Between Digital Platforms and the Deep Sea

Social Justice implications of digital platforms on marginality in coastal south India

Project Team

Yingqin Zheng
Senior Lecturer, School of Management
Royal Holloway, University of London

Supporting Partner(s) 

Shyam Krishna (RHUL), Indian Fishermen Association, Chennai–India (Community and Labour Organisation)

Project timeframe

Start: December 2019
End: February 2020

Do digital platforms improve or exacerbate existing marginality?

India’s home-grown digital platforms are directly influenced by their counterparts in the Global North despite there being more informality and digital exclusion in the Global South. There is therefore a need to understand marginality and its relation to digital platforms.

There is also a concern that, given the disproportionate number of vulnerable workers among the gig-worker population, their conditions risk being worsened by unfair exploitation.

This project aims to …

examine the fairness of gig-work carried out via digital platforms in the south Indian city of Chennai among marginal workers who are traditionally fishery workers. It will identify fair or unfair practices resulting from the algorithmic control of work and its impact on working conditions.

Specifically it will …

carry out interviews with former fishermen who have become delivery riders in order to find out:

  • what social justice issues are faced by the workers
  • what are the fairness implications for platform design, policy regulation and workers’ association

The researcher will also become a rider himself, thus adding direct observation and personal insights to the data. Photo and video diaries will be used to record the daily experience of being on the road, interacting with the algorithm, spatial navigation of the city and interaction with customers, as well as participant observation as a member embedded within the rider community.

Research will centre on Chennai’s active fisher community, whose existing marginalisation is due to several factors; the dwindling and uncertain revenues from fishing, the risks involved in work at sea and the caste-based nature of traditional fishing occupation.

This project’s social impact is …

The research will be a tool for riders, practitioners and policy-makers that will influence how fairness can be achieved and the role state can play in promoting fair digital participation in society – especially in the absence of organised workforces or data protection in India.

The project will provide a research report identifying (un)fair practices faced by gig workers due to the changing nature work under digital platforms.

Community and labour association leaders will be able to use this report as a declaration of issues when they engage with state and political institutions like police and government ministries on the subject of rights. It is hoped that this will help ongoing efforts to claim rights such as collective actions by rider groups and labour associations.

A second report will be in the form of a blog describing the direct experience of being a rider. This should encourage technology practitioners and the academic community to consider fairness as a parameter in designing digital platforms.

Explanation of key terms

Gig-workers: The gig economy is a way of working that is based on people having temporary jobs or doing separate pieces of work, each paid separately, rather than working for an employer: workers do odd jobs whenever they can and can find it difficult to make a living, although some enjoy the flexibility.