Learning from other organisations

Case study: Feminist Participatory Action Research (Focus on Labour Exploitation)

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Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) is a UK-based research and policy organisation working to end labour exploitation. It was founded in 2013 to support government and civil society to take evidence-based action. A key aim is to bring the voices and priorities of people affected by or at risk of exploitation into policy discussions.

Recent research by FLEX has explored the experiences and drivers of labour abuse and exploitation in three low-paid sectors: cleaninghospitality and the app-based delivery sector. Research with the University of Nottingham focused on live-in migrant care workers. A feminist participatory action research approach (FPAR) has been used, with workers from these sectors recruited as peer researchers, and involved at each stage of the research process, including design, data collection and analysis.

FLEX has published a detailed guide to using FPAR in the context of high-risk sectors - this case study highlights some of the key learning, but we highly recommend that you take the time to read the guide itself. Also see this blog which provides a brief overview of FPAR and its benefits, and this video which explains FPAR and where you can hear from peer researchers about their experiences.

Thumbnail image of the front cover of ‘Experts by Experience: Conducting Feminist Participatory Action Research with Workers in High-Risk Sectors.’ The title is on the top right, and the Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) logo is on the top left. The main illustration is in cartoon style and portrays people working in occupations such as cleaning, and the words ‘participation’, ‘action’, ‘change’.

Feminist participatory action research (FPAR)

Briefly, FPAR challenges the traditional concept of research as an exercise which entails expert researchers gathering data from research subjects. It seeks to change power relationships in research and society, with those most affected by an issue empowered to produce new knowledge and advocate for change.

• The approach is feminist due to its focus on women and other minoritised groups and because it draws attention to intersections between forms of oppression such as gender inequality, racism and economic disadvantage.

• Participatory research is done ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ or ‘for’ a group or community. It is based on the principle that people most affected by an issue should have the opportunity to influence policy, being ‘experts by experience’.

• It is action research because the aim is not just to produce knowledge but to improve a social situation or advocate for change. As an organisation, FLEX’s position enables its research findings to be heard by key policy makers.

Data collection in the projects outlined above was done via peer-to-peer interviews and focus groups, and an online survey. Peer researchers were involved in shaping the design of research instruments. Training was provided on research methods and ethics, as well as safeguarding and signposting. Peer researchers were also provided with a research guide, which included the information shared in the training, key ethical principles, an interview guide and signposting resources.

FLEX uses tools to continuously learn and assess how the FPAR approach is working within a particular project – these include a monitoring and evaluation framework, a participatory research diary, and seeking feedback from peer researchers.

Here are some key learning points and experiences which might be helpful to others:


  • Recruitment of peer researchers was initially challenging. The approach that worked best was to undertake some research interviews first, and recruit peer researchers from among those participants – individuals had a better understanding of the project following the interview, and the research process was demystified.
  • Due to peer researcher commitments such as work and childcare, retention was also sometimes challenging – FLEX responded to this by recruiting more researchers than originally intended.
  • FLEX found that using a variety of recruitment channels was helpful in order to reach different groups – these included social media, recruitment in-person, and going through third party organisations. 
  • For one of the projects, a peer coordinator was recruited with personal experience of the app-based delivery sector, the aim being to facilitate longer-term and more sustainable worker engagement in the research. The co-ordinator’s role was to recruit peer researchers, co-deliver training and provide support.

The ‘action’ in FPAR

  • FLEX was clear that the research was unlikely to result in short-term structural change that would have material outcomes for workers in these sectors. However, an important outcome of the research is that peer researchers and participants became more aware of their rights, for example what trade unions are and how to join, and of available support such as free English classes and immigration advice. One of the peer researchers presented the research findings to her trade union branch, a great example of using research knowledge to empower others. The research has presented other opportunities for voice and influence, such as responding to policy consultations on employment issues, working with journalists from national newspapers, and publishing blogs on FLEX’s website. (Read blogs by peer researchers Juliana, Adela, Marisol and Evelin, and peer coordinator Alberico).

  • The pandemic has limited opportunities for group work, but it’s hoped that in the future there will be more opportunities for collective action led by peer researchers and participants.
  • A newsletter has been used to share information about the research, such as upcoming focus groups, training and workshops, and peer research opportunities.
  • Together with a videographer, a peer researcher produced this video about her experiences in the cleaning sector. Future projects may consider creating more outputs like this as alternatives to reports, in forms that peer researchers could more easily contribute to, and that could be accessible to a wider audience.
  • Research projects could consider partnerships with other organisations that are well placed to support the ‘action’ part of research.

Multiple languages

  • The ability to undertake fieldwork in participants’ first language increases the accessibility of the research and results in a more representative sample - working with peer researchers can help facilitate this. It enables participation of groups that might be underrepresented in traditional research such as migrant workers who don’t speak English. It can also help build trust, which is central to any participatory methodology.
  • There are challenges with working with multiple languages, such as barriers to peer researcher group work, and it’s important to consider how this can be mitigated. Working with bilingual peer researchers can be advantageous.
  • It’s important to factor in the resource implications of interpretation and translation, especially when taking a participatory approach may mean that fieldwork tools are adapted during the course of the research.

Ethical considerations

  • Make peer researchers’ safety and well being a key consideration. For example there may be a risk of exploitative employers becoming aware that workers are involved in research, which could have implications for peer researchers’ and participants’safety. There should be strategies and procedures in place to mitigate such risks.
  • When researching sensitive topics that peer researchers have personal experience of, there is a possible emotional impact, and appropriate support must be provided throughout.
  • Detailed training is needed on topics such as informed consent and anonymity.

Peer researchers may encounter participants needing support – it’s important that they don’t feel responsible for providing advice or solutions to participants. Training in signposting, and support with setting boundaries, can be helpful

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 (FLEX, 2021d, p.28).

These tips for doing participatory research with workers in high risk sectors are taken from FLEX’s detailed guide to using FPAR and reproduced with kind permission. (FLEX 2021d, p.8).


With thanks to Meri Ahlberg, Research Manager, FLEX, and Eleonora Paesani, Research Officer, FLEX, for their collaboration on this case study.



Focus on Labour Exploitation (2021a). ‘“If I could change anything about my work…” Participatory Research with Cleaners in the UK. Working Paper No. 1.’ Available at: www.labourexploitation.org.

Focus on Labour Exploitation (2021b). ‘“To help workers, I would tell the government to…” Participatory Research with Workers in the UK Hospitality Sector. Participatory Research Working Paper 2.’ Available at: www.labourexploitation.org.

Focus on Labour Exploitation (2021c). ‘The gig is up: Participatory research with couriers in the UK app-based delivery sector. Participatory Research Working Paper 3.’ Available at: www.labourexploitation.org.

Meri Ahlberg, Caroline Emberson, Lucila Granada, Shereen Hussein and Agnes Turnpenny (2022) 'The vulnerability of paid, migrant, live-in care workers in London to modern slavery', Rights Lab University of Nottingham. Available at: www.nottingham.ac.uk/Research/ Beacons-of-Excellence/Rights-Lab/resources/reports-and-briefings/2022/July/Thevulnerability-of-paid-migrant-live-in-care-workers-in-London-to-modern-slavery.pdf.

Focus on Labour Exploitation (2021d). ‘Experts by Experience: Conducting Feminist Participatory Action Research with Workers in High-Risk Sectors.’ London: FLEX. Available at: www.labourexploitation.org.

Last updated: 30th January 2023

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