“The stuff that matters in life is no longer stuff. It’s other people. It’s relationships. It’s experience” – Brian Chesky
If you live in an urban metropolitan city, you must have seen women dressed up in company uniform, carrying a heavy bag on their shoulders, their attire shouting a brand name with logos all over her. Their bodies become an advertising ground for a company’s marketing. Sometimes, the bag is a portable salon that they carry to their client’s (home), who book the beauty service using a mobile application. These ‘workers’ enroll themselves on the platform company that operates as an intermediary, to get bookings on-demand.
The operations for the platform are governed by computer algorithms, which are designed and controlled by the in-house engineers. The management and engineering department gets help from the research and development team, who investigate the entire sector in which the company operates. Such platform companies are entering in almost all the service sectors like food delivery, ride-hailing, cooking, cleaning.
People who are tasked with performing all the manual work have little to no say in how the company operates, what are the policies and how the algorithm is defined and controlled. What are the rights of these people? What is their identity on the platform? Are they workers? If they are, what are their rights and what policies do they come under? I talked to many of these workers who are working in the beauty sector. They don’t have answers to questions mentioned above.
I had a conversation with Sheena* who is listed as a beauty worker on one of online platforms and we both participated in critically looking at the company’s modus operandi vis-a-vis her experience. The feminist participatory method of doing research has enabled me to be mindful of my privilege. It taught me how power dynamics are unfair in the researcher-interviewee setting where the knowledge is produced by the latter and the recognition is received by the former.
I don’t know how to reverse the dynamics, but I have learned to acknowledge that the contribution of women like Sheena makes research possible, where I become the student and she becomes the teacher. She taught me, gave me perspective and I used my writing abilities to tell her story to the masses. My role is that of a communicator, where I can use my privilege and networks to spread awareness, to take the research findings to people outside the academic world.
The most difficult part of being a beauty worker for Sheena on online platforms, throughout the interaction, she kept emphasising how travel is the most challenging, exhausting and costly affair in this entire service delivery arrangement. It adversely affects her mental and physical health when she has to travel from one service to another making a mind map of the time gap between services, spending extra time on road and in case of traffic, looking anxiously at the time left on google maps.
She mentioned that the travel cost is incurred by the beautician and it gets extremely difficult for her to travel via cheap public transport, carrying that entire salon on her back. If someone does not have a personal conveyance, online ridesharing taxi services remains the only option, which is expensive enough to make them anxious about savings on the job. The algorithms of the platforms decide their location of service and sometimes, due to lack of demand, they have to choose a far away service location which makes travel even more costly. It is important to notice that the worker cannot have one to one conversation with an algorithm which leaves no scope for negotiation.
Sheena also mentioned that her experience depends on the mood and personality of the client. She said that though in most cases, clients are good, she has had horrible experiences with few. Once, she was finding it difficult to spot a client’s house on Google map and was roaming around the building, calling the number provided on the platform to reach her client.
No one was responding but finally she managed to find the house. She was 10 minutes late. The client got angry, shouted at her and canceled the booking. What this cancellation means to her shook me. She lost the money that she had paid to the platform while pressing the “ACCEPT” button for this service, lost travel charges, had to pay penalty for not taking a service on a weekend, and wasted many hours on the helpline number of the company to get her refund. She did not even have the opportunity to have one-to-one human-human conversation regarding her grievance. “Sometimes I reach late due to traffic and in frustration the client cancels the service after I reach. I am usually scared of getting late because it costs me credit cuts and penalties. In this case, customer care also does not listen to us,” she shared.
She said, “clients can rate me, why can’t I give ratings to this customer who didn’t understand my concern and just threw me out of her house?” It is indeed a question to ponder upon. The company, the policymakers and other stakeholders should definitely keep this in mind while deciding the future of thousands of on-demand gig workers. She raised an important point about the accountability of customers in the platform economy set-up.
Clients cannot enjoy unquestioned authority over the service providers. Cases of harassment, caste and religious based discrimination are faced by these women on a regular basis with zero accountability from state, company and the customers alike.
In a country that exists on caste lines, where religious extremism is at its peak and informal sector workers are already struggling with decent work conditions, the existing hard won rights of worker groups should not be compromised. The legal and policy challenges, especially for women workers who had to fight for facilities as basic as washrooms, should be dealt with.
Sheena shared a few instances where she was not allowed to urinate. The customer cannot have the right to deny the use of washroom and toilets at their home. Not all clients are insensitive, but it is important to understand that women workers are especially vulnerable in a setting where an unknown territory, a client’s home, becomes a place of service delivery. There needs to be some rules for clients and the platform company should hold them accountable.
The gig economy, though similar in many ways, varies with different service sectors. The gender of the person providing services to an unknown place plays an important role in framing company and state policies to protect women from sexual harassment at the ‘workplace’. Platform companies have not been defined as the workplace. These workers are on their own and are called micro-entrepreneurs. It is important that platforms to be defined as workplace for gig economy workers so that acts like Sexual Harassment at Workplace, 2013 can be applicable to platform economy.
The leading beauty work platform has told their beauticians to leave their stuff and run in case of issues like molestation and sexual harassment and it is a serious cause of concern. Only if it were so easy to avoid harassment, all women would run away and there would not be staggering number of rape cases in our country. Also, it is unfair of the company to ask women to protect themselves from situations they have no control over. These women’s labour is the reason for company’s rising revenue and the least it could do is bring in place policies that ensures their protection from instances of discrimination and harassment.
It should also be noted that those making the algorithms do not understand the lived reality of these workers. Workers who are not part of their engineering teams are not digitally trained to understand algorithms. There should be some representation from the workers who can understand these functions. Sheena shared with me instances where her credit was cut from the platform wallet and she could not understand the reason behind those credit cuts. The helpline number had once told her that it was a technical glitch. She could not understand and felt helpless. There must be many such Sheena who would not be able to have any say regarding her pay, her location of service and many more.
The platform companies are rising and they are here to stay. As of now, these are flourishing in the start-up ecosystem and are being celebrated in the name of Digital India and Start up India. However, the workers’ voices are completely absent, their experiences are not taken into account and their representation is inadequate. Workers are important stakeholders, and should be given their right to have a say in a company’s decision making. This will also help companies make better policies, informed decisions and the workers would be happier and healthier.
Shreya conducted her Masters research on women beauty workers of Urban Company. Her objective was to include feminist lens and women’s experiences in the knowledge production of platform economy, which till date is male-dominated. Shreya completed MA in Women’s Studies at TISS Mumbai.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India
Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the beauty worker