India’s gig economy is failing women workers

“We will assign you jobs based on the number of hours and days that you are available to work. If you want to work for two hours, we will assign work only for two hours. We will provide you jobs one day in advance and jobs will be in your area so that you do not have to waste time traveling, ”or so 35-year-old Seema Singh was told by her manager when she joined Urban Company four years ago, an online platform providing on-demand, at-home professional services ranging from beauty and salon treatments to professional cleaning.

For Seema, like many of the 32,000 workers (or ‘partners’ as they are called) working for Urban Company, it seemed like the perfect set-up for a mother of two young children. This flexibility is part of the reason that an estimated 40 per cent of Urban Company partners are women, a far higher percentage than most platform companies. But when she joined, the company changed tack, assigning her two to three jobs (equalling about eight to ten hours of work) that were 20 to 40 kilometers away from her home, sometimes informing her on the day.

“I did not have any option but to take the work as I needed to earn money. Once, the company forced me to take a job at 10pm, 40 kilometers away from my home, promising that they would arrange a vehicle to take me back home as well as providing me with a travel allowance. But the company executive did not take my calls after I finished the job at 11.30pm. I was in a deserted area and there were no buses. I couldn’t book an Ola or Uber. I was standing alone in the dark for an hour until my husband came to pick me up, ”Seema recalls.

There are some 15 million gig, or platform, workers in India, according to a 2020 report published by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

Although there is no large-scale data available, it is thought that less than 10 per cent of independent contractors, consultants and workers in the gig economy are women.

“Women mostly join the economy platform for the flexibility as they have domestic and care responsibilities. However, if women workers do not respond to jobs / tasks, their rating is lowered. That means they only get low-paying basic jobs like threading eyebrows for 300 rupees (US $ 4.50), even if a worker is skilled enough to earn three times that amount in the same amount of time, ”says Rikta Krishnaswamy, coordinator of the All Indian Gig Workers Union (AIGWU). “Platforms claim to offer flexibility but they force workers to work more than their capacity allows,” she explains.

Chiara Furtado, a research assistant at the Center for Internet and Society in Bengaluru, agrees that the gig economy is not the panacea to women’s work issues that it is often painted out to be: “The occupational segregation present in the traditional labor market is present in the platform economy. Women are concentrated mostly in beauty, health, wellness, nursing, nannying and domestic work, ”jobs which are traditionally less well-paid than work that isn’t gendered as ‘women’s work’. “Although work in ride-hailing and delivery is available to women, their percentage is not more than 1 per cent because of structural issues like access to vehicles,” Furtado continues. “Thus, the earning capacity of women in this field is reduced.”

No legal protections – and it is even worse for women

For women in customer-facing jobs, sexual harassment is a major occupational hazard. “Sometimes customers ogle me, and I get scared, but it happens almost daily,” says Sheetal Kashyepi, 42, an Uber taxi driver from Mumbai. “I cannot rebuke customers otherwise they will give me a low rating, which will affect my ability to get more work. Or they will make a complaint about me to the company, and the company will penalize me later. ”

Furtado expands further: “The platform companies do not take responsibility for protecting women against sexual or other harassment when they are traveling or at their customer’s home for work. Delivery workers were put in the essential services category during the pandemic and braved great health risks, but they don’t get any kind of protection. ”

Although the gig economy has the potential to create up to 90 million jobs in India, millions of Indians are currently working in the sector without any contracts or access to social security, as platform companies deny that there is any form of employer-employee relationship.

While there is currently no law in India that defines gig work or defends the rights of gig workers, in 2020 the Indian government decided to consolidate 29 existing labor laws into four labor codes, the implementation of which is likely to be carried out this or next year.

The government claims that these labor codes will simplify and unify labor rights across the country, but unions say that in reality, these reforms will “increase labor insecurity, decrease the capacity of trade unions to protect members, and reduce the social accountability of business to the workplace ”.

One of the reforms will introduce a social security welfare mechanism for gig workers (to provide health insurance, maternity benefits and disability cover, for example) to be funded by government and platform companies (with between 1-2 per cent of their total profits). But platform workers will be excluded from the Industrial Relations Code, which looks set to severely restricts workers’ ability to union freely and to collectively bargain.

But that hasn’t stopped the women of Urban Company. In one of the first examples of women gig workers coming together to demand better working conditions, in October 2021, more than 100 women workers went on strike against Urban Company’s high commission rates and low wages. Initially it seemed to yield positive changes as the company lowered partner commissions, reduced penalties, and set up an SOS helpline for its women workers. But when a smaller group of Urban Company partners, including Seema, protested outside the company’s offices again in December against a decision to drastically reduce the number of bookings sent to partners who do not regularly work for the platform, they were issued with a lawsuit.

“It was an extempore protest started by angry women workers against changing incentives, an irrational rating system and other discriminatory policies,” says Krishnaswamy. “I feel like now gig workers have started to realize the importance of being unionized. Until recently they were behind the mobile apps and were not connected with each other. But slowly they have started to connect via social media apps and they are realizing that they need to come together to fight the discriminatory rules set by platform companies, ”she says.

Fighting together

However, Bhavya Sharma, head of communications for Urban Company, refutes the claims made against her company. “The top 20 per cent of partners earn 37,357 rupees (approximately US $ 505) per month against a standard minimum wage of 15,400 rupees (US $ 208). Active service partners are provided with group personal accident insurance, and soon, all partners will be given health insurance, ”she tells Equal Times.

Sharma also claims that Urban Company takes all complaints – whether made by partners or customers – seriously. “We resolve 70 per cent of grievances within an hour of receiving them. Our platform is based on the principle of flexibility; we offer freedom to workers when they want to work and how many hours they want to work. ”

But many gig workers labor for 12-16 hours a day and still do not earn enough to survive due to the hours spent traveling to appointments and the amount of unpaid free time spent between each booking. The new Code on Wages guarantees an as-yet undefined minimum wage, but it excludes gig workers as well as overtime, paid leave and holiday wages.

Sheetal for example works 12-14 hours a day, but says that she still does not earn more than 25,000 rupees (approximately US $ 338) a month due to increased commission fees from Uber, higher fuel prices and vehicle maintenance costs.

As gig workers like Sheetal are not included in any labor codes that recognize their right to minimum wages, protection against exploitation and the right to form a union, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), another union representing some 30,000 app -based drivers, filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India in September 2021 to include gig and platform workers as unorganized workers so that they get benefits under the 2008 Unorganized Workers’ Act. The Supreme Court is currently hearing the petition.

“The government does not care about the welfare of gig workers. The lack of protection is a problem. There is no reason why the government cannot regularize gig platforms, but it prefers to say there are an extra 5-10 million people in employment, which is a good metric to claim. But we don’t know how many of them are merely registered on a platform, or how many work just a few days a week versus those who work full-time, ”says Shaik Salauddin, the national general secretary of IFAT.

As of January, Seema no longer works for Urban Company. “Women like me who led the protests no longer receive jobs via the platform. But our efforts bore fruit as the company reduced its commission to 25 per cent and committed to improve the safety of women. Workers realized that if we fight together, we can get our demands met, ”she says proudly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *