The world of work is in a state of flux, and rapid digitalisation is fuelling its transformation. To adapt to an economy where the digital is vital, governments, businesses and individuals have adopted new technologies for purposes ranging from developing more efficient work processes to generating revenue.Exciting as this all might sound, feminists in an intense two-day meeting held in Singapore voiced concerns.
The attendees of this meeting were Crystal Dicks (South Africa), Marianna Fernandes (Brazil), Anita Gurumurthy (India), Gea Meijers (Netherlands), Scheaffer Okore (Africa), Sofia Scasserra (Argentina) and Anna Lee Tuvera (Singapore). Hailing from diverse backgrounds and armed with different expertise, these attendees are part of a working group revolving around labour rights and justice in the digital economy. It is one of the three working groups that emerged out of a larger assembly in Berlin last year under the umbrella of the global FES project “The Future is Feminist”.
Marianna Fernandes, Brazilian activist of the World March of Women and Crystal Dicks, an independent gender and development practitioner from South Africa brainstormed key challenges and opportunities for developing a guiding framework for a feminist digital economy, as well as their visions for the future of work.
During the meeting, these attendees pointed out how the digital economy excludes large numbers of people, especially women in the global south, and drafted a framework to address that. The framework document would be fleshed out in the near future with empirical data, and translated into concrete feminist actions of engagement, education, and resistance.
One key focus of the document would be the shifting constellations of power relations embedded in technology use, such as the inequalities of a platform-based internet that is dominated by a few multinationals.
“The basic mantra in the digital world is scale. If you have scale, you will have all the data because you are able to operate in different markets, build prediction models, know who needs what and what sells better. So, you organise your logistics chain accordingly,” Anita explained. “This is something that women collectives such as a cooperative and a producer organisation cannot do effectively.”
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While competition with formidable multinationals is not new, what has changed over the years is the type of corporations that dominate. As Sofia quipped, “It used to be more industrial corporations, then it was IT corporations and now, we have data corporations. They hold a huge amount of power. We are talking about wealth. We are talking about income.”
Besides untangling unequal power relations in the digital space, another key area that the framework document would delve into is governance and how that might level the playing field. While this remains an unresolved issue in the international arena, attendees of the meeting proposed a few directions for positive change.
Anita, for instance, said, “Policy changes are needed at two levels. One is in controlling classic macroeconomic areas such as competition, taxation and trade. Another is the need to have affirmative action which mobilises resources, including public resources in the form of data and artificial intelligence, to support the alternative economy. Because without that support, it is impossible for women – women-run businesses, women-run farms and more – to make good use of the opportunities in the data economy.”
Examples of such support include incentives for small and medium enterprises as well as public investment in AI resources that workers in general could tap into.
The contents of the framework document would be shared with key actors and supporters in 2020. These include feminist economist networks, women’s rights movements and youth organisations. An engagement with trade unions would also be emphasised.
“Trade unions are very important. Except for the public sector, most of the big unions are industrial unions. But the industrial base is quickly eroding into increasing precarious forms of work, such as casual work,” Crystal said. “How do you organise in an era when workers are not in a factory? These are questions that unions have to be thinking about.”
While such challenges in advocacy were identified, participants of the meeting were hopeful that the sharing of their feminist framework for the digital economy would effect change. They envisioned a fairer future of work, especially for women in the global south. The mood was optimistic.
As Crystal put it, “It’s the moment for feminism. It’s the moment for women rising.”
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