Gender and Future of Workers
Shruti Gupta and Sarayu Natarajan
Over the past few years, technology has drastically reconfigured how work is performed. Customers use mobile applications to search for a range of professionals such as electricians, carpenters, beauticians and fitness instructors to perform services within the comfort of their homes, at a convenient time. The growth in popularity of such platforms, many of which have commodified unpaid work previously performed within the house, has created new forms of employment opportunities for many, especially women. As these platforms expand their reach, it is important to understand their impact on workers and in particular, the differentiated opportunities, risks, pressures and challenges faced by women workers in the platform economy.
Workers on platforms providing local utility services join for a variety of reasons such as wider customer base and better earnings. Women workers are attracted by the flexibility offered in work timings. Our research showed that most women engaged as beauticians, makeup artists and massage therapists earlier worked in salons. While salons provide a fixed salary and stable employment conditions, they also have rigid work timings which becomes restrictive for women trying to balance household responsibilities and financial independence. We found that women workers actively chose to be engaged in the platform economy due to the flexibility of being home between appointments and the freedom to take leaves without asking for permission from their supervisors.
In comparison to men, women have lower access to economic capital and social networks. This has been an impediment for them undertaking entrepreneurship ventures and freelance assignments. The platform economy has helped to bridge these gaps by lowering the requirement of capital investments and by giving workers access to a wide customer base.
However, the benefits of flexibility and the promise of entrepreneurship come at a price for workers. There has been a reconfiguration of the spatial and temporal boundaries of the workplace. Work is now performed within a customer’s home and workers no longer have fixed work timings and paid time-off. While these changes have been beneficial to women workers in certain respects, they have also exacerbated vulnerabilities.
Safety and security
Performance of work within domestic spaces exposes women to a range of risks and vulnerabilities as well as degrees of harassment and exploitation. Women service unverified clients in unknown spaces which can give rise to dangerous situations. Beauticians and makeup artists interviewed say that they call the client after receiving a booking and before reaching the client’s location. While they understand that this process does not completely ensure their safety, some believe they must rely on their “sixth sense” to earn a living. Others ask a male relative to drop and pick them up from appointments to ensure safety and well-being. Often, men book appointments for their wives or mothers. In such cases, service providers have to insist on speaking with the woman client which most men agree to. However, some workers reported verbal aggression by the men and threats of cancelling service requests.
Social aspects of work and collectives
Performance of work in private spaces also limits workers’ access to public space for their personal and professional benefits. Men employed in the platform economy as drivers for example, meet and interact with each other at CNG pumps, airport queues, and at railway station parking lots. However, there is no similar public space which women workers occupy. This dilutes any possibility of collectivization and building of group solidarities.
Another way in which work is reorganized is through the heavy reliance on ratings to foster trust. To receive good ratings and exclusive and repeat clients, workers have to manage their emotions. Clients speak rudely to workers, they make workers wait and force them to perform unpaid labour. Our research shows that since workers cannot review clients, rectify unfair ratings and complain about poor working conditions to platforms, most are forced to put up with bad behaviour and unfair demands to maintain ratings.
This emotional labour is more significant for women. Normative social values and expectations require women to manage feelings and expressions more than men. In service jobs, this takes the form of holding conversations and indulging the client’s feelings of privilege and pampering. Clients often ask beauticians and makeup artists to remove their slippers, untie/tie their drawstrings and other similar work professionals find derogatory to their skills and experience. These practices devalue the skills of workers and also reinforce gender and class binaries.
As the platform economy, particularly local utility services expand their presence in India, it becomes important to safeguard the interests of workers. A common consequence of growing market share is income volatility as the supply of workers outstrips demands. This has a further impact on diminishing collective action. A makeup artist interviewed had said that there is no scope for friendships in this business, “we are all competitors”.
While the platform economy holds potential for employment generation, flexibility and autonomy for workers and reduced costs of services for consumers, we must ensure that new structures of regulatory safeguards and compliance are formulated to protect worker well-being and safety. These could include minimum income guarantees, insurance, paid-time off and maternity benefits through institutional mechanisms, provision of fair, safe and meaningful work guaranteed through regulatory frameworks and support for legal redressal and recourse through a collaborative effort between platforms and local administrations.