Tech solutions must be context sensitive
External evaluation of Shramik Vaani Initiative: Using technology to foster collective action among workers
2 November 2021
The Shramik Vaani Initiative set out to develop a mobile-driven communication platform to amplify and strengthen communication between workers, trade unions and other workers’ organisations, with the ultimate goal of improving working conditions.
- The Shramik Vaani Initiative set out to develop a mobile-driven communication platform to amplify and strengthen communication between workers, trade unions and other workers’ organisations, with the ultimate goal of improving working conditions.
- Increase women's adoption of technology as a means for catalysing employer accountability and collective worker action.
- Develop partner organisations through targeted institutional capacity-building assistance and sustained use of the platform.
Partner: OnionDev Technologies/GramVaan
Investment: EUR 805,000 (C&A Foundation)
Duration: March 2017-June 2020
Geographic region: India
The initiative used a well-tested technology to support workers’ knowledge empowerment, but was constrained by low levels of mobile phone access and trust among women workers.
- The initiative was based on a well-tested technology used in other locations within India and by other groups and communities, however, its introduction to workers was fairly new and required essential groundwork in the context of worker mobilisation. Constraints included low levels of access to mobile phones, lack of user trust in the platform, and challenges in developing content.
- The initiative was further constrained by an incomplete understanding of the operating context, including challenging social and cultural norms, low levels of education, and marginalisation and disempowerment of women workers – both at home and in the workplace.
- The ability of partners to use the interactive voice recording (IVR) technology was limited by technical capacity and human resource issues. While the initiative supported partners to use the IVR technology, partners had limited capacity for handling cases, legal matters and industrial relations.
While the initiative had limited impact on improving working conditions, it fulfilled an unintended positive function as a helpline for workers at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic
- The initiative aimed to boost communication between trade unions and worker organisations gathering grievances from women workers, in order to enable collective action and campaigns to improve working conditions. However, the design was not well adapted to the operating context where women workers had limited access to mobile phones. It did not effectively facilitate reflection among listeners and users, as intended.
- There was a lack of adequate partner buy-in and capacity, as the selection of partners took place after the original initiative design. The platform did, however, help partners to understand effective communication, interview and questioning techniques, and workers’ rights and entitlements and how they can access them.
- The primary value of the platform was the opportunity it offered women workers to call and ask questions, receive answers, or seek help for specific issues. This played a positive role in the first critical months of the COVID-19 pandemic when many workers called in to ask about ration cards and transportation back to their home villages.
The initiative provided support to women workers, giving them a voice and strengthening partner outreach, but was not effective in promoting decent work
- Many workers benefitted from information provided by the platform and by partners offline, addressing issues related to entitlements like provident funds and accident and health insurance paid by employers. The platform has given women workers a voice and a space to access support and information.
- Employers were contacted by activists, unions and/or local authorities either through direct meetings or by exposure to platform content about the application of the law, including the legally required procedures for grievance handling.
- The initiative also strengthened partners’ abilities to reach out to members, identify their concerns, and respond with information and guidance on topics such as government support schemes during the pandemic. However, the project did not succeed in mobilising or supporting workers to defend their rights in conflicts of interests with employers or to influence the legislative framework or practices. The initiative was not effective in promoting decent work in India.
- Communication that takes place on the platform contributes to the notion that ‘my voice counts’, creating a common worker identity and feeling that ‘we are not alone’.
What did we learn?
- To be effective, the design of initiatives that introduce technology within communities must be sensitive and based on a thorough understanding of the user context.
- Technology platforms are only part of the solution to amplify worker communication between employers and unions.
- Initiatives that involve women and historically marginalised groups benefit from embedding gender, equity and social inclusion perspectives in their design and implementation.
For Partners & Others
- The involvement of sub-partners in the design and implementation stages is key for enabling the relevance, ownership, and adaptation necessary for achieving intended outcomes.
- Partners require handholding and financial support to build their capacity for hosting technological platforms and activating campaigns beyond individual cases.
- An effective communication strategy is essential both for developing appropriate messaging and content, and for planning its use.
GramVaan's Management Response:
The Shramik Vaani initiative funded by the Laudes Foundation aimed to use voice-based communication technologies to foster collective action among women garment sector workers, in affiliation with trade union and social sector partner organizations, at four locations in India: Delhi NCR, Chennai, Dindigul, and Tirupur. Gram Vaani has a proven track record of empowering communities to demand their rights, and the Shramik Vaani initiative was an effort to extend a similar model to the space of labour rights. IVR (Interactive Voice Response) systems working through regular non-smartphones form the technological platform for these initiatives, along with carefully learned processes and practices to create a safe space for self-expression by the community members, and ground-up community mobilization strategies for capacity building of the community members to utilize the technology medium effectively. In the South India locations of Chennai, Dindigul, and Tirupur, the Shramik Vaani initiative aimed to embed this model within the operations of the partner organizations through suitable capacity building and participatory design methods. In the Delhi NCR arm of the initiative, where relevant partner organizations could not be identified during the initial stages, the project evolved a bottom-up volunteer-driven action methodology directly with participation of the workers.
We are thankful to the Laudes Foundation for their generous support for the initiative and the learning that emerged from the initiative.
We are also thankful to Strategy House DK for their thorough evaluation of the project outcomes. Given the complexity of working with multiple partners in widely different contexts, the evaluation successfully brought out fine nuances that led to successes and failures in meeting the original goals of the project.
We would like to humbly draw upon some factors that may have led to non/mis-consideration of certain facts about the Shramik Vaani initiative, during the evaluation. The evaluation was conducted remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have naturally impacted the contextual understanding gained by the team. The interface of technology and development is also a complex one, and although many factors were mentioned during calls with the evaluation team, some of them may not have been understood in all their detail, understandably so because of communication limitations as well the tight timelines for the evaluation. We outline our interpretation of the recommendations by highlighting how and why these recommendations were inferred, and to offer our view of re-interpretation which would have led to differently stated recommendations.