For the working class, mobile phones are more than just communication tools

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

During our conversation, Ali*, a 34 year old domestic helper and driver in Karachi, swipes through his mobile phone to show me the latest South Indian movie he has been watching on YouTube. “It is an impactful film and carries a strong message about street life and poverty. The plot and characters unfold in an interesting way,” he says with an excited expression. This was not my first conversation with him about movies, TikTok and mobile phones. On many occasions, we discussed apps, services and trends related to mobile phones and the internet. He believes that technology is a professional and personal necessity in life, especially with the emergence of internet data packages.

Digital technology is an integral source of human communication in daily lives, especially for professional, familial and information purposes, and it manifests its importance in the lives of people from the working class in Pakistan, who receive very little attention in the mainstream discourse. While the use of mobile technology is seen throughout urban cities and rural villages of Pakistan, this usage varies according to socio-economic divisions, professions and language preferences. It is important to understand the role and impact of digital technology in the lives of Pakistani working class to further improve digital communication and access to the internet.

According to a study titled “Women Disconnected” carried out by Media Matters for Democracy on Gender Digital Divide Amidst COVID-19, 76% of respondents indicated that ‘…Internet in Pakistan is expensive’. The report expressed concern about internet accessibility and affordability, but within the specific gender demographic of women.

However, the sentiments do not seem to be unique to any particular gender, and are also expressed by Ali*. A monthly 25 GB internet data package that approximately costs PKR 700 is expensive for him, yet it is insufficient, and he finds himself unable to use the internet as much as he would prefer. Ali* believes prices for mobile internet packages should be lowered to adjust more MBs so he could use more data and apps online. He also mentioned the importance and frequent usage of mobile phones in daily professional life. He elaborated that most of his work-related domestic tasks relied on WhatsApp.

Communication with his employer has made life easier. Furthermore, he discusses the use of mobile internet for accessing sources of literature such as poetry books and newspapers. Ali* also uses the internet to access entertainment such as movies, shows and music.

He says, “Instead of stepping outside to shops or libraries for books, it is now possible to read them online, and daily news is also accessible through online platforms, so I don’t feel the need to pick up a newspaper anymore.” In addition, as a driver, Google Maps has offered a lot of convenience to Ali* while driving and looking for an unknown location.

Given Ali’s* experience, it seems that digital technology and the use of the internet inculcates a sense of autonomy and independent function among domestic workers, where they can streamline and execute tasks without direct involvement of the employer. This has manifested notions of passive communication between the employer and employee, where instructions and follow-ups to the job are heavily reliant on mobile phones or WhatsApp.

For instance, Ali* is responsible for purchasing groceries and medicinal items for his employer’s household. Communication regarding these purchases is oftentimes made through WhatsApp or mobile phone calls. This provides Ali* with the ease of performing tasks without the constant presence of his employer, and he finds it convenient to complete his job.

For Ali*, mobile phones and WhatsApp have played the role of beneficial technologies with no dire consequences. In addition, he indicates that he uses WhatsApp frequently to stay in touch with his family and friends. The provision of monthly mobile data packages really helps despite the expense it incurs on his budget and the limitations it comes with. He says that video-calling is an added advantage to stay in touch with relatives and friends in other cities. He cannot visit them easily and video calls allow an experience that is similar to in- person interaction.

Conversely, he firmly believes that these forms of digital technology do not bestow a sense of mental peace or comfort. Ali* says that the value of true human connection has diminished since the use of the internet, and is nothing like it used to be before the emergence of such digital technologies.

Despite the loss of meaningful connections; he postulates that the fast, easy and traceable nature of digital technology has yielded a sense of safety for himself and his family members. He stays in touch with his family even during working hours, in case of any problems at home. Communication through mobile phones is a source of reassurance for him to make sure his family members are safe and sound, and he says that he is ready to bear the cost in exchange for the convenience.

Mobile phones and women’s safety

Ali* strongly agreed that digital technology is a source of safety and well-being for women. Due to mobile phones and internet data, he says that he is able to stay in touch with his sisters when they leave the house, and can also track their location when they travel. He maintains that these are protective features used by his immediate family, in case of an emergency or problem. It seems that certain areas do not receive mobile signals which can be a hassle for him, especially since he uses WhatsApp to communicate with his employer.

This adds an additional strain to finding reliable spots with better connection when he has to communicate important details to his employer. With highly advanced technology in contemporary day, it plays out as an ironic joke that mobile signals are not fully reliable. Keeping in consideration that Pakistan has been ranked as the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women; it is imperative to acknowledge the role of digital technology in their safety and protection. Location tracking features, text messages and phone calls are simple yet impactful elements that ensure the safety of women when they step outside to study, work or travel, and these features manifest their importance in the lives of working class women equally. Mobile phones are a useful technology for working class women, since it functions as a safety net where direct contact with reliable family members can be established in emergencies or urgent matters.

