By: Vanessa Pillay, coordinator of the WIEGO(opens in new window) Organisation and Representation Programme in Africa
Through the Power Up project we are supporting the organising of home-based workers (HBWs) in Uganda and South Africa as part of the broader home-based workers’ movement in the region. Home-based workers are self-employed or sub-contracted workers in the informal economy who produce goods and services from their homes which are their workplaces. This blog shares how workers have been using voice notes through an instant messaging application to support each other and to sustain their organising under strict COVID 19 lockdown restrictions.
Home-based workers lives and livelihoods were under threat:
In both Uganda and South Africa, when national lockdown was announced and free movement was restricted, home-based workers were in despair. They could not sell what they had already produced nor could they get access to any raw materials to complete existing orders such as crafts or garments. The workers were facing income uncertainty and food insecurity as they depend on their daily earning for their livelihood. They could not hold meetings and did not have access to internet or sufficient phone data to use zoom or other such means.
What did the organisation do?
We arranged meetings with the leaders via a free instant messaging app that allows people to send written or voice messages from smart phones. Messages come in writing or voice, and all appear in chronological order so that ‘meeting’ participants can follow along. It allowed us to listen to leaders’ voices to hear how they were coping under the lockdown; and allowed leaders to feel connected to each other as they heard each other’s voices.
The first Ugandan meeting started on a sombre note on the 6th of April 2020. Everyone expressed their despair as they were not sure how long the situation would last nor did they have enough savings to stockpile basic foodstuff for the unknown period ahead. In the same meeting, the home-based workers realised that formal public sector workers around them appeared to be in a better situation as they were still getting paid by the state. The home-based workers felt ignored and abandoned so they wanted to communicate this to the government. The leaders also realised that if they were feeling despondent then their members in the districts and villages around them were probably feeling the same or worse. So we encouraged the leaders to reach out to their members by phone, just as we had reached out to them, to ask them how they were coping and what message they wanted to send to the government about how home-based workers were affected by the lockdown.
What was the result?
By the end of the first voice notes meeting, home-based workers in Uganda and South Africa sounded less despondent and more determined to reach out to others even if it was just to encourage each other and feel connected. The Ugandans went further and mobilised around the question of ‘what message do we want to send to the government at this time about the impact of the lockdown on our lives and our livelihood?’ HBWs spoke about six priority areas – health and safety, income and food security, communication and information, employment, financial services, agriculture, schooling and community education. In seven weeks the leaders had mobilised responses from home-based workers in all four divisions of Kampala City.
On 15th May 2020, the Ugandan HBW network of19 organisations issued an open statement to government on the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on HBWs lives and livelihood in Uganda. How did it strengthen organisation? Leaders were inspired to mobilise instead of feeling helpless. By collecting inputs from all home-based workers about the effects of the pandemic and lockdown, the leaders were learning about democratic organisation and the importance of getting mandates from members. The leaders listened to the members’ challenges from which they developed clear demands. The home-based workers also formed alliances with sister organisations, the national trade union centre and the media to have their open statement publicised. However, the national media did not publish their statement.
Convening organisational meetings using voice notes ensures organisational accountability because there is a live recording of the meeting that everyone can listen to at any time. It is an interactive and personalised communication platform when face-to-face meetings are not possible. It is possible to participate in the meeting from anywhere as long as workers have data and clear network connection. The Ugandan home-based worker leaders have continued using voice notes for monthly organisational meetings and they have trained members to do the same using their mobile phones as organising and mobilising tools.