08/01/2021

In Pakistan’s Digital Information Economy, Employees are Subjected to Surveillance and Exploitation

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

On your daily Instagram scroll, you may have come across snappy explainer style videos which carry information that legacy media organisations could temporarily get shut down for – either because of the supposedly taboo issues they’re deconstructing from a progressive lens, or the political sensitivity and dangers they are sidestepping.

Who puts these videos together? Are the people behind such work granted any protections?  As modes of information dissemination become increasingly digitised in Pakistan, it becomes prudent to ask these questions. Particularly because, a wave of young, upper class Pakistani entrepreneurs are intent on ‘re-claiming’ the processes and terms upon which information is disseminated. To their advantage an increasingly digitised economy has provided a route to this, one that does not require a heavy capital investment. Recent college graduates, excited at the prospect of building ‘counter narratives’, are hired on salaries that do not match their titles or the multitude of roles assigned to them as they put in the  work of lifting these organisations off the ground, nurturing credibility for them, and finding a profitable audience.

Admittedly, the organisations that have cropped up on the market as a result of this have much to offer. They have helped supplement the growth of an alternate public square in which information is distributed beyond the confines of the bureaucracy and gatekeeping weighing down on legacy media houses and NGOs. Much like most public spaces in Pakistan though, access and safety are far from guaranteed to the vast majority – but what of those who work for these information advocacy organisations? What does their access and safety in these alternate public spaces look like?

Worryingly, some of the biggest limits on their rights, access, privacy and wellbeing are placed on them by their employers, who are also capitalising on the kind of politics used to challenge these very violations.

Surveillance and privacy invasions in service of ‘progressive work’

“No matter what politics these people claim, the reality is that in their organisations there is no room for unionisation, there is no job security, there is no democracy, there is no political freedom. How can you fight for a political freedom which you refuse to give?” asks Faiz* who during an eight month stint at a digital media startup, was fired for his personal politics, and rehired when his co-workers staged a rebellion. And he claims that isn’t even his most traumatic recollection from his time at the organisation.

Investigative stories which he spent weeks researching, promising marginalised communities an opportunity to speak truth to power, were rejected after prior approval  as ‘punishment’ when his bosses got upset with him over technicalities like him using the office car for fieldwork instead of his own transportation.

Sometimes, his editors shared his stories with editors in other organisations, without his prior consent, knowledge or any indication of due compensation. Ironically, he was fired for publishing a politically sensitive story for another organisation, which he was contractually allowed to do. His editors found that story to be ‘dangerous’, and since he was on probation, they immediately terminated his contract without notice or severance. He spent weeks at home, unemployed as his co-workers fought for him. When he was rehired, his probation was extended – but worst of all, he was subjected to intense scrutiny and surveillance, both offline and online.

When one of his friends went missing, he was not allowed to attend the protest or tweet about it in a personal capacity. In fact, his personal Twitter account was closely monitored, and his editor not only asked him to take down tweets, but also to ‘unlike’ and ‘undo’ tweets and retweets that they did not agree with. In one particular instance, a prominent journalist got into an argument with an editor who Faiz’s editors were friends with. Faiz had been personally bullied by this particular editor and disagreed with their politics. When he liked tweets to indicate this sentiment, his editor messaged him immediately asking him to unlike the tweets.

This was not Faiz’s first job. After graduating with a degree in journalism, Faiz worked for a big media house and broke high stakes investigative stories. But very soon, he became frustrated with increasing censorship and restrictions placed on issues he could cover. He turned to this particular digital media startup as they promised a free license to publish stories on progressive issues. The promise was premised in the broad, general philosophical grounding of the organisation: a commitment towards covering taboo issues, telling stories through a progressive lens, and giving a voice to those overlooked by legacy media houses.

And yet, despite this promise, he was only allowed to produce work which challenged power in socially acceptable, click-baity ways. He struggled to take ownership of his work, whereas, his editors sometimes even titled and edited his stories in ways that resulted in factual inaccuracies. Worst of all, there was no room to bring up grievances – the constant surveillance and violation of his privacy, the threat of unemployment, and the limited opportunities available to media professionals left Faiz traumatised and afraid.

The trauma inducing triumvirate of limited opportunities, the threat of unemployment and constant infringement of his privacy is a brand of torture not particular to the digital media industry. It is an experience that many young professionals across the country are subjected to. However, the digital currency that startup firms intent on advocacy through digital information dissemination find themselves dependent on raises the stakes for young professionals working at these organisations.

