Women and the platform economy: Access, autonomy and agency

11 Nov 2020 12:20h - 13:20h

Event report

The platform economy has significantly increased in the Global South. Several services have been provided through the intermediation of online platforms, including domestic work, beauty services, and home services, in addition to the already widespread hyperlocal delivery, and transport services. Regulatory policy initiatives for platform workers have encountered obstacles because of the ambiguity in which platforms function and define themselves. By claiming to be mere technology providers, platforms exclude their responsibilities towards workers. Women are particularly vulnerable to this emergent form of organising labour. This session focused on the digital and gender divide in the platform sector.

Ms Ambika Tandon (Senior Policy Officer, Centre for Internet and Society) highlighted that the platform economy often argues that it particularly opens opportunities for women, given the flexibility of work hours, and the non-necessity of having workers physically present in many instances. These two aspects of platform work would enable women to accommodate their families’ needs through paid work. However, platform work presents several challenges to women, notably related to the aspects of access, agency, and autonomy. Concerning access, there is a gender gap in online platforms due to the fact that, in several countries, women are less digitally literate than men and have fewer skills that are necessary to provide work on some online platforms. With regards to agency and autonomy, some functional aspects of the gig economy, such as the classification of workers as contractors and the lack of social security, have a more negative impact on women as they have no maternity leave rights.

Ms Simiran Lalvani (PhD candidate, University of Oxford) addressed gender inequality on the platform labour market, notably in terms of access. Her research has demonstrated that platform work in Mumbai, India, is predominantly provided by men. The reasons for this gap are structural and historical. For instance, the delivery of food was traditionally provided by men (known as Dabbawalas), even before the emergence of online platforms. Women providing services through online platforms are concentrated in the food sector (60% of the total number of women), while 30% work in e-commerce, and 10% in hyperlocal deliveries. Most women working through online platforms are married to a delivery worker or a widow, or have a long-term unemployed husband. In the delivery sector, the working conditions for women are more precarious because most of them provide services on bikes, while most men have motorbikes, and by design, all workers, despite their means of transportation, are fixed in the same geographic area. Earnings are based on the distances covered by the worker, which results in 10% less earnings for women. In conclusion, access does not guarantee participation. Also, access without understanding the terms of participation can result in unequal outcomes and hinder sustained participation in the platform economy.

Ms Sofia Scasserra, (Professor, National University of Tres de Febrero) underlined that women tend to be in platforms that are less visible to the public in Latin America. They are mostly represented in domestic services or the retail sector. There is a clear gender division in platform work. In the region, when women participate in the delivery sector, they often engage in labour unions. Even though women only represent 20% of the total number of workers of the delivery apps, they are in the majority of those affiliated with unions. In Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile, delivery workers have engaged in simultaneous strikes. The movement has been regionalised. Platform workers log in to the platform, but do not provide work. Through these collective actions, workers managed to achieve higher salaries. In Argentina, a new union was created specifically to represent platform workers. Women are leading the labour rights movements in online platforms in the country. Currently, the national congress is working on a bill of rights that will give platform workers collective rights. Moreover, according to this new bill project, workers will only have the right to not opt for a labour contract if they work less than 32 hours a week through the apps.

In South Africa, most women working through online platforms are in the domestic sector. The country has specific laws for domestic workers which do not apply to those working through apps. Ms Fairuz Mullagee (Researcher, University of Western Cape) stressed that most labour laws were conceived for traditional forms of work which are now completely disrupted due to online platforms. Mullagee believes that there is a lot of mystification around the idea that online platforms provide more work opportunities for women. In fact, what it is seen is poverty, hunger, and the erasure of labour rights for online platform workers.