Challenges and ethics of researching dignity ‘at work’ – by Pankhuri Agarwal

This reflective piece aims to initiate a broader discussion on the challenges associated with researching an abstract term, namely “dignity at work,” when the individuals under study no longer have access to the work being examined. Furthermore, it prompts contemplation on the ethics surrounding the concept of workers’ “dignity in research”.


Exploring the ethics of researching dignity at work with a group affected by unemployment due to factory closures raises crucial questions that my colleague, Nandita Dutta, and I often encounter during our ongoing fieldwork in Leicester’s garment industry. The industry has attracted significant attention and scrutiny, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, with continuous media exposés shedding light on its exploitative practices and the disproportionate impact on South Asian communities. As a result, these revelations have resulted in factory closures and left numerous workers unemployed. State and civil society interventions following these exposés have primarily focused on safeguarding the rights and dignity of the workers.

While the concept of dignity may not be commonly discussed in everyday conversations, it becomes crucial to understand how different stakeholders express notions of exploitation and rights through diverse interpretations of (in)dignity. Interestingly, it appears that everyone, except the workers themselves, holds opinions about their dignity. For example, journalists were motivated to expose the industry’s practices with the belief that it would lead to improved working conditions. Their perspective framed worker exploitation as a lack of dignity resulting from inadequate payment of minimum wages. Conversely, supply chain auditing firms focused more on ensuring compliance with regulations and standards, emphasizing the significance of dignity in terms of fair and ethical treatment within the industry.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the various interpretations of dignity by different stakeholders, excluding the workers themselves, do not imply a straightforward dynamic of oppressors and oppressed. Rather, the focus lies in comprehending the concept of dignity in the absence of a contextual framework for the workers. In other words, researching dignity in a context where work is scarce or non-existent adds an additional layer of complexity. In such circumstances, discussing dignity at work becomes a paradoxical notion. During interviews, workers often displayed confusion or even laughter, indicating the ambiguity surrounding the topic. This is because workers were uncertain about how to articulate their understanding of dignity, particularly when their primary concern revolves around the lack of employment opportunities. Hence, the absence of work creates a context where the conventional framework for discussing dignity in relation to work is disrupted.

As we navigate through this intricate terrain, we are simultaneously wrestling with ethical considerations that necessitate an empathetic approach to safeguard the dignity of workers throughout the research process. This undertaking requires us to adopt an open-minded and adaptable stance that transcends conventional notions of dignity solely within the realm of work. It necessitates a nuanced examination of how we, as researchers, ensure the dignified treatment of workers in the context of the complex social and historical backdrop of the South Asian community’s migration to the UK. It entails recognizing the wider socio-economic context and the multifaceted experiences of the workers themselves. In this case, we must address questions of survival, the pressing need for livelihood, and the enduring impacts of community, state, and procedural interventions, given the prevailing political climate, characterized by anti-migrant policies implemented by past and present UK governments.

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