New technologies, throughout history, have had the potential to change work and workplaces by creating as well as displacing jobs. Gig economy, or platform economy, is one such type of work arrangement that has been made possible with the onset of the digital era. A gig economy model functions by providing a digital platform to connect service providers with service requesters. Uber and Airbnb, for example, are the biggest global digital platforms in this category. Once the service in question is fulfilled, the temporary collaboration between the buyer and the seller dissolves immediately. The digital medium of this service transaction provides a quick forum for this exchange. A study conducted in South Africa and Kenya discovered that workers join gig platforms because they perceive the platform as an easier way to access paid work than other available options.
Gig economy has surfaced in urban India in the last few years. Its appeal for both the worker and the buyer lay in how its model functions. These digital platforms provide the worker with very flexible hours and promises of autonomy. However, the worker has no say on the wage for his services since these are decided in advance by the platform. Secondly, the individual worker or “partner” is pushed to imagine himself or herself as an entrepreneur. Their formal treatment as entrepreneurs help the businesses individualise risk amongst other things. So when a worker suffers a loss of income due to lack of orders (that may also be due to the business platform in addition to external reasons), there is no formal medium to remedy this. Yet both autonomy and entrepreneurship values are declared as the most important selling points of platform economy for the workers.
With companies like Zomato promising female workforce expansion, gig work is often seen as a medium to empower the female worker by providing her labour an opportunity to be equal to her male counterpart’s. Additionally, the flexible work hours are thought to be of more value to a woman who is also tasked with unpaid domestic labour. Yet, a study titled ‘Gender and the Gig Economy’ concludes that women are more likely to drop out of gig work.
Gendered Inequality in Gig Work
Income inequality is a persistent part of gig work in India. There is an 8-10% difference between the wages of the female workers and the male workers. The work also has a gendered division wherein males are employed in jobs like driving and delivery, and women are employed in care work with jobs like beautician and domestic help. The main factors that hinder women’s progress in this sector are digital divide, service user’s gender biases, and women’s responsibility of unpaid domestic work.
An ORF study highlights another issue of core relevance to the sector: an inability to facilitate women’s movement into the workforce. Infact, India has observed a slow decline of female labour participation from the workforce for more than two decades now. It has decreased from 30.2% in 1990 to 20.8% in 2019. The ORF study discovers that gig platforms have no specific policies that make women’s inclusion in gig work easier. Additionally, there is no mechanism to safely dispute redressal without the threat of loss of income. There is also no legislation that governs these digital platforms.
The digital divide also poses a significant hurdle in women’s accession to the gig economy since only 21% of women in India are mobile internet users.
But even when women do participate in gig work, exploitation is rampant. The case of Urban Company is a recent example of the same. Urban Company is a home services platform with a large number of female employees or “partners”. Recently, it introduced a new system wherein the workers will have to pay a fee of INR 3,000 (for salon prime) and Rs 2,000 (for salon classic) upfront to the company under the minimum guarantee plan to ensure that all workers complete a target of minimum 40 jobs. A failure to reach this target will result in penalisation and a loss of deposit. In case a worker chooses to opt out of this plan, they would be put in a “Flexi” category, under which they can only work on high demand days.
In October, protests against this new system were organised by the female workers of Urban Company. Shortly after, in December, Urban Company filed a lawsuit against these protestors and has demanded a permanent prohibitory injunction from the court restraining the women from holding any demonstrations or protests in the future near the company premise.
“On one hand, the company doesn’t call us its employees, we are ‘partners’ who are freelancing. We do not have benefits like in other jobs. On the other hand, they are mandating a specific number of jobs in a month and a fee to secure that,” said one protestor. This denial of recognition of workers as employees is one of the biggest dilemmas of gig workers as it denies them the rights extended to workers. At the same time, and as mentioned previously, gig workers are taught to think of themselves as entrepreneurs.
An EPW article mentions that the individuals are presented as perceiving the work they perform as an investment that would bring returns other than wages in the form of a future payoff and the hope for a living wage and stable employment. This amounts to self-exploitation by performing “hope labour”. The National Institute for Workers Rights in the US underlines the provisions that are commonly denied to gig workers. These include: unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, social security/retirement benefits, disability benefits, health insurance, paid medical leave, overtime pay, minimum wage, right to unionize, anti-discrimination protections and occupational safety protections.
Also read: Designing Urban Employment Schemes For Women
Amongst other things, gig work’s flexibility is thought to make it appealing to female workers who are struggling to balance unpaid domestic work and paid work. Herein lies another issue: most gig work has peak hours which often have higher wages than normal hours. Women burdened with domestic work do not have enough independence to take advantage of this wage surge as compared to their male counterparts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on women’s employment all over the country. Total employment in India for November 2020 was 2.4% lower than in November 2019. However, for urban women, it was down by 22.83%. While a great degree of gig workers lost their jobs, a larger chunk also lost more than half of their income while still employed. Women were uniquely affected because of their occupational segregation in care work. On the one hand the demand for delivery related work increased in the pandemic, on the other, care work like beauty services and domestic work completely shut down.
Due to the absence of any bodies to regulate rights, absence of unions as well as adequate laws, a worker employed in gig work is extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The failure to recognise a contractor worker as a worker by a purposeful construction of a “partner” helps businesses evade any responsibility that comes with having employees. In September of 2020, a bill titled ‘Code on Social Security’ was introduced with aims of setting up a social security fund for gig workers. It also detailed provisions for maternity benefits such as prohibition from work during certain periods, provision of nursing breaks, crèche facility, and claim for maternity benefits. Although the bill was passed shortly afterwards, its implementation has suffered some bureaucratic hiccups.
It is clear that the gig economy is here to stay and expand in the near future. Thus, there is an urgent need for more efficient laws that safeguard the workers, particularly female workers, that are employed under this framework.
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