Confined to their homes because of Covid-19 lockdown regulations, home-based workers discovered that WhatsApp voice notes could be used as a powerful organising tool, reports Vanessa Pillay.
The WIEGO Organization and Representation Programme in Africa through a project funded by Comic Relief is supporting the organising of home-based workers (HBW) in Uganda and South Africa as part of the broader home-based workers’ movement in the region.
HBWs are self-employed or sub-contracted workers in the informal economy who produce goods and services from their homes, their homes are their permanent workplaces.
Lockdown causes despair
In both Uganda and South Africa when national lockdown was announced because of Covid-19 and free movement was restricted, HBWs 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. Without access to their regular means of earning a living, the uncertainty was a bigger threat than the prevailing health crisis. They faced income uncertainty and food insecurity as they depend on their daily earning for their livelihood.
Voice notes bring hope
Learning from street vendors in Sierra Leone, we introduced WhatsApp voice notes to maintain contact with the home-based workers and they were in turn encouraged to use WhatsApp voice notes to support each other and to sustain their organising.
We arranged meetings with the leaders via WhatsApp voice notes so that we could listen to their voices to hear how they were coping under the lockdown. We also wanted the leaders to feel connected to each other when they heard each other’s voices.
The first Ugandan meeting started on a sombre note on April 6 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. 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.
Voice notes mobilise
By the end of the first WhatsApp 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 HBWs in all four divisions of Kampala City. On May 15 2020 the Ugandan HBW network of 19 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 organization?
Leaders were inspired to mobilise instead of feeling helpless. By collecting inputs from all HBWs about the effects of the pandemic and the lockdown the leaders were learning about democratic organisation and the importance of getting mandates from members. The leaders listened to the members’ challenges and they were able to develop clear demands from those concerns. The HBWs also formed alliances with sister organizations, the national trade union centre and the media to have their open statement publicised.
What did we learn?
Convening organizational 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 HBW leaders have been using WhatsApp voice notes for monthly organisational meetings and they have trained members to do the same using their mobile phones as organising and mobilising tools.
Vanessa Pillay is Organization & Representation Programme Coordinator for Africa