Productivity & Innovation

A review of women’s engagement with digital labour market platforms

  • Blog Post Date 04 September, 2023
  • Perspectives
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Summarising some findings from ongoing work being done as part of the DP-WEE project, Sneha Ganguly highlights how the emergence of digital labour platforms have the potential to improve women's access to jobs, reduced gendered bias in certain roles, and allow women to flexibly monetise existing assets. She discusses the need for facilitating skilling, providing greater access to technology for women, as well as ensuring safety in the workplace and offering financial incentives to achieve a gender balanced workforce. 

Gender roles are determined socio-culturally and have a long-drawn history of subjugating women and multiplying their vulnerabilities. Many women have little or no access to technology, skills, capital, and public spaces. Barriers to women’s engagement in the labour force, such as normative gender roles and lack of suitable non-agricultural work opportunities are prevalent in traditional labour markets. According to the International Labour Organization and World Bank estimates, India’s employment to population ratio has been under 50% during 2012-2022. For women, the figure showed a declining trend from 25% and lower over same time period. 

A crucial development in this aspect is the emergence of digital labour platforms, which hold the promise to lower job search costs, align the preferences of job providers and job seekers, and provide flexible and hyperlocal work options. Digital labour platforms, which surged to prominence during the Covid-19 period, have the potential to service up to 90 million jobs in India’s non-farm economy (Augustinraj et al. 2021). 

However, several experts believe that the information asymmetries between workers and employers is startling as platforms make an enormous amount of information available in a readily consumable form for jobseekers. This exacerbates matching frictions in the labour market, leading to skill mismatches and problems in finding the right fit. Improving digital platforms to reduce these mismatches can be essential to better economic outcomes especially for women, who are also struggling with geographic restrictions and higher job search costs. Additionally, issues like women’s lower skilling, poor information access and limited mobility has also plagued the platform sector, with a gender digital divide entrenching these disadvantages even more deeply.  

Promise of platform work for women 

A NITI Aayog (2022) report suggests that in 2020-21, when Covid-19 was at its peak, almost 7.7 million people or 1.5% of India’s workforce were engaged in the gig or platform economy. Digital labour platforms are categorised by the International Labour Organization (2021) as either i) online web-based, where tasks are dispersed and performed online or remotely, like video transcription or; ii) location-based platforms for local services such as home maintenance, taxi and delivery services. The ILO further defines types of work relationships offered by platforms as either internal employment (where workers are directly hired) or external employment (mediated through employer-employee matching platforms). 

The role of digital platforms in enabling efficient job search is especially prominent in some sectors. For instance, Aishwarya Raman, Executive Director at the OMI Foundation stated in a recent panel discussion on ‘Promise and Challenge of Digital Platforms’ that jobs for drivers were always available, however, the ease in accessing them has been enhanced by technology, unlocking a plethora of related livelihood opportunities. Another sector that platforms are actively entering, is the private tuition or coaching industry, which includes preparation for competitive exams via digital learning. In addition to promotion of jobs, platforms also have incredible potential to create a marketplace for products. As per the 73rd round of NSSO, 20% of MSMEs are owned by women, and with the lack of access to market and capital being some of the major barriers to women stepping in as entrepreneurs. The digitisation of markets through platforms can act as a major boost for women, as it would allow them to make products at or close to home with the required infrastructure investment even in rural or peri-urban areas. 

De-linking women’s work from the limits of conventional job markets

Intrinsic social barriers and lack of appropriate skills often restrict women from working as electricians, plumbers or construction workers, which are not deemed to be ‘feminine’ jobs. Estimates of workforce participation in different categories of industries as per NSSO data from 2019-20 reveals that there were only 7.8 million women in the construction sector, in comparison with 61.7 million men. While there are spillover effects of gendered discrimination on platforms just as in traditional work, such cases are minimal. The scope of platform work is more often ambivalent to the gender of the workers, as the very competitive capitalist market on the other side simply focuses on the service or product to be delivered. The entry level barriers are also quite low given the flexibility of work in the sector. While community-level efforts are very essential in breaking existing gender stereotypes about work, markets also need to be equal partners in bringing about such social change. 

A recent study by the OMI Foundation asserts that with the advent of platforms, women’s work participation is no longer a binary decision between household duties and economic aspirations. For instance, in a situation where women are less likely to have exclusive ownership of vehicles or mobiles, platforms play an integral role in flexibly monetising family assets. The study finds that female platform workers – currently constituting under 2% of the total platform workforce – are more likely to take up these jobs post-marriage. This defies the macroeconomic trend of married women withdrawing from the labour force. Further, women prefer platform work to other jobs, and it is often a full-time and primary income source for them. 

