"The creative collision of social movements and technology can be a great equalizer," Palak Shah told us. Judging by her work, it's clear that this is something Palak holds dear to her heart. As the Social Innovations Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and Founding Director of NDWA Labs, Palak finds ways of using technology to promote equity, create opportunities, and improve lives — specifically those of domestic workers.
A Lack of Recognition
Domestic workers, the majority of whom are immigrants and women of color, are often not recognized for their hard work, despite the fact that they play a crucial role in our society.
"Domestic workers are the invisible scaffolding holding up our economy," Palak told us. "When one workforce leaves their homes to go to work, another workforce enters those homes to do all the work left behind: caring for children, homes, the elderly, and disabled loved ones. It’s a labor market that is disaggregated, informal, and atomized."
What's more, many domestic workers do not have the best working conditions. Since workers such as house cleaners are often employed by multiple clients, they do not qualify for many benefits, such as paid days off from work.
"The conditions defining domestic work are true for other workers in the gig economy," Palak added. "[Many] face precarious conditions and lack the necessary protections other workers take for granted."
Wanting to improve the lives of house cleaners and other gig workers, Palak and her team at NDWA Labs created the country’s first portable benefits product: Alia. This online platform provides benefits — including paid time off and life, disability, critical illness, and accident insurance — to gig workers.
NDWA Labs also recently partnered with Thumbtack, the online marketplace platform, to further support gig workers and raise awareness of the domestic workers movement.
"Through our partnership," Palak said, "Thumbtack is offering house cleaners who find work on their platform a bonus for signing up on Alia to incentivize their participation and help them get access to needed benefits.
"I think there’s tremendous potential in building partnerships between social movements and the private sector," she added. "The potential for Alia to expand to other sectors will provide a real opportunity to make work better for millions of workers."
Keeping the Movement Alive
Although Alia supports and creates opportunities for gig workers, Palak noted that it is crucial for other technologists and entrepreneurs to keep the domestic workers movement in mind when creating their own products.
"As many before me have already noted," she explained, "the on-demand platforms of today are set to evolve into the operating systems for labor markets in the future. Without worker voices at the center," she warned, "technology will simply codify inequity at a greater scale and pace than we’ve ever seen before."
Palak encourages future generations of women technologists to realize their potential to create change and impact the lives of others. "All that separates inequality from opportunity, anxiety from security, and feeling discarded to feeling valued, are the choices we make, the businesses we build, and the way we code."
Attending #GHC19? Palak Shah will present her Featured Speaker session "Innovation from the Margins: Lessons from a Worker Movement." Learn how you can register to attend GHC 19!
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