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New Publication: Researching Labour Exploitation through Feminist Participatory Action Research

March 8, 2021

Today, to mark International Women’s Day, FLEX launches a publication detailing our experience of doing feminist participatory action research with women and young migrant workers in sectors that are high-risk for labour exploitation. 

Participating in this research, it felt good, it felt better. As a cleaner, you are not important, no one pays attention to you. As a Peer Researcher, I would do interviews, people would share their problems with me, I would recruit new participants, I felt important. In my job you feel invisible all the time. Being a Peer Researcher, I finally felt heard.

–      Juliana, Peer Researcher

Through direct experience, workers in high-risk sectors have important insight about the factors contributing to and driving labour exploitation. They are experts in their own right and, as such, their knowledge can help identify and shape better policy solutions. However, despite their expertise by experience and despite being the ones most affected by such policy decisions, workers at risk are rarely involved by policymakers in developing solutions to labour exploitation.

To meaningfully engage workers in policy-oriented research and bring their knowledge to the attention of policymakers, FLEX has been piloting a participatory research approach called Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR). FPAR aims to empower those most affected by an issue to generate knowledge that can bring about social change. What makes it ‘feminist’ is its focus on engaging with women and other minoritised and traditionally ‘othered’ groups, to highlight and challenge intersecting forms of oppression, like poverty, racism and gender inequality.

Our new publication, Experts by Experience: Conducting Feminist Participatory Action Research with Workers in High-Risk Sectors, documents our experience of doing FPAR with women and young migrant workers in cleaning, hospitality and app-based delivery in the gig economy. It draws on project observations, insights from academic literature, conversations with stakeholders and, primarily, the perspectives of workers themselves. Since FPAR is a research approach rather than a methodology, how it is done in practice depends on the context and circumstances it is being applied in. Our publication is therefore not a guide on ‘how to do FPAR’, but an account of how we have done it in our specific context – the challenges we faced, how we adapted, the ethical considerations made, what worked, and what we might do differently next time.

Learning to do participatory research, actively disrupting power relationships between ‘researchers’ and ‘research subjects’, and findings ways to collectively use research to drive change, has been a process of continuous learning. Despite its challenges, it has been transformative for all involved, and is leading to a deeper and more holistic understanding of the factors contributing to exploitation, and the policy changes that are urgently needed. The first working paper based on our FPAR approach, “If I could change anything about my work…”: Participatory Research with Cleaners in the UK, was published in January 2021. Workers from the cleaning sector were involved in all stages of the research, from design to data collection, analysis and advocacy, as paid Peer Researchers. With training and ongoing support from FLEX, Peer Researchers shaped the questions that were asked, collected data through peer-to-peer interviews and focus groups, developed recommendations, and are now involved in using the findings to increase awareness and advocate for change. FLEX will be publishing two more working papers based on our FPAR approach – one on hospitality and another on the app-based courier sector – and will continue to engage with Peer Researchers to push for better, more inclusive policymaking.

We hope today’s publication will provide a sounding board for those already engaging in participatory research and encourage others to apply FPAR in their own work, starting with these ten tips for doing participatory research with workers in high-risk sectors:

Ten Tips for Doing Feminist Participatory Action Research with Workers in High-Risk Sectors

  1. Assess your readiness to do FPAR. Carefully consider the time, resources, networks and flexibility required to carry out truly participatory research ethically and safely, and critically evaluate your preparedness.
  2. Make enabling the participation of those most at risk of labour exploitation the guiding principle. Remove as many barriers to participation as possible and prepare to substantially adapt or completely re-design your plans as you learn what works. Find ways to involve Peer Researchers in every step of research from design to data collection, analysis and advocacy.
  3. Recognise the value of the knowledge workers hold. Reflect on how this knowledge is different from and complements other types of expertise.
  4. Ensure Peer Researchers receive in-depth training that provides them with transferable skills and a solid basis for carrying out primary research. Topics to cover include research methods, data collection tools and techniques, research ethics, safeguarding and signposting. Make space in the training to discuss informed consent.
  5. Note that Peer Researchers have limited availability. Those working in low-paid and insecure work may have long hours with shifting schedules, which will require extra flexibility around meetings and during the data collection process. Others may be parents, carers or have health needs.
  6. Pay Peer Researchers and research participants for their time. Make sure the payment sufficiently recognises the value of their work, expertise and the time commitment of participants.
  7. Amplify workers’ voices as researchers and experts by experience. Create opportunities for workers to engage in policy spaces, with the media and support worker-led action.
  8. Make the safety and wellbeing of Peer Researchers a priority. Discuss potential safety issues with Peer Researchers such as recruitment through personal networks and staying safe online, and establish mitigations strategies.
  9. Have up-to-date and tailored signposting policies in place in case participants need information, advice or support. Peer Researchers should receive signposting training but should not be made responsible for supporting their peers. Have clear policies in place in case anyone participating is at immediate risk, including clear guidance for when concerns should be escalated to the researching organisation.
  10. Approach FPAR as a process of continuous two-way learning. Be flexible, change processes as needed, seek feedback and input, and test new ways of doing things.

Read FLEX’s handbook on researching labour exploitation through Feminist Participatory Action Research, here.

To find out more about our research, please email [email protected].