Domestic work in the platform economy: reflections on conducting interviews on sensitive issues

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Radha making a research interview.

Radha making a research interview.

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.

Introduction

India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore, has produced many good jobs in the organised sector for IT professionals. The domestic work sector, however, has remained unorganised with low salaries and without basic arrangements such as weekly leaves and annual bonus. I recently learned about online platforms that connect workers to employers. These platforms find workers according to the criteria specified by employers. There is very little information about this among workers and unions in Karnataka.

As part of the collaboration with the Centre for Internet and Society, I undertook 8 interviews with online and offline workers, as well as domestic workers collectives. When this project started I was very enthusiastic. I planned to ask workers about their experiences of sexual harassment, about their native homes and how they got into domestic work, about caste discrimination. My advantage while talking to workers is that I belong to a domestic workers organisation that has branches in Bangalore and Belgaum in Karnataka. We deal with cases of allegations of theft and violence faced by workers during work. I explained to interviewees that their information will be useful to other workers, and will help in understanding salaries and work conditions. In this project, we are studying recruitment agencies so I also explained that having information about the agency will be useful to other workers. I showed the labour card provided to workers by the government upon registration, told them that it helps our members fight for their rights, and asked if they want it as well. This is how I started the conversation with the workers.

Even then, in some cases they directly refused to talk to me because the subject is so sensitive. I do not know why some workers fear to talk so much. In one case the platform had told her that you shouldn’t talk and give information about us to others. I found it surprising that workers are ready to go to unknown houses for work, but will not speak about their conditions of work with a union. However, once I convinced them to talk, they invited me into their homes and spoke to me very openly. They opened up about their lives and their childhood problems, how they get into domestic work etc.

I found it difficult to directly ask about sexual harassment and caste discrimination with most workers. The workers seemed afraid, and wouldn’t talk to a stranger about these things. I tried to get through the questions about conditions of work first, and then once I have a relationship with them, to then talk about other more sensitive or difficult topics. I also realised that the questionnaire was incomplete - it didn’t ask about caste and gender-based discrimination through indirect ways. For example, we should have asked every worker if they are given separate utensils and gloves at work. Even then, they might be afraid to speak about these issues as they are closely related to their caste identity. I found out that workers would not reveal their caste to the platform sometimes. They wouldn’t even reveal it to me until we got more comfortable towards the later parts of the interview.

Talking about sexual harassment was also difficult since workers were shy or afraid. At times they would see a question about sexual harassment as me questioning their character and would respond by telling me they have a good character and only go to their workplace to work, nothing else. Eventually, I found it easier to ask about this in a roundabout way as well, to ask if they had a good employer, was the employer male, did they have to go to him to get their salary, etc.

At times they would see a question about sexual harassment as me questioning their character and would respond by telling me they have a good character and only go to their workplace to work, nothing else

I used the same strategy of introducing the union to approach companies and agencies as well. Many agencies, however, refused to talk to me, had a hostile reaction to my work with the union, or agreed to meet but then did not make it to the appointment. This makes me think that those companies do not care about workers rights even though they claim to be working for domestic workers. I found many benefits of being on platforms for workers, but also many disadvantages. Workers usually get higher salaries and better conditions of work, and platform work is better regulated than non-platform work. In a focus group with 20 non-platform workers who were part of another union, I found that no one knew about online platforms. Once I explained what they are, most were agreeable to joining because they could get work easily, would get their salary on time, and could expect holidays. It is also very useful that the salary given would be recorded in bank transactions, to negotiate non-payment of wages. Those who refused to join platforms could not work on flexible timings, and could only work near their home. They had care responsibilities at home and so had to find work that was suitable to them.

Findings

In my interviews with workers on platforms, I found that they rarely knew the name of the agency they are working with. It is only the company that has information about the workers. The platform takes identification documentation from workers, as well as bank account details. They even do verification, sometimes visiting the homes of workers for this purpose.

As the role of online platforms increases, the decision-making role of the workers disappears, even though online platforms are not always right. Salary, leaves, and hours of work are determined by the convenience of the employer or the agency, not the worker.1 Only the worker knows how much they have worked and what tasks they have performed. The negotiation of wages is not happening when it comes to on-demand platforms. The workers have to agree with whatever salaries the platform is giving. Some platforms adhere to minimum wage set by the government, but we have been fighting that as well because it is so low.

In most cases, workers do not have written arrangements with employers. In case of platforms that do enter into written agreements, these are not shared with workers so they have very little knowledge of the document they have signed. The nature of work with platforms can be very precarious, workers can sometimes only work for fixed durations with one employer, and then have to shift to another one. Even though on-demand platforms can have much more than 10 workers, they do not provide any Provident Fund (PF) or Employees’ State Insurance (ESI). Workers also do not have health facilities or medical insurance, even though schemes such as the Rashtriya Swastha Bima Yojana have been made available by the government. They also do not register workers for the labour card provided by the Government of Karnataka, which helps workers to negotiate conditions of work. The people employed at these platforms are educated, why can’t they link workers to basic schemes that are available for them? This shows that platforms have not given thought to workers’ security and safety. They do not verify employers because they do not wish to find out if the workplace is safe for them or not. Workers are not able to speak to platforms about the violence that takes place inside the home. In our work as a union, we have fought so many cases of child labour, non-payment of wages, and sexual harassment - on what basis do these companies claim that they provide completely safe work environments to workers?

