SocietyWork Are Service Apps For Domestic Workers Reproducing Old Systems Of Power?

Are Service Apps For Domestic Workers Reproducing Old Systems Of Power?

Platform technologies could facilitate the formalization of domestic work and ensure domestic workers’ rights. But are they?

Posted by Salonie Hiriyur

Ask a woman if she considers making a meal for her family, or doing the laundry ‘work’, and she is likely to respond in the negative. Yet, it is these unpaid acts that enable members of her household to, then, participate in paid work. This failure of recognizing care work as work, as well as the gendered division of this labour has led to the mainstream economy largely ignoring unpaid care work, as well as paid domestic workers.

In India, the post-liberalization surge in corporate jobs facilitated the entry of many middle-income women in the labour market. This was accompanied by a surge in the employment of domestic workers to compensate for the loss of free labour from women in the household. While the former gained recognition in the economy and workers’ rights, the latter remained ignored. Reena, a domestic worker interviewed by ILO said: “Where I work, I face a lot of discrimination. Even when she [employer] gives me tea, she uses a separate cup for me than the rest of the family…I have no choice but to do what they say, because I’m the one in need. If I leave, they’ll find someone else.”

In addition, the uniqueness of the workplace, within the space of a private home, added to the perceived difficulty in formalizing this work.

Current status of domestic workers in India

The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey (cited in a HT report) for 2011-2012 suggested that of the approximately 4 million domestic workers in the country, two-thirds were women.

India currently has no national regulation for the domestic work sector, leaving these workers vulnerable to exploitation. The fight to win workers’ rights in the domestic work sector is ongoing. The Ministry of Labour and Employment has been working for years on a nation-wide draft policy for domestic workers, which is expected soon. This policy shall legislate on minimum wages, social security benefits, and other labour rights in this sector.

There are two laws that currently address domestic workers, although indirectly – the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013. As their names suggest, the one act serves as a welfare scheme and the other serves to protect women from work place harassment. Neither act recognises domestic workers as those with workers’ rights.

Also Read: Domestic Workers In India Have No Laws Protecting Their Rights

This lack of labour regulation means that systems like minimum wage have been left to states to decide. While some states like Rajasthan do have a minimum wage policy in place for domestic workers, these policies remain largely futile, as workers have no real redressal or grievance system to approach in cases of non-compliance. Moreover, the bigger issue is that most workers are unaware of their rights and continue to be exploited by employers. In these instances, the coming of platform technologies can play a big role in normalizing basic labour rights for domestic workers. 

Domestic work and on-demand platforms

With the onset of on-demand platform technologies, the way work is being organized has undergone dramatic changes. Usage of mobile and computer-based applications, to purchase goods and services, has seen tremendous growth. Apart from the more talked about Uber and Zomato, apps have diversified their sectors. India’s UrbanClap offers a range of on-demand service products – beauty professionals, plumbers, and cleaners – through their mobile app.

Platform technologies in the domestic work sector provide a shift from the traditional way in which workers are recruited and employed. For consumers, they offer vetted, cheap labour for the household. And for the workers, they offer flexible, better-paid work opportunities. While still fairly new, these apps are on the rise. UK-based policy think tank, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) conducted a study of app-based technology in 2016 and found that on-demand domestic work platforms were growing 60 per cent month-on-month in India.

While not an on-demand platform, BookMyBai is perhaps the most known platform for domestic workers, which serves as an ‘intermediary recruitment agency’ between employer and employee. A print advert for BookMyBai read: “Diamonds are useless! Gift your wife a maid”. The campaign reeked of both classism and misogyny. This commodification of domestic workers in the ad reinforced the classist-casteist idea that some kinds of labour was unworthy of being labeled ‘work’, which enabled the consumer/employer to exercise power and control of domestic workers. It is unlikely that a brand endorsing this idea would then incorporate any tools for empowerment for workers on the platform.

This commodification of domestic workers in the ad reinforced the classist-casteist idea that some kinds of labour was unworthy of being labeled ‘work’.

The ODI 2016 report also found that domestic worker platforms were seeking out groups of domestic workers off the app, since most domestic workers were unable to use the app due to literacy and cost issues. These platforms were using low-cost methods like text messages and phone calls to bring the worker to the app. Since in India, women’s work is often controlled within the household, the apps also offered to send text messages to husbands/fathers of employed domestic workers, and allow them to track the women. This feature used and reproduced the patriarchal control of women’s mobility.

With the introduction of these applications, it is imperative to ask the question: who are the real beneficiaries of the new system? Are mobile technologies reproducing old systems of power?

Ways forward

Platform technologies could become the key in facilitating the formalization of domestic work and ensure workers’ rights. This could include removing demographic/ethnographic indicators from workers’ profiles to ensure that those from marginalized communities are not discriminated against. Instead, BookMyBai currently enables consumers to enter their ‘religion preference’ while registering a request on the application. In addition to religion, GetDomesticHelp (GDH) also supplies information regarding the worker’s marital status. This actively encourages discrimination against minority religions, unmarried workers. Platforms must be regulated to hide (and stop collection of) any information about the worker that does not affect their work.

Platforms can also work to embed a dual rating system, instead of a consumer-driven one-way system that is currently prevalent. The system now skews power disproportionately towards the employer, since anything short of a five-star review can seriously affect a worker’s future job prospects. If workers too were given the power to rate their experience working, and employers were discredited for not complying with basic worker rights, they would be careful in ensuring adequate conditions for workers.

Platform technologies could become the key in facilitating the formalization of domestic work and ensure workers’ rights. But are they?

In order to achieve fairness within these platforms, there are crucial stress points that must be kept in mind going forward:

  • Platforms have been called out for using ‘independent contractor’ models to wriggle out of the employer-employee relationship, and pay for the protections an employer must offer its workers. Given this, government regulations within platforms are necessary to ensure frameworks that supply workers with basic labour rights that are prevalent in formal sector jobs. These include: minimum wages, annual leave, sick leave, safeties against discrimination and harassment, health insurance, unemployment and retirement benefits.
  • Since domestic workers work in isolation, it is imperative that they are linked definitively with the larger labour movement. India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was set up in 1972 with the very motivation to include women in the labour movement and collectively bargain for their worker rights. Such unions must be enabled to grow in tandem with new technologies that shape the world of work.

Also Read: SEWA: Making Women Self Sufficient Since The ’70s

The benefits of new platform technologies in the world of work must not be limited to platform owners and users, but must extend to workers on these platforms. In the domestic work sector, these platforms can finally help recognise domestic work as a major contributor to the mainstream economy.

Salonie is a feminist economist, and has worked for the ILO’s Research department in the past. She is interested in social policy, gender and development, and the informal economy. You can follow her on Twitter @saloniem.

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