On the contrary, some companies have highlighted the higher cost of onboarding female workers on platforms relative to men. This leads to their poor participation on digital platforms – for instance, as of 2021, only 0.5% of Zomato delivery partners are women. Labournet Chairperson, Gayathri Vasudevan highlighted in the recent panel discussion that women’s lower mobility and other social barriers as is the reasons behind women costing companies more than men to bring onboard. It is unrealistic to expect a business to bear losses in order to ensure gender-balanced workforce, but appropriate policy measures and benefits from the government for businesses can come in handy here. Financial incentives in the form of production-linked incentive schemes and tax breaks are crucial to push companies to have a more inclusive workforce. 

Digital platforms and skill building

Skilling plays an indispensable role in helping women broaden their occupational choices and work opportunities. Given that the platform economy is driven by technology, its potential to enhance the likelihood of women with appropriate skills finding a job in the sector can be enormous if the existing gender digital gap is reduced. As per a NITI Aayog report (2023), the number of active women Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) operating in India is only 16.8% out of the total ITIs. The gender divide in ITIs is stark, with only 7% female candidate enrollment in 2021 and only 15.8% of female instructors in ITIs, as per the same report. Lack of skills intertwined with low access to technology is a disadvantage for women wanting to join the platforms.Oxfam’s India Inequality Report (2021) stated that women rarely use digital services and have low access to the internet, and highlighted that only 32% of women own a mobile phone against 60% of men. 

The need for skilling and upskilling is thus constantly highlighted by experts to help women engage in the platform economy and providing complimentary skills like soft skills, mobility and digital skills have also proven to help women overall (Tsusaka 2020).  Upskilling women in the digital era can help them secure promising roles, suggesting that investing in capacity building programmes to upskill women on emerging digital technologies can help them in a practical way to bounce back in the labour market. On average, 11% of the jobs held by women are at risk of elimination due to digital technologies (Dabla-Norris and Kochhar 2018), and targeted reskilling courses can help make a huge difference. 

From a policy perspective, skilling initiatives must work hand-in-hand with job platforms and connect workers with employers. Additionally, there is a need for demand-based skilling curriculums that are curated after proper assessment and by mapping youth’s aspirations, with special focus on young women. Training quality assessment through robust monitoring and regular training of the trainers is imperative in the direction of efficient skilling. Given the dwindling rate of women in ITIs, hostel and transport facilities must be explored for participants along with providing courses such as plumbing, electrician etc. for women, as highlighted by NITI Aayog (2023). Given the enormous opportunity for home maintenance gigs on platforms, such skills can be a game changer for bringing women to the job market. 

Emerging workplaces and safety 

With the advent of platform work, the definition of the workplace has also witnessed change. Women’s spatial mobility, issues of workplace safety and access to clean toilets in public spaces is a concern for them and their families, and have been a barrier to women’s work participation. These issues are a major concern as a lot of jobs involve visiting the customer’s or client’s homes. In this context, it is important to analyse how the proposed labour law amendments will address sexual harassment matters, workplace safety and social security provisions in this new context. The review of judicial developments pertaining to safety platform and gig workers in India has been evolving. The new Rajasthan Platform-Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act, 2023 is a new development in this area. While such legislative measures aim to protect and secure the workers in the sector, especially women, their issues need continued dialogue among stakeholders affecting decisions. 

Since the entire city is a workplace in a digital economy, efforts by employers are also key to keeping female workers safe. There is a pressing need to scale-up mobility solutions– services for women to help them feel safe while commuting to and from workplace. While some platforms like OLA are undertaking gender sensitisation trainings for male drivers, such measures should be made mandatory for all platforms as they are pre-requisites for women’s safety in shared workspaces. Platform work often does not allow peer-bonding and solidarity that is created in traditional workspaces. While a lot of learning for women happens through social networks, remote work reduces opportunities for collectivisation which often helps women to voice the issues they face at workplaces. With the employer being ‘faceless’, platform workers possess lower bargaining power. Women workers’ networks and unions need encouragement. Deliberating on the strength of social networks in the development of women, networks can act as a source of information about rights, health, services and safety. Experts suggest that at an organisational level, enabling women’s networks can create a space for knowledge exchange and confidence enhancement at the workplace >ternbauer 2019), which can be a key instrument to promote female worker retention at workplaces in the digital economy. 

The BMGF-funded ’Digital Platforms and Women’s Economic Empowerment’ project housed at CECFEE, Indian Statistical Institute Delhi and LEAD at Krea University aims to analyse constraints around women’s engagement with platforms. Some of the findings in this article are based on information shared during a recent panel discussion on ‘The Promise & Challenge of Digital Platforms’ as part of the DP-WEE launch event. 

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