers confirming that they have received their salaries in cash or the security suspects them of having stolen the money and does not let them exit.
Another online platform I tried to contact was a placement agency called BookMyNanny that had recently expanded their operations digitally as well. Their office was disguised as a health centre, with no evidence of it being a placement agency from the outside. I introduced myself to the company representative as a union member, but she refused to give much information such as where they bring workers from. I spoke to some workers who told me that the agency places them in live-in work. I called one of the workers so I could speak to her freely, and then she told me that she had been placed in a house and didn’t know its location. She is uneducated and is taking care of a 3-month old child while working at a house. She did not have any information about how the company works.
I finally tried to get in touch with one more company that is a marketplace online platform called Gharelu Help. I tried to call many workers but they were very suspicious about why a stranger is calling and asking them for information, and why I wanted to interview them and not others. Only one of seven women spoke to me, and told me that she had found work through her contact rather than through the company. She had registered on the contract last year but her husband asked her not to sign the contract as he did not understand the company. She said that she is afraid to register with online companies because they take personal information and documentation digitally.
My biggest concern with all the workers, both on and off platforms, is that they are not aware of their rights and don’t know about unions in their city. We speak to all our members and they share and take care of their grievances. This way women can provide each other with support and raise awareness. This is important because domestic workers and their labour - irrespective of online platforms - are invisible without any protections. The paradox of cities in India is that there are now so many companies and jobs for white-collar workers, but all domestic workers are entirely dependent on them for their rights. In privatised and modern India, these gaps of income have continued to grow without any space for domestic workers.
In privatised and modern India, these gaps of income have continued to grow without any space for domestic workers.