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Four ways the Global Commission on the Future of Work can deliver for women in the gig economy

Written by Abigail Hunt


The Global Commission on the Future of Work has just set out what it sees as the most critical changes to create a brighter future and deliver economic security, equal opportunity and social justice in the years to come.

The Commission, convened by the International Labour Organisation, comes at an important time. The world of work is changing fast and urgent attention is needed to ensure that the world’s most marginalised workers are not left further behind in the face of growing economic precarity and social inequality.

Today, we launch a new report exploring what is known – and what isn’t - about women and the gig economy, a form of work that sees digital platforms connecting workers to economic opportunities and is set to become increasingly widespread in the years to come. The first in a series, our wide-ranging review focuses on low- and middle- income countries and identifies the most important evidence gaps that need filling so policymaking delivers for left behind women.

Our findings are therefore highly relevant to the Commission’s agenda. Here are four key areas to prioritise as its vision is implemented:

1. Pay more attention to flexible work in the gig economy – and whether it helps with unpaid care and domestic work

The Commission recognises that gender equality begins in the home, and that the first step to changing the status quo disadvantaging women is to tackle the unpaid care and domestic work they disproportionately carry out. It calls for greater ‘time sovereignty’ in the workplace – which includes giving choice and flexibility to both men and women so they can better schedule their paid work around domestic responsibilities.

It is increasingly suggested that the ad-hoc, flexible schedules available to gig workers are a long-overdue solution to the challenges faced by women (and men) who are managing unpaid care and domestic work.

Despite all this hype, our review shows that very little is known about flexibility in the gig economy, and whether it really supports unpaid care and domestic work. Better understanding of platform workers’ time-use is needed before the gig economy can be seen by policymakers as a panacea to gender equality – an evidence gap we are currently working to fill with research underway in Kenya and South Africa. Watch this space!

2. Focus on the left behind workers most affected by precarious work

Encouragingly, the Commission calls for decent work creation in the ‘new’ care and digital economies, noting that digital economy business models are likely to widen gender disparities. Our review suggests this recommendation is well-placed; evidence shows that female gig workers in major gig sectors such as driving are getting a bad deal, with participation rates and earnings all too often lower than men’s.

But while talking about women vis-à-vis men is critical, it is not enough. Exponential growth is expected in platform-mediated household services where women are concentrated, such as paid care and domestic work. Yet conditions are traditionally exploitative in these sectors, with women from poor and discriminated-against groups overrepresented among the workforce. Many experience multiple discrimination based on gender, class, race/ethnicity and migratory status, among other identities, which compounds their economic and social disadvantage – a trend set to continue as the digital gig economy takes hold.

Guaranteeing equal opportunities and treatment of women is a priority in tech-enabled jobs of the future, as the Commission highlights. Focusing on the most marginalised women workers first is key to making this a reality.

3. Recognise and act on worker perspectives across diverse contexts

The Commission sets out a renewed social contract in the future of work and proposes a new governance system for digital labour platforms in the vein of the Maritime Labour Convention, which aims to improve working standards across international jurisdictions.

Any initiative which offers potential to improve workers’ lives is worth a look, but it is important to understand differences across diverse contexts – and in different parts of the gig economy – before jumping to quick conclusions about the best solution.

We found that dominant narratives on the gig economy often reflect the experiences of workers in high-income countries. Yet platform work may be perceived and experienced very differently by workers in low- and middle-income countries – not least because the starting point of labour markets differs vastly across the world.

Responding to different workers’ views is therefore a priority moving forward, particularly those of traditionally hidden and socially excluded groups – many of whom look set to join the most insecure parts of the gig economy.

4. Identify promising practice and share learning on what works (and doesn’t)

The Commission advocates actively managing technology development to benefit workers. This important suggestion recognises that technologies are the result of human choices, and that features to benefit – or hinder – workers can be purposefully designed in to gig platforms. To do this, it proposes a new ‘innovation laboratory’ to pinpoint how digital technologies can advance decent work.

This is a great idea. Our research finds that some platforms show signs of supporting incremental improvements workers’ everyday experiences – from those in India ensuring regular payment to on-demand taxi drivers, to those that facilitate tax collection and incorporate vast informal workers in public social protection schemes across low- and middle-income countries.

Shedding light on initiatives like these is important to amplify good ideas for wider adaptation. ODI is playing our part, convening a high-level event at the UN in March, bringing together those the front line – including governments, companies, worker groups - to share learning on innovative approaches to increasing gig workers’ access to social protection.  

We look forward to continuing to gather evidence and share good ideas (and what can be learnt from less good ones…) as the Commission’s agenda to secure a bright future in the world of work is implemented.