Fresh graduates, who are hired on salaries far below any imagining of a ‘living wage’ are told they lack ‘experience’ as justification for lack of appropriate compensation, even as they are given roles, which by that very logic, require a lot of experience.

Perhaps a good question to ask here is – what kind of ‘experience’ does one require to accrue capital in digital spaces?

I would argue that for many of us, the ‘digital’ is undeniably an extension of the ‘self’. The beats of digital discourse not only play a big role in our socialisation, but also in the development of our voices. Much like the journalists and activists I interviewed for this piece, by the time I was hired for my first job, I already had a ‘digital voice’. I understood the importance of clear, goal oriented messaging, consistent tonality, and building a relationship of trust with one’s followers through a combination of openness, consistency and relatability, even if I did not have the vocabulary to professionally articulate any of this as a media ‘strategy.’

It is perhaps this very sensibility that allows young graduates to carry digital media and advocacy startups on their shoulders, without the supposed pre-requisite of many years of experience in established organisations. What is extremely worrying, however, is that managers are intent on benefiting from the ways in which their employees utilise this sensibility in their personal digital spaces.

Palwasha*, a young activist, fresh out of college and with a considerable Twitter following,  joined a startup that practiced digital advocacy. She described to me how her manager “nudged” her to become active on Twitter, and tweet about the issues the organisation worked on. Tagging the organisation in these tweets was also something she was “nudged” to do. Soon after, the manager started sending tweets and writing they had published in a personal capacity, to their employees – expecting them to use their personal accounts to promote the manager’s work. If the manager got into an argument on Twitter, employees were expected to tweet in their favor.

Palwasha saw this as an invasion of her privacy, and described to me how things only continued to worsen. “The manager also started policing the general content employees posted, liked or shared from their personal accounts,” she said. In one particular instance, Palwasha retweeted a gendered analysis of workplaces to which the manager took offence, worried about the ways it might reflect on the organisation, and asked her to undo and unlike the retweet.

Much like Faiz’s managers, Palwasha’s managers, in addition to utilising her personal digital spaces to the organisation’s benefit, also felt entitled to policing the politics she participated in through these spaces. Perhaps this surveillance and invasion of privacy stemmed from the fear that Twitter users may conflate Palwasha’s personal politics with that of the organisation from their personal accounts. Or perhaps, the spatial designing of these digital spaces is such that it allows employers to constantly keep an eye on their employees, forgetting that the servitude they feel owed is confined to working hours and office premises.

Or maybe it was that the manager was aware of how the increasing digital capital Palwasha* was accruing in a personal capacity; benefitted the organisation by association, and so they wanted to cement some sort of control over it. Irrespective, these actions are revealing of the degree to which young professionals like Palwasha* and Faiz* have been exploited. Despite the progressive leanings and aspirations of advocacy that the organisations they work for claim, their managers feel entitled to not just their labor, but also their privacy, their politics, their preferences, their thoughts and the ways in which they articulated them.

‘Experience doesn’t pay the bills’

Soon after Palwasha* started work, she was made to sign documentation which declared that any work she did ‘on ground’ or produced as a consequence of an experience ‘on ground’, was the intellectual property of her manager. This included, but was not limited to, photography, tweets, or publications produced even after she had left the organisation. Palwasha* could, quite literally, never ‘own’ her work – and the organisation which claimed ownership of it, did not even afford her appropriate compensation. She described to me how her job kept expanding beyond the original Terms of Reference and the limited compensation that came with it at the time of hiring. This prompted her to ask for a small raise, but her manager responded by devaluing her work, and reminding her of her ‘inexperience’ – despite the fact that the organisation was very well-funded.

“Startups mimick and reflect the same kind of power dynamics present in larger organisations, except that they’re almost worse in some ways, because they get away with not paying their employees by saying they don’t have money,” she describes, adding, “Starting salaries in Pakistan are very low, and that really needs to be rethought by all employers.”

It is important to note here that the ‘larger organisations’ in this field are also intent on developing a digital presence for information dissemination as a path to ensuring relevance. Zaheer* worked for the digital branch of one such organisation. He waited five years on promises of a promotion that never came. He described to me how there was no internal clarity when it came to the career trajectories of young professionals, who found themselves stagnated and under compensated despite increasing work responsibilities coupled with the changing circumstances of their personal lives.

“I could not live independently on my income,” he describes of his lack of appropriate compensation despite years of service. Zaheer* did not see his circumstances changing, and eventually had to leave. The organisation he worked for continues being a part of a ‘progressive’ digital information economy built through extractive labor practices, similar to what Zaheer* was subjected to.

