Women and Wellbeing in India’s Gig Economy
Tandem Research will be starting preparations for our IDRC funded research on Women and Wellbeing in India’s Gig Economy, taking into account the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on women working through platforms across a range of occupations, wages and skill levels
Tandem Research was awarded a research grant by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) as part of its Future of Work in the Global South program of work. The project, Women and Wellbeing in India’s Gig Economy, will explore the impact of the gig economy on women gig workers in India across a range of occupations, wages and skill levels, namely, domestic workers, home service and beauty workers, and freelance workers.
At 23.3 percent, India has the lowest female labour force participation rate in South Asia and the lowest among BRICS countries. The lack of suitable jobs, care commitments, and socio-cultural norms that restrict access to education and employment opportunities have been cited as reasons for this low participation. Creating decent and sustainable employment opportunities for women in India is an urgent policy need.
The gig-economy, rapidly growing in India, may help mitigate some of the barriers, enabling flexible and remote work, and allowing women to access new income-generating opportunities. However, it could also reproduce and entrench precarious and informal work, already an enduring condition of Indian labor markets.
For women in particular, the gig-economy risks creating new forms of risk and vulnerability: from reinforcing cultural biases that relegate women to certain kinds of occupational categories, to reproducing the gendered division of labor. Further, increasing paid employment does not mean an improvement in the conditions of women workers, as it could lead to a double burden on women, who still need to fulfil household obligations. Access to some form of social protection mechanisms - from sick-leave to medical insurance to child care - is particularly important for women. Work must be located within a broader social context as well - the gig economy will also transform social relations - from status within a community to decision-making power within a family unit.
While much literature on the gig-economy highlights the mechanisms and techniques through which platforms exploit labor, it is important to explore the ways in which worker agency is being recast, negotiated and exercised, or the ways in which workers are adapting to new opportunities, constraints, and challenges to gig-work on online platforms.
Drawing on the experiences of women gig-workers on domestic work, home-service, and freelance platforms, in the city of Bangalore, the proposed research will explore three lines of enquiry:
● How is the participation of women in the gig-economy affecting their wellbeing, and sense thereof?
● What are the strategies women are employing to adapt to the changing nature of work?
● What are the policy pathways through which the wellbeing of women in India’s gig-economy can be improved?
Existing evidence in this space is largely anecdotal and there is a need to establish baseline data and empirical evidence to inform policy and action. The research will deploy a mixed method approach, employing survey and ethnographic methods to do so.
Evidence based policies for ensuring the wellbeing of women gig workers and measures for supporting their adaptive capacities are urgently needed to avoid the risk of entrenchment and exacerbation of existing inequities. Addressing gender justice and women’s economic empowerment and agency is a key policy priority of India, and appropriate pathways need to be based on labor market realities of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Understanding ways in which the gig economy intersects with social structures of informality, poverty, and gender inequity is relevant for other countries in the global south as well.
While we were supposed to kickstart field work in the coming weeks, the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing lockdown has forced us to reschedule and rethink some of our research questions and methodology. It is becoming clearer now that this pandemic will have a lasting impact on platforms and their business models and consequently on workers, although it remains unclear exactly how. It is important to remember that on-demand work platforms emerged after the economic recession of 2008, when the unavailability of jobs led people to monetise their assets. We will accommodate the impact of Covid-19 on women on the platform economy while meeting the challenges of conducting ethnographic research in the midst of lockdowns and social distancing.