By Afreen Ahmed, MPP student

In January 2024, with support from the Center for International Development, I traveled to India for several weeks to interview labor organizations and workers in the gig and platform sector. We know that technology changes the structures of work rapidly, and my goal was to understand how people respond creatively when public policy is slow to address evolving work conditions. I focused my research on the following questions:

What happens when labor policy falls short in protecting workers? Who steps up to fill that gap? 

Technology and Innovation in Bangalore

woman on sidewalk
HKS student Afreen Ahmed in Bangalore, India.

I traveled to Bangalore, a city in South India that is a particularly interesting place to explore this question. Over the last several years, Bangalore has boomed with technological innovations. The city is now a hub for technology firms, consulting companies, and other advanced industries. At the same time, there is still a large population of people of marginalized castes and genders working in low-wage gig and platform jobs. This includes delivery workers, rideshare drivers, and domestic workers.

As I explored the city, I interviewed NGOs, think tanks, and workers on the ground to better understand how labor conditions in Bangalore have evolved with the advancing technology landscape. I explored which demographics have been most affected, and how organizations are harnessing innovation to better serve workers. 

Leading the Way for Worker Wellbeing

For my research, I spoke with the Good Business Lab and Aapti Institute, two organizations that are working alongside the public and private sector to create change. The Good Business Lab works closely with garment and textile workers as well as domestic workers—both industries dominated by women—to make a business case for companies to improve worker conditions. One example of this is working with garment factories to improve lighting on the floor, which improves safety conditions for workers but also increases productivity for the employer. Another example is training domestic workers on help-hiring platforms in soft skills like negotiation, which improves employee benefits and reduces worker turnover for employers. By finding the mutually beneficial areas between employer and employee needs, they are able to enact effective change outside of formal policy. 

city at night street
Indian city at night. Photo by Atharva Tulsi.

Aapti Institute is working to bring the voices of Uber drivers into the rideshare company’s formal decision-making process. Several years ago, Uber India drivers struggled with several UX aspects of the app – namely their inability to see fares and distance before accepting a ride. While this was an issue of agency for the drivers, it also created a problem for Uber: drivers would frequently accept and then cancel rides, leaving customers unhappy with the app experience. Aapti Institute worked closely with Uber to create a Driver Advisory Council that brought the voices of drivers into decision-making rooms with the company’s executives, improving both the driver experience and the customer experience. Aapti’s insights have prompted me to think more deeply about possible self-governance structures that can foster better work environments for vulnerable workers until policy catches up to provide robust protections. 

The Role of Civil Society in Protecting Low-Wage Workers 

My research allowed me to understand how civil society organizations develop creative solutions to address problems in labor conditions on the ground for low-wage workers. The new and evolving phenomenon of platform work presents critical equity concerns because many workers in unregulated industries belong to marginalized identities and are the most vulnerable in society. This is a critical time to understand the new implications of technology on workers and to learn from community-led efforts to solve those problems. CID’s support allowed me to learn from new and innovative approaches to worker wellbeing in India, and I hope to bring those findings back to my labor policy studies in the United States.  

Afreen Ahmed

Afreen is a first year MPP student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government focused on labor policy. Her interest is in ensuring the transition to a digital economy is inclusive for low-wage workers. She previously worked with McKinsey’s economic development practice across the Middle East, advising governments on labor code reforms, social service provision, and education policy. 

Image Credits

Afreen Ahmed, Atharva Tulsi

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