Harassment has been an unfortunate reality for many working-class women, where they have experienced bullying, sexual advances and suggestive comments on the streets, in public transportation and at their place of employment. Mobile phones are now being used as a tool for empowerment, evidence and justice in such situations. Working class women are able to use their phones to record audio and video evidence of harassment as a warning sign for employers to discontinue oppressive treatment. This also serves as a reminder for middle- and higher-class strata to monitor their privilege and ensure better treatment of their employees.

Salma* is a 64-year-old domestic worker in a household in Karachi who uses a feature phone to talk to her family in a village in Sindh. She says that it has helped her in remaining updated on the whereabouts and safety of her granddaughter who works in a different household to make ends meet. As an elderly woman, Salma* feels that mobile communication has provided her with mental comfort regarding the safety of her granddaughter when she is travelling back and forth from work. Her granddaughter who lives with her is a young under-age girl and does not own a mobile phone because of financial restrictions.

However, Salma’s mobile phone also serves as her primary mode of communication to connect with her relatives in her village. “My worries vanish after speaking to my loved ones on the mobile phone.” She says that she is unable to use WhatsApp or other modern features and applications which are usually found in smartphones owing to her limited digital literacy skills. Despite not owning a smartphone like Ali*, Salma* prefers owning some form of mobile device that enables her to stay connected with her family and ensure safety of them. During our conversation, she mentioned that it was a hassle contacting her relatives when her mobile phone stopped working a few days ago. She says that having a mobile phone has evident positive effects on her mental and emotional health. She attributes a sense of reassurance and mental peace to frequent calls between herself and her grandchildren and other relatives in the village.

She elaborates, “In times of sickness or problems, I am able to call and check on my loved ones which makes my heart feel lighter.” In this case, digital technology can be ascribed to strengthening of familial bonds and a feeling of inner calmness.

Salma* discusses the use of mobile communication for professional purposes, and says it is convenient to call and inform the employer if she is unable to go to work. The feasibility of a mobile phone has also created opportunities for her to earn extra income from other temporary employers. She often receives calls to visit their homes to perform a one-time household task, which she says is overall beneficial since it provides her extra money for the month. For Salma*, mobile communication serves as a fast and easy method to stay in touch with employers and provide domestic services when required.

In the past, Salma* has struggled to find mobile signals in the city to make phone calls to her son in the village. It is a problem that many users face on a daily basis. Certain areas of the city have terrible signals which makes it impossible to receive messages or make urgent phone calls. Salma* emphasises that this must be addressed by mobile companies because weak signals could also threaten the safety and well-being of working- class women who leave their houses with the comfort of knowing that a call can be made in case of an unsafe situation. Even though Salma* finds mobile phones to be a tool of mental assurance, she has experienced stressful times when calls would not connect. Despite it being expensive and a burden on their monthly budget, people from the working class are forced to buy expensive mobile services without the guarantee of uninterrupted quality service.

Technology as resourceful mediator

Raheem* who is a 36-year-old person working as a driver in a household in Karachi, utilizes limited forms of the internet, such as WhatsApp; however, he expressed no complaints regarding its affordability. He uses the mobile phone to stay connected with family in the village, friends and with his employer. Raheem* subscribes to a weekly package of mobile data that allows him to use WhatsApp and phone calls, and costs him PKR 50. He confirmed that he does not use any other apps or internet platforms on his mobile phone. It seems that his restrictive usage of mobile internet and satisfaction levels with mobile data affordability are correlated.

“Mobile phones have made life easier because it fosters communication with loved ones in difficult times. At work I can easily coordinate timings with the employer or inform my absence on some days,” Raheem* says. It is apparent that working class professions are dependent on digital technology, due to instant communication regarding timings, absence or tasks. It is a resourceful mediator between the employer and employee since it facilitates instant connection and fast paced communication as seen in both Ali* and Raheem’s case.

However, Raheem* expressed similar sentiments as Salma*, and reflected that mobile connection allows him to speak to his loved ones in the village, especially when he is feeling low. He expressed feeling joy whenever he made a video call to his family in the village. For Raheem*, it is also a way to remain updated of the well-being of his family when he cannot reach them in person. Based on the many positive aspects of mobile phones that all three individuals have experienced in their lives, they ruled out a common notion that regards technology as evil. In fact, they seemed satisfied in their ownership of mobile technology and considered it an essential means of communication. They thought it was a necessary aspect of their daily routine and made life easier.

All individuals expressed mutual acknowledgment of the significance of digital technology in their jobs, and found it to be a main source of connection between their employer, family and them. There were stark differences too, where Ali* was of the opinion that digital technology has degraded the value of real human connection, Salma* and Raheem* thought otherwise, and felt that mobile connections gave them emotional relief and happiness by communicating with their loved ones in their respective villages.

A shared space for demanding rights

As Salma* spoke to me about her mobile phone usage pattern, she was visibly reluctant to talk about the affordability of call packages. However, she said, “When I want to speak to my family in the village, I top up my phone with Rupees 50 and give them a missed call so they can call me back.” She reiterated that the fastest solution is to top up her phone with PKR 50 to call and check the well-being of her family in the village. Unlike Ali*, she prioritises GSM calls over the use of the internet on her mobile phone. Where Ali’s* usage was focused on communication and entertainment and he was willing to pay a larger amount for this access and hence expressed concerns of affordability, Salma* on the other hand seems to be more inclined towards financial and familial security with her limited usage of the mobile phone that she owns.