In our work as a union, we have fought so many cases of child labour, non-payment of wages, and sexual harassment - on what basis do these companies claim that they provide completely safe work environments to workers?

Workers placed through online platforms do not have a space to discuss the challenges they face at work – often the only option they have is to leave the job and hope that it will be better with the next employer. This may lead to mental health issues. This increases the need for a shared, collective space like that of a union. Further, I found that workers on platforms often do not identify as workers and only demand their payment, not other rights such as medical benefits and protection against sexual harassment. They are not aware of their rights as a worker and lose these rights because there is no collective. They are also then not able to negotiate their rights with their employer or the government. This is like modern slavery, with workers only getting meagre earnings and nothing else. The possibility of unionising disappears when workers join through recruitment agencies or platforms. This is also because they don’t know other workers to discuss their problems with.

The possibility of unionising disappears when workers join through recruitment agencies or platforms. This is also because they don’t know other workers to discuss their problems with.

For example, my co-researchers and I found several examples of workers who had quit a job after 15-20 days of work due to different problems. When workers are part of a network, they gather their sisters and their support and fight to get their wages for the days they have worked. With online platforms, there is no association between workers and employers after work. There is no scope to negotiate these wages. Some of the workers then do not get their salaries, even if they have done a full month of work.

I found that male workers perform cleaning work - deep cleaning, kitchen cleaning, and are paid higher salaries than women workers. Women workers undertake tasks such as cleaning the house, washing clothes and utensils, which is also cleaning, but do not get paid as much as deep cleaners. On-demand platforms only have deep cleaners, and they are always men. This difference between tasks and wages is also true for Dalit workers. Dalit women told me that they do not get cooking jobs, unless they don’t reveal their caste to their employers. I also spoke to some upper-caste women, who openly told me that they are not ready to do cleaning work. They were cooks, and they didn’t think cooking is domestic work. They said that domestic workers (understood as cleaners) are only lower caste women. Platforms even police the clothing and sexuality of workers - one platform had told workers not to wear jeans or long earrings or do any makeup.

Offline recruitment agencies sometimes discriminate between workers on the basis of caste. One of the agencies I found explicitly said that they do not hire Dalit workers. Online platforms offer better conditions but even then caste dynamics are still present and could even be more highlighted, as I found that workers sometimes do not reveal their caste to companies.

As for the attitude of the government to regulating platforms, it became clear to me during a meeting held by the labour department for gig workers. The labour officers there did not see workers as workers, they did not even let them speak. The meeting was dominated by management and labour officials. When they saw me at the meeting, they told me you are not a gig worker, this is not a meeting for activists and told me to leave. I am not hopeful that the government will regulate online platforms or traditional placement agencies if they don’t even see workers as workers.

As an alternative to the other online platforms and recruitment agencies, an activist I interviewed told me about an agency she is setting up that has been started with the idea of helping workers. She plans to introduce ESI, PF, medical insurance, and provide scholarships for the workers’ children. Instead of standardising salaries, a member of their team will find out the tasks performed, hours, and other conditions of work from each worker, and help them negotiate the salary accordingly. They also plan to have a grievance redressal mechanism, which is very important. As a side note - the activist told me that they are fighting for ESI and PF for their workers, but do not have these benefits for the employees of the organisation.

My experience as a first-time researcher

My work before participating in this project deals with fighting for workers rights. I used to think all agencies are very bad and do not care about workers’ rights. Now I have more context after speaking to so many people, and no longer think that all agencies are equally bad for workers. The project was very difficult, as I had to step outside my comfort zone and get information from new workers who are not part of our union. It was very difficult to find online workers - I found them by approaching some workers who knew others, and after speaking to many workers I would find one that works with a platform. I had to deal with many situations that made me angry and frustrated when I couldn’t find workers or when I had to endlessly wait for interviewees. Companies’ offices were so difficult to find that my legs would start hurting just hunting for them.

After everything I’ve learnt, I’m still left with confusion. I’m very afraid after learning about the control agencies have. But I’m hopeful about some agencies, and think that once they are regulated by the government, they could be good and useful for workers. Recruitment companies can even provide data on workers also for policymaking - the government’s data currently is very poor, they don’t know how many workers there are, where they work, what their conditions of work are.

After everything I’ve learnt, I’m still left with confusion. I’m very afraid after learning about the control agencies have.

Towards the end, I have started questioning the role of online platforms and unions in workers’ lives. Unions are very important because they fight for the rights of workers, their salaries, leaves, and everything else. But some online platforms are actually able to provide higher salaries and leaves to workers, without really looking into their rights. I’m surprised to find so many union workers who actually have worked with agencies or platforms, I didn’t know about them earlier. For them the situation is very good because they are aware of their rights and can fight for them but are also getting good pay through agencies. So I’m left with a lot of questions about whether or not I should be recommending these companies to workers when they are looking for a job. Every time I visit the field workers ask me if I know of any job openings because their financial conditions are poor. This research has helped me understand agencies and platforms, but I’m still unsure about how to answer this question.

I have even thought about starting an agency from within the union, perhaps that could be the answer. There is demand from employers as well as workers for good agencies. In all these cases the middleman always makes a profit, so I’m wondering why we don’t do this as a union. This could work very well because the worker would get good wages, leaves, and some benefits while also knowing their rights and having the support to fight for them.

 

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