Making The Platform Economy Work For Women

Legacy issues associated with women’s labour in India have continued to follow them into the platform economy.

Sadhana Sanjay

6 March 2023

Recent estimates of India’s labour force participation rate have sounded alarms regarding the steadily declining female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) in the country. As per recent data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey, this figure now stands at 25.1 per cent, a far cry from the global average of 48 per cent.

Digital labour platforms, which are ICT-enabled, data-driven and use algorithms to allocate, evaluate, and monitor work, have seen exponential growth in India. The workforce engaged by these platforms is projected to reach 23.5 million by 2030

For women, these platforms have emerged as an attractive opportunity to undertake paid work, as it offers them the flexibility to manage their non-negotiable domestic responsibilities alongside paid work. Certain platforms also enable women to work from home, which is a convenient mechanism for women to overcome patriarchal controls on mobility and working outside the home. Such features of the platform economy have led to it being touted as a catalytic enabler of women’s labour force participation in India. However, this opportunity narrative requires careful demystification to understand how legacy issues associated with women’s labour in India have continued to follow them into the platform economy. 

Challenges faced by women in the platform economy 

At the outset, the digital gender divide is persistent, due to which women’s access to smartphones and the internet – a prerequisite for accessing work on digital platforms – trails their male counterparts. Only 26 per cent of women in India own smartphones in contrast to 49 per cent of men, and only 43 per cent of women in India have ever used the internet. 

Additionally, working conditions on digital labour platforms are outside the purview of labour legislation and governance, as workers on these platforms are considered independent contractors and not employees. As a consequence, traditional workplace rights such as fair and equal wages, employer-funded social security and protection from occupational hazards remain out of reach for platform workers. 

Recent data reveals a gap of 8 to 10 per cent between the earnings of men and women working on digital labour platforms. Occupational segregation is also rife in the platform economy, replicating the division of workers into masculinised and feminised occupations. For instance, among the 220,000 personnel working on Swiggy, only 1,000 are women. In contrast, one third of the 32,000-member workforce of Urban Company, which provides salon, spa, beauty and home-cleaning services, are women due to the ‘feminised’ nature of these tasks.

The workforce in the paid domestic work and care sectors on platforms are overwhelmingly Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women from caste-oppressed communities. Considering that women working in the domestic work, beauty, and wellness sectors often find themselves within customers’ homes, where the power dynamic favours customers, the risk of safety and sexual harassment rises exponentially.

In the absence of supporting care infrastructure, women’s work in the platform economy will continue to be determined by patriarchal norms that compel them to prioritise their role as caregivers. Furthermore, women remain “time-poor” and are compelled to perform both unpaid care work as well as platform work.

Therefore, embracing equity in the platform economy means recognising how gendered labour dynamics manifest in an era of digitally-mediated labour. Making the platform economy work for women requires urgent action, from both the state and platform companies. 

An agenda to make the platform economy work for women

Improving digital infrastructure, and enabling the digital inclusion of women is crucial to ensure that women are not left behind in the march towards a digital future. Extending the legislative guarantees of fair and equal wages, non-discrimination at the workplace, collective bargaining and freedom of association, and employer-funded social security should be key priorities for the state. These measures will enable the platform economy to be a decent and dignified workplace. Moreover, considering the critical role that workers’ data plays in digitally-mediated work, the government should also urgently pass the Personal Data Protection Bill 2022, so that the collection and processing of worker data is done following due process of law. 

As far as platform companies are concerned, they have a pivotal role to play in ensuring that their model works for women. Platform companies must improve transparency and accountability in their workings, which are currently dictated by opaque algorithms whose decisions cannot be challenged by workers. Algorithms that are currently gender neutral, need to incorporate gender-sensitivity, accounting for women’s unpaid care responsibilities and safety concerns. 

To improve women’s safety while working on digital labour platforms, both workers and customers need to be informed of sexual harassment policies. Strong redressal mechanisms are necessary to ensure accountability. Platforms can also support providing care infrastructure for their women workers, by providing maternity leave, creche and childcare support. 

It is crucial that regulation and governance frameworks for the platform economy are designed to appropriately address the legacy issues women contend with in the workplace in India, as well as the challenges of digitally-mediated work. While recognising that new opportunities, economic independence and autonomy are benefits the platform economy brings, key reforms of this sector are necessary to ensure that the gains of a rapidly platformising economy accrue to women workers. 

Source: BQ Prime, 6 March 2023

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