Domestic service provider Urban Company was recently in the news for suing women protesting company policies. These women were reportedly gig workers, labelled as “partners” under the company’s banner of services.
While gig workers across the globe have grown in number, often seeking social and financial security out of short-term and flexible employment, this debacle was the first of its kind to be reported in India.
Gig work is often celebrated as an alternative livelihood for women. A survey by the UN Development Programme and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) showed 57% of people believe gig economy can boost women’s employment, owing to the flexibility of work, short-term engagement and freelance opportunities, and always-on communication that takes place across platforms – all of which make gig work unique.
However, citing the lack of regulation on the gig economy, the UNDP clarified that labour laws were necessary “to safeguard the interest” of both employers and employees in the “changing world of work”.
POSH and gig employees
One factor that employers and regulators must look into for women in the gig economy is their safety and security, be that physical, psycho-social and even financial.
An article on Forbes claimed: “Over 3,000 people were assaulted in Uber drives in 2019 alone, many of those victims being the drivers. Since personal safety is usually top of mind for most women, it is understandable that they might choose to sit out this type of gig labour. As industry leaders, how can we address this disparity?”
While permanently employed women in India are protected by the provisions of the POSH Act (Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace), gig-working women are not covered by the law.
According to Anshuman Das, Co-Founder and CEO of Careernet: “Leaders should ensure that they treat gig workers the same as their full-time employees, and POSH is no exception. The internal policy of organisations for gig workers should be on par with that of full-time employees. Dignity should not be compromised based on the nature of employment.”
“The onus of safeguarding them lies with the employers,” Das said.
This calls for an overarching regulation of how the gig workforce can be made part of the mainstream workforce. The issue can be tackled by forming a ‘sharing economy’ where employers collaborate to ensure gig workers get the same benefits as full-time employees.
In fact, independent platforms map the needs of gig workers; help educate employers; and provide transparency and security for all.
Financial security for women
Female gig workers should have escalation channels, even access to law enforcement, open to them while working 24/7 in order to build their trust and confidence in their new line of work, Tarun Baloch, CTO, Workex told People Matters.
However, it isn’t just everyday physical threats that gig workers are worried about.
Full access to life and medical insurance, credit lines and financial instruments, along with timely pay-outs, are crucial, Baloch suggested. Even having quick and easy access to legal frameworks might increase their sense of safety in the workplace.
“All these measures place confidence in a gig worker that, should anything happen, which might require her to go through a tough time, she should have a strong support system behind her in terms of safety legally and financially,” Baloch said.
According to a 2020 report from Observer Research Foundation, India had the second-largest market of freelance professionals in the world, at 15 million, second only to the US which had about 53 million. This certainly opens up new horizons for workers, especially women, who are aiming for alternative forms of employment.
Das is also of the view that the gig economy has the potential to increase the number of women joining the workforce. The demand for talent has spiralled in recent times, creating more opportunities for women with demonstrated expertise.
Meanwhile, the increased acceptance of remote work in the past 18 months has also paved the way for the gig economy and opened up previously untapped opportunities for women. The number of women in the workforce is set to rise, considering the work-life balance, flexibility, and convenience that gig work offers. On the other hand, employers now have wider access to talent and are more open to gig arrangements because of the short supply of quality talent.
Despite the growing potential of the gig market, leaders have cited several loopholes in the process – with lack of awareness being a major one.
Mohammed Zeeshan, CEO and Co-Founder of MyCaptain, believes employers need to reach out to the right candidates and build channels of communication.
“Companies and industries recruiting for gigs need to find the right channels (e.g. Sharechat, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube) to reach out to women (and men) to create awareness. India has a ‘show me proof’ attitude, with the low-income category,” Zeeshan said.
Because of the very nature of gig employment, enabling women to access digital platforms and devices is crucial to increasing their engagement. However, the ever-prevailing gender gap in terms of education in India has caused women to have fewer access to mobiles and other such devices compared to men.
The GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report, for example, found that in 2019 only 16% of Indian women were internet users. In spite of several government initiatives such as ‘Digital India’, the digitisation rate among women remained a challenge.
Both Baloch and Zeeshan believe employers will have to highlight success stories when reaching out to candidates in order to increase women’s participation in the gig economy.
“The best way to create awareness is to have success stories around us,” Baloch said.
However, the idea of success should also be highlighted in terms of fair payments and incentives. “Trust, safety, and transparency towards employability and benefits will lead the change. Success stories bring in the network effects, where one success brings in many more participants.”
Citing the emergence of newer variants of the COVID-19 virus, experts are of the view that there will be a surge in the demand for remote workers. Apna.com, a jobs platform, reported a 40% surge in female users in the second quarter of 2021 due to the increasing demand for work-from-home and part-time jobs. This is likely going to increase in 2022 as the Omicron variant prompts offices to shut down again.
However, Baloch anticipates that the participation rate of women in the gig workforce would increase gradually with time.
“There will not be a sudden surge, especially as quickly as 2022. Currently, most gig-based platforms are primarily operating in the Logistics / Delivery, Drivers and Field Sales domains, which has always seen lower women’s participation [rates],” he said.
Further explaining the aspects of remote work becoming mainstream, Das said that the adoption of remote work is going upwards so, consequently, the gig economy will also grow.
There is an overlap between remote work and the gig economy and, going by this trend, the odds appear to be favourable to the gig economy. Women will thus benefit from the gig economy because gig work often accords them work-life balance.
“The percentage of women joining the gig workforce is likely to double by the end of 2022,” Das said.
Gig work can enhance employment prospects for women. Employers can create awareness of this by highlighting success stories, but they should also enhance gig workers’ safety and security and provide them with better pay and benefits to make this alternative form of livelihood part of the mainstream.