Sumbul*, a prominent labour rights activist, says, “Many of the working-class people lack resources to bear [the] cost of internet packages. It is a question of internet availability and accessibility in urban areas. Mobile phone companies offer cheaper packages as well, however quality of service remains poor.”

Sumbul* spent years understanding and speaking for the issues of labour and working class in Pakistan. With the emergence of Covid-19 and lockdown across the country, many labourers lost their daily wages. The labour class experienced a financial plummet that resulted in an organized protest on a large scale to express their discernment with the government. During our conversation, Sumbul* shared how forms of digital technology such as mobile phones and WhatsApp were used by the labour class for coordination and information sharing before and during the protest. She further explained that the union culture in Pakistan is weak due to systemic and historical efforts to disempower labour which fostered anti-labour policies. “Due to lack of government assistance after lockdown layoffs, the labour class and union parties were mobilized through WhatsApp groups. They shared information, updates, solidarity messages, left-wing statements and organizational details regarding the labour protest which took place in 2020 [in Punjab], through these groups,” she says. She also observed the gradual mobilization of domestic workers through active involvement in WhatsApp and Facebook groups, exclusively made for them. Moreover, Sumbul* mentioned the use of “TikTok” by the working class for entertainment and relaxation. Parallels can be drawn to the Singapore- based app, Bigo, which is used as a live streaming app with video and audio features. Where many people use these apps for entertainment, others, especially women, from villages and working class use this not just as a source of reclaiming their space on public forums but also to earn a livelihood through these platforms.

Evidently, digital technology serves more than one purpose and is a multi-faceted facility even among the working or labour class. It not only enables them to communicate and perform at their work, but has also helped them mobilise for their rights, much like how the internet has empowered the affluents in their rights-based movements across the world.

During her experiences working on labour rights, Sumbul* noticed that women workers in Orangi Town in Karachi used WhatsApp to connect, coordinate and communicate with each other through voice messages. Sumbul’s experience highlights the potential of domestic workers fostering digital platforms to improve their conditions of employment and opportunities in the country.

Digital technology is experienced in different ways by every person, even if they belong to the same socio-economic strata. However, mobile phones and WhatsApp are popular platforms for work-related communication and coordination. It is the genesis of maintaining long distance communication with relatives, friends or family; to convey emotions, messages or information. The most notable function is the provision of safety and protection through mobile phones and WhatsApp. In a country where women from all socio-economic backgrounds struggle to work, travel and live-in safe environments, it is essential to understand the impactful capacity digital technology carries in keeping women out of harm’s way, and how this impact varies for various women.

Where a woman from a wealthier background can turn to platforms like Twitter or avail customer service support in cases of harassment while they travel through services like Careem and Uber, many working class women avail public transportation where these services are unavailable. In instances like this, the only safety mechanism at their disposal is the bystanders or the mobile phone that they carry to connect with family in times of distress. In situations like this, inclusive and affordable technological ideas must be fostered to improve their lives and upgrade safety measures.

Mobile companies may offer cheap packages, but often opting for what seems like a cheap package offers an unreliable and poor service connection. All three participants who I spoke with have complained about poor signals and services during phone calls. However, Ali* and Raheem* especially agreed that it affected the performance of Whatsapp features such as phone calls and messages, whereas, Salma* posits that her son in the village receives better phone connectivity than what she gets in a city.

It goes without saying that no matter how affordable a service is, if at all, service providers have the responsibility to ensure uninterrupted quality service to all of their subscribers without discrepancy based on their socio-economic or geographic situation.

There is always room to improve the quality-of-service, which in the long run could ensure customer satisfaction and build increased reliability in terms of strengthening familial bonds and assuring women’s safety and protection. Overall, the usage and importance of mobile technology and apps in the lives of working-class people must be further investigated, in order to make services more inclusive of all socio-economic classes.

Academic research, public platforms and incubation centres should observe and determine more improved mobile technologies and apps that serve the purpose of our working-class strata. By creating public dialogue about their communication tools and needs, we could gradually move towards a more integrative and less classist society in the long-run. Incorporating the professional needs and daily convenience while ensuring affordability of working-class people within mobile technology and apps could serve as a gateway to more economic opportunities and autonomy in employment.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people.

Huda Syyed is currently a research student at Charles Darwin University. Her main academic interests include gender, sexuality and political culture. She pursued a Master’s degree from International Relations at QueenMary University of London. In between, she completed a certificate course at The Graduate Institute Geneva. In the past, she has worked as a Research Assistant for academic projects and was also a Project Coordinator for a non-profit organisation, endorsed by ‘UN Women’ to deal with Gender-Based-Violence cases. She was also a visiting faculty lecturer at Bahria University and taught the course of “International Organisations”, and contributed to newspaper publications. Find her work here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Huda-Sa-Syyed

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