Women in the Platform Economy: Navigating opportunities and challenges

Posted on 02.01.2024
Female platform worker in Bangladesh
Female platform worker in Bangladesh, PC: Mahadi Al Rakib Mahi

Author: Jinat Jahan Khan, Research Associate, DataSense at iSocial

Throughout the last decade, the global workforce has undergone a significant and profound transformation. One of the most prominent transformations is the emergence of digital labour platforms. Through these platforms, people are able to provide and consume a vairety of services, leveraging digital mediums. Undoubtedly, increased technological advances and internet access have played a vital role in expanding the digital labour market. However, global economic conditions, the growing positive mindset towards gaining more flexibility and freedom in work, and the demand for part-time and additional income sources with less formal requirements and complexities have accelerated the expansion of digital labour. The success of digital labour platforms has inspired the platform growth trajectories of developed countries, and these platforms have now also expanded to developing countries. As a result, global companies have been inspired to introduce their own local platforms and applications within the country.

Terms such as ‘platforms’ or ‘platform economy’ may seem unfamiliar to some, but digital labour platforms are used by thousands of people of different classes in many countries, including in Bangladesh. Some of the most well-known platforms in this country facilitate digital commerce in areas such as ride-hailing, food, parcel or grocery delivery, home-based care or maintenance services, and more. These services are offered by platforms such as Uber, Pathao, Foodpanda, Daraz, Sheba, and so on. The phenomenon of digital platforms is not even a decade old in Bangladesh. It started with the arrival of Uber, a ride-hailing platform, and now many additional platforms are in the market, providing a wide range of services and operating in almost every kind of service sector (e.g., delivery services, home-based care services, etc.). While some of the platforms are actively promoting inclusive opportunities to work, by removing barriers of entry for people from disadvantaged groups, including women, occupational segregation based on gender is still prevalent in this economy. This article explores the gender aspects of the platform economy, particularly in Bangladesh.  

Women in the global platform economy

The emergence of the platform economy gained wide recognition mostly due to ride-hailing and food delivery platforms. In the beginning, only men were involved in providing these services. With its growing popularity, simple requirements, and benefits, women started to participate in the platform economy as well. However, the platform work they were able to participate in was highly segregated, due to prevalent gender and socio-cultural norms that influence the distribution of gender roles for offering ride-hailing or delivery services.

In a positive light, this emergence of location-based digital labour platforms attracted some new types of services in the digital labour economy, which were already existent in the non-digital arena. However, even on these platforms, the tasks that women workers are assigned to are just substitutes for the unpaid household chores that are traditionally done by women, or the jobs that are often done by women of poor households in exchange for poor payment.* The platforms developed for providing household chores and care services are more likely to hire women to work. The conventional belief that women are primary caregivers and likely to know how to do household chores, has led to platforms taking this step. For instance, on (now Helpling), a platform that provides home-based cleaning services in the UK, about 86.5% of workers are women. On the contrary, 95% of Uber workers in the UK are men and 94% of Deliveroo (a food delivery platform) workers are men. Platforms that offer care services are highly dominated by women workers, as it has been observed traditionally. In India, there are over four million workers in the platform economy. But only 2% of these workers are women who are mostly involved in home-based services. This shows a high degree of feminisation in the world of work.

A survey on the platform economy of eight countries including Pakistan, India, Ghana, Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, Turkey, and Ukraine conducted by Rest of World and Premise found that there are differences between men and women platform workers in terms of the types of work they participate in, their working hours, and their work satisfaction. It moreover suggested that women are more likely to work in those sectors of the platform economy that usually pay less. The survey revealed that men generally perform high-paying gigs such as ride-hailing, and only 19% of the drivers and 23% of the delivery workers on different platforms in the surveyed countries are women. Yet the number of women workers increases on platforms that have home-based and care services. Overall, 35% of domestic workers and 44% of care providers in the platform economy in the surveyed countries are women. The study also observed that social and economic inequalities resulted in such situations in the platform economy. These inequalities include disparities in education, lack of social support networks, limited access to well-paying jobs, etc. This survey demonstrated that women are less financially satisfied than men in these countries, except for in Turkey and Ukraine. In countries where gender discrimination is acute, such as in Pakistan, women have very poor access to financial resources and documentation (e.g., property deeds, bank accounts, or any formal paperwork to signify ownership and access to resources), which results in difficulties for them to invest in assets and participate in the platform economy. In each country surveyed in this study, women are found to work fewer hours than men, because women typically perform additional caregiving work. Due to such obligations, they are often unable to work additional hours and increase their earnings. 

