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What the ‘Uber-isation’ of domestic work means for women

Written by Abigail Hunt


App-based services, it seems, are changing the world of work. Famously, the world’s largest taxi company owns no cars. Instead, Uber has reinvented the traditional taxi industry, leading the charge in a new ‘on demand’ culture bringing together workers and the people who buy their services – also known as the gig economy.

While Uber has grabbed many headlines, similar changes are afoot in other sectors – including those traditionally least regulated and most often associated with insecure and exploitative work. When it comes to jobs and work, it’s always a question of quality as well as quantity.

Which is why it matters that the gig economy apparently has both positive and negative impacts.

It offers quick access to convenient, flexible and cheap services for consumers, and some choice and flexibility over working hours for workers. But the workers also face real challenges: they have less economic security, predictability, and ability to organise to demand improved pay and conditions.

So will app-based services make things better or worse for those already on the margins?

The ‘Uber-isation’ of domestic work

Services providing domestic workers to do the tasks traditionally carried out by women – cleaning, cooking, laundry, and care for children and older people – are now emerging in countries like India, Mexico and South Africa.

Although this is a new trend, early signs are that dedicated domestic worker app companies are growing rapidly within and across countries. In India, three of these companies are reported to be expanding between 20% and 60% month-on-month.

Of course, paid domestic work is not new: there are an estimated 67 million domestic workers globally, 80% of whom are women. What’s new is the way apps are bringing together households with domestic workers.

Disrupting traditional domestic work

The implications of recruitment via apps for paid domestic workers and women in the households engaging them are currently unclear.

ODI’s recent research on childcare and women’s economic empowerment clearly found that alleviating women’s disproportionate unpaid care and domestic work burden is crucial for gender equality and increasing women’s economic opportunities. Yet paid domestic workers are among the most vulnerable, and the mobile-based gig economy appears to have potential to exacerbate or alleviate the challenges they face.

Also, their model of extreme flexibility may be of more benefit to women in households purchasing services than to the domestic workers providing them – potentially intensifying inequalities and power differences between women.

There are also implications for the digital divide. If the app-based gig economy really does create work opportunities, this implies those unable to access or use mobile technology will be excluded – which could increase labour market polarisation and widen existing inequalities.

And the billions who remain unbanked may also be excluded, as payment for work gained through apps is often transferred electronically via bank accounts and other formal financial services.

Next steps

To answer some of these questions, ODI is starting to explore the rise of the gig economy and its implications for care and domestic work.

This is an exciting moment to be on the cutting edge of a new and rapidly developing trend. But it’s more than an evidence-gathering agenda. We predict that many more domestic worker apps will be created – and want to make sure that lessons learnt shape them from concept and startup.

We will also look at how policy and governance frameworks can support the most positive aspects of the domestic worker gig economy – as well as offering protection when it doesn’t work so well.