“Nobody should have to go through financial and mental trauma just because the organisation has a name,” he says, asserting that his limited income did not “magically” enable survivability just because it came from an organisation that claimed to practice rights respecting politics and was popularly celebrated for it.

Iman* had a similar experience at a digital media startup, which she joined right after she graduated from college.

“I felt extremely exploited,” she recalls, “These places specifically hire fresh graduates like me because we have very little bargaining power.”

Every time Ima*n raised the question of her salary with her employers, they dismissed her request for better compensation by reminding her of the creative freedom they gave her. They expected her to hold gratitude for the ways in which they benefited from her intellectual labor, in place of wanting to be appropriately compensated for it. But even the ‘creative freedom’ supposedly accorded to Iman felt limited as she found herself feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of sensitivity and journalistic ethics exercised in the newsroom for the sake of views and clicks. When she expressed discomfort at the prospect of sensationalising an issue that could be triggering for her sources and audiences alike, her editor told her off for being ‘narrow minded’ and ‘prudish’.

“My contract didn’t say how many hours you’re expected to be in the office for, and they used to manipulate this,” she described, recounting how employees were expected to come in for at least 8 hours, while editors often came in for only 3. And because the editors came in so late, employees were made to stay past 8 hours, with meetings often starting after the official working day had ended. Iman* felt overworked and demotivated. The entire experience took a significant toll on her mental health.

During one particular instance, she uploaded a short video on her Instagram story while covering an event for the organisation. Her editor accused her of intellectual property theft claiming that the video belonged to the organisation, and that she should have tagged the organisation from her personal Instagram account when she uploaded the video. Iman found this stance hypocritical since her editor never tagged her from the organisation’s Instagram account, despite repeatedly using videos Iman* had made, both in a professional and personal capacity.

“Startup culture [in Pakistan] provides a way of avoiding treating your employees properly,” she concluded, “I wouldn’t recommend working at a startup to anyone.”

Palwasha*, however, had a different take on this. Despite the ways in which she felt exploited, she described that she was still grateful for the exposure the job gave her. It allowed her to develop networks, vocabularies and experiences that she continues to benefit from. I asked her if the cost was worth it as she continues being barred from owning work she has poured so much of herself into. She tells me that as a young person in Pakistan, she would not have been able to do that kind of work anywhere else, and so even she cannot own it, she feels grateful for the learning that came from doing that kind of work.

And yet, I’m left questioning – can the learning ever justify the hefty cost paid by employees in the form of infringement of privacy, inadequate compensation and unfair treatment? Or even more importantly, why does this particular type of learning have to come at the cost of the agency, safety and general wellbeing of the employees it allegedly seeks to enrich?

The experiences documented in this article are the consequence of work produced in service of a philosophy that directly contradicts the condition it is produced in. As Faiz* put it, “How can you fight for a political freedom which you refuse to give?” The word ‘political’ being key here, because choosing to financially and creatively exploit your workers, to police and surveil them, to not allow them the agency of their own voice and political preferences – are all political decisions, revealing the politics of those who make them. What is the point of fighting disinformation, surveillance and censorship if you are going to subject the people in your employ to those very things?

A case for collective organisation

On a parting note, it is prudent to mention here that these are not working conditions unique to the experiences of the people I spoke to; these problems are endemic to all industries in Pakistan, to the processes of commodification that underlie all employer-employee relationships in the country. One could argue that the conditions of precarity within the digital economy- short term contracts, limited opportunities, limited pay, a spatial designing which better lends itself to surveillance and control – make matters worse. But the fact is that ultimately, these are structural problems born of institutional cultures nurtured by those in power for many decades.

It is important to note that the amount of material privilege with which a worker comes to the negotiating table determines the extent of the exploitation enacted on them through these processes of commodification. Those working within the field explored here are more privileged than the average worker in the country. Therefore, the experiences covered here do not even begin to capture how deep labor exploitation runs in Pakistan.

Collective organisation for labor rights continues being an urgent need across various industries in Pakistan. Sustainable structural change is nurtured through ecosystems of accountability; collective organisation and unionisation are key to developing such ecosystems. Top down approaches to improving working conditions are perfunctory. Instead, workers must have access to community, protection and a union through which they can make collective demands for change whenever required. 

Digital labor is even more difficult to quantify, let alone protect. Those who produce it are spatially disadvantaged when it comes to collective organisation. And yet, when it comes to the cases mentioned above, it should perhaps go without saying that if ‘digital advocacy’ is the commodity you sell, you cannot sidestep the labor rights of the workers you employ to produce it.

*Names have been changed, and where requested, details have been anonymised in order to protect privacy 

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