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.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally written by Sumathi in Kannada, a language predominantly spoken in the state of Karnataka. Her writing was subsequently translated to English by Sumitra MB. I have thereafter edited the piece. In this process, we have attempted to retain the essence of Sumathi’s account of her experience of performing field research. We may not have been able to do complete justice to Sumathi’s account, and are thereby attaching her original writing here.
When Aayush and Ambika from the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru told me that they wanted to survey domestic workers, especially those who had gotten jobs through online agencies, it looked very difficult for me because I did not know about online agencies. We also had to interview some NGOs and government officials.
At that time, I had several doubts and questions. I was finding it very difficult to understand their explanation of the research and its objectives. I had initially decided it would not be possible for me to take on the project. They also said that each (four) of us should do ten online surveys. I was not convinced and afraid that I would not be able to achieve this. We were also required to record the interview, which seemed very difficult. The other three ‘sisters’ and also Geeta were more confident about completing the research. After they agreed to do the survey, I also agreed. I signed the contract with CIS and was given a recorder.
I was finding it very difficult to understand their explanation of the research and its objectives.
While I work with domestic workers as an activist for Domestic Workers’ Rights Union in Bengaluru, my work involves giving information about the union’s activities to women who are employed as domestic workers. I also speak to the women on issues including robbery and theft allegations that surface against them when working in homes, incomplete payment of salaries, removal from work, and how the union can support the women in dealing with these issues.
I have also visited workers regarding offline agencies. I am well aware of how, through offline agencies, a lot of children as well as adults voluntarily and involuntarily migrate to places in India such as Delhi, Kolkata Mumbai, and also states like Odisha, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Sometimes this migration is also to far-off places like Dubai and other countries through offline agencies. But I had no information regarding online workers.
The first time I came to know about the operation of online agencies in Bangalore was through this research. After starting the research, we asked at a union meeting if anyone out of them, or anyone they knew, had gotten work through online agencies. It was difficult for me to believe that workers who are members of our union were getting work through online agencies! The names of these agencies itself were very different for me to understand: Crew On Jobs, Maid for you, Babajobs.com, Book My Bai etc.
The names of these agencies itself were very different for me to understand: Crew On Jobs, Maid for you, Babajobs.com, Book My Bai etc.
The union works with many domestic workers in several pockets of Bengaluru, but it was surprising that many workers had gotten jobs through online agencies. Even though we came to know this as a part of the survey process, it was very hard for me to believe this! Despite this knowledge, it was difficult to identify the particular workers who had gotten jobs through online agencies so that may be able to do the survey with them.
We are used to interacting several times with domestic workers to convince them to join the union. However, with workers that got work through online agencies, it was very difficult to convince them to speak to me and get the answers to all these questions. It was frustrating to repeatedly convince potential interviewees about the usefulness of the survey.
The setting-up of interviews was difficult too. Their convenience was paramount, and accordingly, I had to take interviews in many different and even difficult settings. At times, the interviews came at the cost of disrupting my daily schedule and timings. It had to be done as securing interviews was challenging. Even after that, some interviews had to be speedily done. For example, with an interviewee working in Vishweshwarapura, Bengaluru, I fixed an interview over the telephone. She gave me 10 minutes’ time and, she said, “I will come to the main road at 2 p.m..”
This is a noisy, public road. Upon meeting her, Manjula told me that she had only 10 minutes to spare as her husband would be coming to pick her up soon and that she had to be at another house to do work. It was very difficult for me to complete the interview in 10 minutes as it takes 20 to 30 minutes to do the survey.
In the public place I am recording and when I am recording also people are coming and asking me why are you doing all this, what is the profit for you from this and questions like that. It is very difficult to answer them. I also felt very bad at the accusatory line of questioning.
People are coming and asking me why are you doing all this, what is the profit for you from this and questions like that. It is very difficult to answer them.
Through these interviews, I realised more about the challenges that migrant workers face. They too grapple with problems that local workers do such as those of poverty and severe caste discrimination. These are the problems that workers who got jobs through online platforms face. An interviewee told me that she had changed her name to not disclose her caste identity as it was being a barrier in getting work. Some interviewees would take their children to work, as they could not afford to send them to school or to day-care facilities. Poverty then led to the use of child labour. It was disheartening to see that the conditions of domestic workers on platforms were not very different from that of domestic workers who had gotten work through traditional recruitment paths.