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Gender & Platformisation of Work

This article contains the key takeaways and excerpts from our conversation with Ambika Tandon. It is not the full transcript of our conversation. You can listen to the entire podcast, here.

Understanding platform economies

The Platform Economy is also referred to as the Gig Economy or the Digital Economy. Essentially, these are “technological interfaces”, which allow the exchange of goods and services. Platforms, as Ambika explains, might also be a miscategorisation of the companies engaging in such transactions, as they have a much larger “ecosystem” of work. Their business models are different from traditional companies as,

“First, they are multisided markets. Their role in the economy is to connect various parts of the market…customers and workers, restaurants in food delivery, etc….to try and generate value for, ideally, everyone in the ecosystem. The second thing is that they are asset-light. This is a model that most companies adopt. The actual ownership of assets that may be used are outsourced to workers, partners, or other actors in the ecosystem. The companies largely focus on developing their technological interface or acquiring customers. It is built on economies of scale…it is also largely driven by venture capital.”

Social media companies are also platforms; however, this discussion is limited to labour platforms. Ambika highlights that there are two broad “buckets” in this case: the first type of exchange of labour happens through an online interface, which may be “location agnostic”; the second type is “location-based”. 

What does this mean for a largely informal labour market like India’s?

Ambika indicates that platformisation has been critiqued for informalising the formal in the Global North, as it lacks worker security. On the other hand, in the Global South, there is “optimism” about these spaces, improving formality, better working conditions, or enabling financial inclusion. However, Ambika remarks,

“This has not panned out in the way that had been expected around 5-6 years ago when platform boom in India began. Once companies gained a monopolistic position, the terms that they have with workers cannot be negotiated, and are set unilaterally by platforms. This does not happen when a worker is self-employed.”

Transportation and delivery sectors, for example, have seen collective action through movements and demonstrations, even during COVID-19. This shows that the vulnerability of workers in this space persists.

Female labour & platforms

In freelance or crowd work, female labour force participation (FLFP) is higher than in the traditional economy, at 21 per cent. However, women in the upward social-economic strata are more likely to engage in this setup of work, as they have better digital access compared to other categories of women. Given the unanimous burden of care on women, this engagement, however, is significant.

For location-based work, Ambika explains,

“Gender norms have played out a similar way as in the traditional economy. Occupational segregation remains very similar in platform economies as well. If we look at feminised job roles like beauty work, domestic and care work, even medical care work like nursing, etc., these are the job roles where you find more women workers. But jobs like taxi and delivery [have a greater proportion of men]…”

Pay disparity

Higher paying jobs in an entire segment, like cleaning, go to men because of greater digital access and physical mobility. Ambika says, 

“With cleaning work…women from caste-oppressed communities end up taking the traditional jobs…they don’t have digital access or skills to register themselves on platforms like Urban Company. [In platforms, therefore,] the cleaning segment is entirely male workers. Alternate [traditional] jobs for these men would be carpenting or plumbing… ”

Thus, high paying jobs in platforms end up going to men and low paying jobs in the traditional setup go to women. Ambika also indicates that the direct pay gap manifests itself when organisations place mobility restrictions on women.

“For example, one of the delivery platforms based in Bombay…there are some restrictions placed on the distance a women worker can travel. So that might be to provide some safety and security…but the tradeoff is that their wages would actually be lower, as the amount you end up getting for travelling larger distances would be higher…”

Challenges of lack of regulation in platforms

Lack of infrastructure and occupational segregation might continue to negatively impact women workers. For women entering this sector,

“There is a problem of infrastructure and mobility. None of these platforms cover for indirect costs, such as travel costs. So a lot of the workers’ income is put back into fuel, getting vehicles, etc. For women workers, it also makes entry into the sector slightly harder…Public toilets are not easily accessible. Newspaper reports talk about how women end up using bathrooms in petrol pumps or wherever else they can find washrooms…”

There is still a lack of “systemic support” in this case from companies and the government. Ambika says that companies and the government could partner to provide services like building toilets for these workers in urban cities,

“…Companies could partner with governments to have networks of toilets that could be used by women workers, and companies could [also] try and maintain them, as they are critical to the workforce on the ground. This will [enable] a smooth workflow. But also the larger question is around precarity and that jobs are set on a piece-rated basis, and there is no job or social security provided to workers. In that direction, the recent code on social security…they do indicate that they will ask platforms to contribute up to 5 per cent of their profits to provide social security to workers. But there are no clarifications about what these social security measures would actually be…”

Wages-for-housework and platformisation

Ambika believes that wages-for-housework will not bring “social value” to domestic work and care. Monetary valuation, by itself, does not address the social norms surrounding women’s and caste-oppressed group’s work. She says,

“Digital platforms have reinforced occupational segregation…the other point is that [gig economy] brings into fold other kinds of “productive” labour. One of the things that we have seen in service sector work is that it requires a lot of emotional and affective work…this has existed in [traditiona] set-ups too..women in call centers, as waitresses, secretarial work…these are being systematised by the platform economy too…”

Ambika mentions how these forms of “reproductive” labour, when monetised by the companies, is not true empowerment of these (women) workers. It might “systematically oppress” workers, as service delivery is contingent on providing emotional and affective work for staying employed, especially in the sector of care work. 

Exacerbation of gender-based inequities & need for feminist principles in design thinking

Rating and filtering systems allow customer biases to feed into workers’ incomes. In the case of filtering in domestic and care work, for example, Ambika notes how organisations allow customers to filter based on demographic characteristics of gender, caste, religion, language, etc. Additionally, while the mobility with platform work might align with women’s economic and social empowerment, this supposed empowerment can be diminished if organisations surveil women and control them, taking the form of recording their calls, geo-locating them, etc. 

Platform economy needs to incorporate feminist principles in design thinking. Ambika gives the example of a platform in Chennai that is owned and operated by a worker’s collective. Here, “ownership” becomes central to gaining control over the platform. Interfaces should also be available beyond smartphones to allow integration of workers, improving diversity. Platforms, therefore, can “positive[ly]” shape the landscape by mandating minimum wages, minimising “wage theft”, especially in domestic work, etc. The way forward needs to be carefully aligned with the rights of workers and not just reducing costs of transactions.

Featured Image:

Ambika suggests reading the ILO report on World Employment and Social Outlook 2021, CIS’s study on Platforms, Power and Politics: Digital Labour in India, and unions’ work, such as those by IFAT. This podcast was conducted in collaboration with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).It has been hosted by Tanya Rana, Research Assistant at CNES, and Isha Suri, Research Associate with the Digital Economy, Startups and Innovation team at ICRIER.

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