Women in the Bangladeshi platform economy

In Bangladesh, there are very few platforms on which women are seen to be involved in digital platform-based labour. In ride-hailing and food delivery services, it is rare to come across any women riders. There used to be a couple of ride-hailing platforms, Obon and Lily, that were dedicated to having women riders and passengers only. But these came to a halt, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic, due to a shortage of women riders. The shortage was apparently not only due to the pandemic. While closing, Obon mentioned that one of the major barriers for women to participate in this platform was social attitudes. Socially, many people often view riding bicycles or motorcycles as a masculine activity. Due to different gender stereotypes, women who are involved in similar activities are often looked down on socially. Apart from this, many women riders complained about the inappropriate glares and sleazy remarks by bus drivers, truck drivers, car drivers and pedestrians who make them feel uncomfortable while working on the platforms. There are also issues of security due to which it is unsafe for women riders to work at night, and some platforms are addressing this by limiting the working hours for women until the afternoon. Security has been a major issue in any kind of job for women, and in the platform economy, this issue is more visible. For instance, as women are more likely to be involved in home-based care services, they are often in danger of getting harassed, physically or verbally, by the clients. Moreover, the lack of economic security can be challenging for women. At present, only for platforms that provide home-based services such as cooking, cleaning, beauty services, and care services, a significant presence of women workers is observed. 

In Bangladesh, it is quite rare to find platforms that women work for.  Two of the most common platforms women are working on are HelloTask and Sheba. HelloTask is the only platform in the country that offers domestic work on demand. This platform only assigns women who provide services like cooking, cleaning, washing, or any other kind of household chores. On the contrary, only a small portion of Sheba workers are women. These workers primarily provide beauty services. Apart from these, a platform called Amar Astha is also known for providing caregiving services, and they only appoint women as such caregivers. Though it may seem like a golden opportunity for women to participate in the platform economy, there are disproportionately more problems to deal with for women as compared to men, especially regardingpersonal safety, and social and economic security. Unfortunately, there are very few resources to understand the working conditions of women workers in Bangladesh.  

Last year, the ‘Fairwork Bangladesh Ratings 2022: State of Work in the Bangladesh Gig Economy‘ report highlighted the working condition of women platform workers to some extent. The report included the experiences of women platform workers on HelloTask and Sheba, as well as some of the common issues that were identified in the interviews that were conducted with these women workers. 

These included various security issues that women workers face when travelling to and entering customers’ houses to provide services. While Sheba workers are more aware of what to do in the case of security concerns, due to the platform’s frequent safety awareness campaigns, HelloTask workers seem to be less aware of the course of action. The latter platform has a policy on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) for workers’ protection, but the interviewed workers were not aware of such a policy. However, the workers at HelloTask are mostly aware of the helpline of the platform, with an interactive voice response-based system integrated in it. This also shows the differences in workers’ awareness among different platforms. It is worth noting that most HelloTask workers have prior experience of being traditional domestic workers, while Sheba women workers are individuals who have previously worked as beauticians or are still working in beauty parlours. And there are some specific social perspectives regarding the value of these jobs. There is a clear wage gap and educational gap between these two groups of women workers, as observed in conventional work environments. Like in traditional scenarios, HelloTask workers belong to less financially solvent classes and have less formal education attainment as compared to Sheba beauty service providers. Thus, HelloTask workers seem to be in a more vulnerable position.

Since people are likely to pay less for domestic work, it has resulted in lower wages for these workers. In some cases, however, the payment is a little higher on the platform than what workers would earn in traditional domestic work settings.  The reason is that the payment for this work is based on the market rate for domestic work in the particular area, and a commission is also imposed by the platform. One more thing observed in the Fairwork report is that men are always aware of their platforms’ commission rates, and some of them even participated in strikes to keep the commission in check. Women workers, on the other hand, are not well informed. A possible reason for this is the variation in the types of platforms that men and women workers are involved with, and the varying concentration of men and women workers in different types of platforms with different models of payment. Most Sheba workers can calculate and keep track of their salary and commission; but most HelloTask workers do not know or cannot keep track of the commission, as they receive their income directly from the platform and after the platform has deducted the commission fee. Even though it seems that the platform economy provides more flexibility and freedom, workers often have no option but to accept the work that is assigned to them through the app. This is because declining a gig decreases the opportunity to be assigned gigs in the future. This is true for HelloTask and Sheba, as well as for platforms that are exclusively for men, or those that have men as the majority of their working pool.

Despite these issues, many women workers choose to work on these platforms over working in traditional domestic work contexts. One of the main reasons is that, through platforms, there is more certainty to be assigned work than in the traditional way. And even if the income is not too high, it is better than what they usually get from non-platform sources. However, these workers need more training and awareness about how to survive and earn in the platform economy. Some workers have recognised that safety facilities and health protection policies can make them better off, and some platforms are working on addressing such barriers of working through training and awareness campaigns. Nonetheless, many platforms are yet to introduce an appropriate model to address women workers’ needs.

*Gregg, M. (2011). Work’s intimacy. Polity Press.