The World Bank and the World Economic Forum have promoted ‘digital entrepreneurship’ as the answer to increase female employment and tackle gender inequality, but digital labour platforms are re-producing the same problems as traditional labour markets, researchers have found.
Access to digital labour platforms is not the transmission belt to better work for women which many have claimed it is, a leading economist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has claimed.
Institutions like the World Bank and the World Economic Forum have advocated ‘digital entrepreneurship’ as a key means of tackling unemployment and improving productivity, especially in the global south.
Platforms like Care[dot]com have promoted themselves as a means of “levelling the playing field” between men and women, on the basis that they offer greater flexibility and that the technology is ‘gender-neutral’, unlike (overwhelmingly male) bosses.
Dr Uma Rani, a senior economist in ILO’s Research Department, used her keynote address on Monday [3 July] at the launch of the first global study on women and platform work by Fairwork, the platform economy research-action project, to challenge these assumptions.
Rani’s speech sought to address two issues: firstly, the notion that digital labour platforms have been a major boon for women’s employment, and secondly the idea that access to platforms “in itself” generates greater gender equality.
Rani said that there was a “huge expectation that this is going to be the silver bullet for declining labour fore participation rates, especially in low developed and middle income countries”, but that gender participation rates on digital labour platforms are “very similar to those of traditional labour markets”. One in four of those on platforms in the global south are women, and one in three in the global north.
She said this was “not surprising” because platforms have entered already existing sectors with deep-seated gender biases, and are “mirroring” those practises. The platform economy is heavily gender-segregated: In typically male-dominated sectors, like private car hire, women make-up about 10% of workers. In domestic care and cleaning platforms, a traditionally feminised sector, just 20% of the labour force are men.
On the flexibility of platform work, Rani said: “The reason many women do join the platform is because of the flexibility and autonomy being promised, but very soon it becomes a myth.
“Because the reality is that women juggle between household care responsibilities and paid work, which means they often work longer and they often work odd hours during the day…This flexibility becomes a tool for legitimising the double-shifts of women.”
On access to digital infrastructure, Rani argued that “it is not going to solve gender inequalities; there’s no automatic way in which women’s empowerment would happen”.
She criticised “neoliberal thinking” which s “give them entrepreneurial capacities and abilities and that itself will ultimately lead to women’s economic empowerment”
Rani said this argument was based on the notion that digital technologies “are gender-neutral, and one forgets that the platforms are designed by humans, so there are very clear biases which are there, which leads to discrimination on these platforms and gender inequalities.”
On remote-work freelance platforms like Upwork and freelancer[dot]com, “men dominate tasks related to technology, software development, data analysis, and this very much mirrors what happens in the traditional labour market, there is no difference,” she explained.
She added that there are “huge disparities” in earnings between men and women on these platforms, while employment miss-classification as self-employed, meaning the platforms don’t have to provide any social security benefits, “enables them to further marginalise women workers.”
Rani concluded: “There is a need to question the whole empowering potential of digital labour platforms for women, particularly those from marginalised groups, because platforms have in many ways entrenched gender and race-based discrimination.”
Following the speech, co-authors of the Fairwork study, Dr Kavita Dattani and Dr Anjali Krishan of the University of Oxford Internet Institute, summarised its key findings.
The in-depth report is based on platform work research in 38 countries, over 190 platforms and interviews with more than 5000 platform workers. The research revealed that gender-based discrimination, including harassment and abuse, was “common-place” on digital labour platforms, making it harder for women to access this type of work and limiting the earnings opportunities for those who do.
The study also found that unpaid work was especially typical on female-dominated care platforms, partly due to the use of ratings systems which make worker’s fearful about not meeting excessive client demands.
The solutions offered by platforms to these issues have included unilaterally banning women from doing work at night and intrusive worker surveillance, measures which increases the gender pay gap and tighten the platforms’ control over female workers.
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Instead, the authors’ make a series of proposals to increase the accountability of the platforms and of clients, including client ID checks, allowing workers to rate and flag clients, an appeals process to challenge unfair ratings, to make platforms liable for accident reporting and to provide adequate safety equipment. Forms of financial security, such as an adequate living wage, would also reduce gender-based risks, the report finds.
The webinar also heard from Fairwork researchers in Serbia, the Philippines and India. They were all asked how to apply their findings on gender-based discrimination to union organising strategies in the platform economy.
Professor Janaki Srinivasan from Fairwork India responded that as well as having less time to work than men due to greater caring responsibilities, women in the platform economy also “don’t have time to network”, and that “unions need to think about how to be inclusive”.
She highlighted a recent strike of beauty workers on the Urban Company platform in India, which drew support from male-dominated unions in food delivery and ridehail, arguing that this was “a good step” and “they too can see common cause”.
Tanja Jakobi from Fairwork Serbia said that this was the first year where there had been signs of “unrest” from platform workers in the Balkans country, and that they are working with unions to “incentivise them to think about this type of engagement”. Because Serbian employment contracts are “not of a good quality” many workers see “little incentive to organise” for employment rights, she argued.
Dr Cheryll Soriano from Fairwork Philippines said that unions in the country are not “very well sensitised to the reality of gender minorities in relation to platform work”, and that the archetypal idea of platform workers as “young men” needs to be challenged.
Soriano added that she had identified in her research worker associations “led by women” and that “unions should be paying attention to these cases”, as this was the “seed of larger forms of organising”.
Rani contributed to the debate on union organising as well by saying that there is a long tradition in the global south of “organising workers in the informal economy”, including domestic work, arguing that this experience is “something the rest of the world can learn from”.
She added that the beauty workers strike in India showed how workers can use tools like WhatsApp for organising, which shows “women can get together and co-ordinate so that individual resistance becomes a collective resistance”.
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