The gig economy risks rolling back hard-fought gender-based entitlements in the workplace

Posted on 28.06.2023
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Image: stockpexel via Shutterstock

Authors: Sudeep Bhargava and Navneet Gidda 

When was the last time you saw an advert for an app like Deliveroo, Uber or Bolt? It probably wasn’t too long ago, and it probably featured a smiling woman and made claims that platform work is a viable option for everyone. But is that really the case? Digital labour has long been treated as an equalizing form of employment, presenting opportunities for fairer wages, safer conditions, and more flexible work. However, Fairwork’s research on the global gig economy may suggest otherwise. 

A new report on gender and platform work draws on the past four years of findings from the Fairwork project to shed light on gendered experiences in location-based platform work. The report is based on Fairwork’s research on working conditions conducted across 38 countries and for 190 platforms, most of which work across multiple countries. 

According to the report, in its current state, platform economies around the world risk widening the gender pay gap, reducing female and gender minority participation in the workforce, and creating gender-segregated labour markets. How have we found ourselves here? The reality is that most platform labour companies assume that the typical worker is an independent, efficient, mobile, digitally engaged man without family responsibilities or other considerations. They fail to account for differences in the identities of their workforce, and how these change their experiences at work. 

When confronted with the issue of gender discrimination, platforms tend to deploy technological solutions. Around the world, Fairwork research has found examples of platforms banning female workers from working certain hours of the night, barring them from accepting “unsafe” offers, and subjecting them to intrusive surveillance measures. What we hardly ever see these same companies do is consider the fact that these “solutions” often result in decreased earnings and increased platform control—results that, ultimately, do little to keep women and gender minority workers safe.  

If technological solutions are not the answer, then what is? 

Platform solutions: Dos and Don’ts

Gendered experiences with platform work are determined by factors such as cultural norms, the demographic profile of the worker, support networks, government policies, and the presence of non-profit actors who can enable the entry of women and gender minorities into this economy. Our research around the globe has allowed us to find commonalities across contexts to present platforms with better solutions to address gender discrimination and violence in the digital labour economy. A few of these recommendations include: 

  • Paying all workers a living wage, after costs, and ensure consistent earnings amongst them. 
  • Prioritizing workers’ safety and access to benefits like parental leave, sick pay and insurance. 
  • Reimbursing workers for all costs and lost earnings in cancelled jobs. 
  • Implementing meaningful anti-discrimination policies, as well as mechanisms to test their effectiveness by regularly seeking worker feedback. 
  • Enabling interaction among women and gender minorities and collaborating with existing women and gender minority-led collectives, associations and trade unions. 

Policymakers and the regulatory field

Left unchecked, the platform economy defaults to perpetuating and amplifying gender divisions. While the regulatory environment in which these companies operate have the power to substantially influence workers’ rights and realities, most countries lag in regulating the platform economy.  

One of the most common issues around the world allowing for the growth of informal and exploitative work that disproportionately affects women and gender minorities is the classification of platform workers as independent contractors. Considering the experiences of the most invisible or disadvantaged workers will allow policymakers to draft protections that will benefit the platform economy as a whole. These include: 

  • Requiring platforms to share gender disaggregated information on the number of active workers they have. 
  • Requiring platform employers to report their annual gender pay gap data, contextualised by information on hours worked by women and gender minorities. 
  • Making platforms liable for accident reporting and providing adequate safety gear for active workers. 
  • Granting platform workers access to existing worker tribunals and legal mechanisms around workplace discrimination and harassment—particularly regarding unfair platform policies that constrain women and gender minorities’ earning potentials. 

Incorporating the advice of women and gender minorities workers collectives and trade unions in platform work-related regulation initiatives at all stages. 

The future of fairness in the platform economy

Our assessment on women and gender minority workers in the platform economy would not be complete without mentioning the role of consumers. We encourage institutional consumers to join our mission by signing the Fairwork Pledge. Meanwhile, individual consumers would do well to consult Fairwork’s various country ratings and keep up with new publications and announcements. Consumers have the unique ability to pressure platforms to provide for and treat their workers more fairly. Get in touch with local trade unions and help spread the message! 

There is nothing inevitable about poor working conditions or entrenched gender inequities in the platform economy; however, the inconsiderate and unregulated growth of platform work risks undoing decades of work on improving worker participation and narrowing the gender pay gap. The Fairwork methodology insists that fair working conditions can and are achievable for all workers, regardless of gender identity — and that everyone has a role to play in making that vision a reality.