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What policymakers need to know about women and the gig economy

Written by Abigail Hunt

The Women’s March last Saturday was possibly the biggest demonstration in US history – 500,000 took to the streets in the capital alone. Momentum on women’s rights is gathering, as governments and feminist activists prepare to meet in New York for the 61st Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this March.

This year, CSW offers an important opportunity to tackle workplace challenges to women’s economic empowerment. It follows close on the heels of a report on the subject (pdf) by the new UN Secretary-General – the first big opportunity to see if he’s as committed to gender equality in the workplace as he makes out.

In a bold and welcome move, the report covers new ground: the trend towards a gig economy – in which digital technology brings together workers and purchasers of their services. Here are five things policymakers need to know about women and the gig economy ahead of CSW:

1.  What the ‘gig economy’ looks like depends on where you are

In the US and Europe, the gig economy is mostly run through mobile apps, whereas our research finds that companies in developing countries adapt to overcome digital and financial divides. In India, companies sign up workers face-to-face on trips to low-income areas, or by incentivising workers to recommend a friend. Once signed up, they communicate using SMS or calls.

We also found negative impacts connected to the gig economy, including the rolling back of hard-won worker rights and protections. In South Africa, legal measures to improve paid domestic work, including sick leave and social security contributions, are undermined by gig businesses which don’t classify workers as employees.

The extent to which the gig economy worsens worker rights in a country depends on the legal starting point: the overrepresentation of women in highly informal, unregulated work in many developing countries means the effect is not uniform globally.

2. Calling gig workers ‘entrepreneurs’ hides the risks they face  

The language used to refer to workers on gig websites is often designed to minimise the impression of an employment relationship. In the small print, workers are generally called ‘independent contractors’, who perform services for clients in a commercial exchange facilitated by the platform. This positive image is reinforced by portraying workers as entrepreneurs (see example).  

Although some workers, often the most highly skilled, may earn a reliable income and enjoy flexibility and autonomy, many fare much worse. The low and insecure incomes prevalent in many gig sectors, compounded by a lack of employment rights, benefits or social security – such paid maternity leave – mean many women are forced into highly precarious economic situations.

3. Women’s workplace challenges are not new, just technology-enabled

There are specific labour rights issues associated with the gig economy, but our research suggests that instead of creating new or unique challenges, the gig economy reconfigures existing structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment and decent work.

For example, platform profiles allow households to select domestic workers based on characteristics other than their qualifications, including age, gender, race or ethnicity. This reinforces many of the unequal power relations and discriminatory structures that traditionally underpin domestic work, except they are experienced in new, technology-enabled ways.

4. There is little evidence the gig economy improves work-life balance

It is often assumed that the gig economy is particularly suited to women, as flexible ad-hoc work allows them to in fit paid activity around unpaid domestic or care work. Yet our initial research exploring the experiences of domestic workers suggests significant trade-offs are involved. Workers’ autonomy over their hours is limited; they are often forced to work long hours to earn a living wage.

The experiences of women balancing unpaid and gig work remain largely unresearched, particularly in developing countries where the gig economy is still emerging. This matters, as alleviating women’s unpaid workload is crucial for their economic empowerment, and for the achievement of the SDGs.

5. Governments, businesses, and workers can shape the gig economy

At CSW, the focus will be on how governments can ensure the gig economy helps women access economic opportunities – for example, by reducing digital and financial divides. It is essential they also protect workers against risks. Ensuring laws and policies are fit for purpose in the gig era is central to this, as is being open to initiatives such as portable benefit systems.

Companies should also play their part by ensuring their core business model genuinely supports women’s empowerment. They can also design positive features into platforms, such as safety buttons or two-way ratings systems that allow workers to rate clients.

Finally, workers must have the opportunity to organise to improve their working conditions. And there is another option: platform cooperatives allowing workers to own and control the technology and set their own terms of work are emerging in several countries. 

ODI will be carrying out more research on women’s experiences in the gig economy throughout this year – watch this space for updates!

And register for the webinar we’ve organised with UK Gender and Development Network ahead of CSW – ‘Creating an economy that works for women’.

Women and the 'Uber-isation' of domestic work