Back to the future: women’s work and the gig economy

Learning from the history of women’s work can help to overcome discrimination and improve working conditions in the gig economy

‘The future of work’ is big news, with the debate also picking up speed in policy circles. And with good reason: a persistent lack of decent work globally is negatively affecting incomes, and therefore living standards. Addressing this is an increasingly critical challenge for policymakers around the world in the face of impending demographic change and with jobless growth becoming the new normal.

In terms of the gig economy, in which technology-focused companies develop platforms through which clients engage workers to carry out defined tasks, the debate often focuses on the ways that ‘Uber-isation’ is set to profoundly change ‘traditional’ ways of organizing consumption and employment. But we shouldn’t let the dazzle of new technology blind us – the gig economy is ultimately an old wine in new bottles issue.

A recent Ethical Trading Initiative event (on the future of work, naturally) provided important space for reflection. Professor Peter Nolan set the scene, drawing on decades of his research to argue that ‘futurology’, as the business of predicting trends and outcomes in the world of work is otherwise known, is often dislocated from both analysis of historical labour market trends and empirical study of what is happening in the present.

Similarly, in our research at Overseas Development Institute on women’s experiences of the gig economy we found that in many ways, the gig economy replicates existing gendered challenges in the world of work – albeit in new, technology-enabled ways. Here are a couple of examples.

Platform profiles uphold discrimination

Platform design often upholds existing discrimination against workers. Our research looked at on-demand platforms for domestic work – such as cooking, cleaning and sometimes personal care – in India, Kenya, Mexico and South Africa. Domestic work is already one of the most exploitative and insecure sectors globally, in which workers are disproportionately women from minority or marginalised groups.

We found that, as with many gig economy models, domestic work platforms enable clients to choose home help by accessing workers’ profile pages which feature their pictures and other demographic information. This means that households hiring domestic workers can make their selection based on characteristics other than their qualifications for the task, including age, gender, race or ethnicity.

Furthermore, review systems which households use to rate the quality of the task completed are often embedded into worker profiles. Yet these systems can expose workers to discrimination, as reviews are highly subjective and likely to be influenced by existing reviewer biases and discriminatory attitudes.

The effects of this on often struggling workers are real, not least because negative reviews inform the decisions of other households about whether to engage that person. In short, a less than glowing review can seriously disadvantage workers’ economic opportunities in over-crowded platform marketplaces, where the supply of workers often outstrips demand for their services.

Digital, home-based piecework

Digital ‘crowdwork’ also present challenges. This sees online platforms linking workers globally to assignments such as image tagging, database development or document transcription, which are completed and delivered over the internet to often anonymous purchasers in return for per-task payments. In many ways, this work bears an uncanny resemblance to much of the home-based piecework which mushroomed several decades ago across developing countries as competitive advantage bred offshore production and global supply chains took root. Home-based work is often women’s work – it recently accounted for an estimated 32 per cent of women’s total employment in India.

Like traditional home-based work, precise data on crowdwork is hard to come by. Surveys suggest that between 46 and 54 per cent of crowdworkers in developed countries are women – although this figure is currently likely to be lower in developing countries due to significant gender divides in digital activity. Importantly, though, while available data suggest near gender parity in participation, men are more likely to participate out of choice.

Our current research on the gig economy in Jordan suggests that women’s involvement in this new breed of home-based work is likely to grow fast. It is perceived as particularly suited to women, due to socio-cultural norms restricting their mobility and engagement in paid work outside the home, and as its flexibility also enables women to continue to carry out unpaid care at home. Yet the history of women homeworkers globally tells us that while crowdwork may provide an opportunity for women’s increased labour market participation, this work may not be decent or empowering.

Working conditions can be extremely poor, piecework earnings are often low and erratic due to fluctuating value chain demand, and workers’ invisibility and isolation complicates organising and bargaining. Emerging evidence on crowdwork does not contradict this experience. Tackling barriers to female labour market participation and managing paid and unpaid work should not mean pushing women into precarious and isolating paid work.

The gig economy also throws up new angles on old challenges. Notably, the organisation of crowdwork makes it challenging to regulate to improve working conditions in crowdwork-facilitiated digital value chains. Gig platforms are notorious for avoiding labour regulation using ‘independent contractor’ models, the transnational nature of crowdwork makes it hard to identify the national jurisdiction responsible, and national labour laws are seldom applied to crowdworkers. This, combined with the historical challenges faced by homeworkers in organising and their (not unrelated) invisibility to policymakers, suggest that urgent action is needed if crowdworkers are to fare any better.

How to get it right in the gig economy

As gig economy platforms become increasingly prominent, careful policy attention is needed to ensure hard-won worker rights and protections are not rolled-back, and that the opportunities of the gig economy benefit all – not just the platform companies and consumers enjoying cheap services at the touch of a button.

As argued elsewhere in this series, ensuring labour regulation is fit for purpose in the gig economy era is critical. But platform technology also holds a promise to overcome challenges and improve working conditions – if we learn from history.

Platform companies could build fairness and equality into platforms by omitting demographic information and only including work experience and other job-relevant information on profile pages to start tackling deeply-rooted discrimination.

A lack of statistics about homeworkers has contributed to their invisibility to policymakers. Platforms could change this as they are a data trove, holding in-depth information about workers and their activities – a great opportunity to understand and improve working conditions if the data was made available.  Furthermore, domestic workers we interviewed appreciated for the first time ever being able to track the hours worked and their earnings through platform technology.  Building in other worker-friendly aspects such as panic buttons can rapidly improve worker security.

Digital technology also provides new ways for workers to communicate and organise to improve conditions. Collectives such as India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association have long organised dispersed, marginalised workers where traditional unions have failed. Supporting them to adapt to the gig economy is critical, particularly given that their core constituency may increasingly find themselves working through gig platforms.

Finally, workers are increasingly coming together in platform cooperatives, owning and controlling the technology – such as Up & Go, a home cleaning services platform in New York City. If the current company-controlled gig economy fails workers, why not bring a well-established working model up to date in an increasingly digital world.

If lessons can be learnt from the past than there is no reason why women cannot benefit from the arrival of digital technology linking workers with economic opportunities. As our research shows, positive steps are available for workers, platforms, unions, women’s associations and policymakers to take.  If action can be taken, and fast, then we can ensure that women can enjoy good quality work in the gig economy.

This article is part of SPERI and openDemocracy’s joint series on labour and work in the modern economy. Read all of the articles in the series so far here. Find out more about the series here.