As the pandemic undermined economic opportunities for everyone in the country, it was women who bore the brunt. Some have described the pandemic as “the great equaliser” owing to the “work from home” flexibility that came with it. Despite this, so many women lost their jobs and incomes across the world, it led to a new term being coined: “shecession”. Taking the long view, though, this decline in women’s employment is not a recent phenomenon and cannot be blamed entirely on the pandemic.

India has witnessed a gradual decline in the female labour force participation rate for more than two decades. As per data from the World Bank, the female labour force participation rate in India decreased from 30.27% in 1990 to 20.8% in 2019.

In addition, India’s female labour force participation rate was at odds with India’s economic growth such that it increased during the low growth phase (pre-2007) and decreased during rapid growth years (post-2008). This paradoxical movement implied that women in India would always have a smaller slice of the economic growth pie. Nevertheless, later in the pre-pandemic years, even as the economic slowdown started to grapple India, women’s participation in the workforce did not increase.

However, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdowns revived the discussion on the need for accessible, inclusive and flexible work as companies were forced to move to a work-from-home set-up. This rekindled the gig economy and its claimed benefits, given its features of “part-time”, “on-demand”, “self-paced”, “work from home”, which would allow workers to better manage unpaid care and paid work.

By letting workers determine their work hours and reducing their dependence on a static physical space, it was assumed that the gig economy would accelerate women’s movement into the workforce. Statistically, however, little improvement has been seen even before the pandemic.

Therefore, with the pandemic already diminishing economic opportunities for women and with more companies switching to gig work, there is still a big question mark on whether the gig economy is the right platform to facilitate women’s engagement in paid work.

Is this perceived future of work actually female-friendly or will it undo the progress that has been painstakingly achieved in the past few decades due to its biases and barriers?

Women in gig work

Though the rapidly growing digital employment economy has its perks, the gig economy has significant barriers to entry for female participation. The platform economy perpetuates the already-existing problems in the labour market such as the gender pay gap, biased algorithms, gender stereotypes and the digital divide. These make it essential to recognise and address these inherent structural issues in the digital ecosystem.

The digital divide between men and women poses a significant hurdle to women’s participation in gig work. As per the GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, only 21% of women in India are mobile internet users, which creates an unequal access to digital technologies necessary for engaging in the platform economy.

Although there is no comprehensive database available on gig workers in the country, it has been observed that there is occupational segregation based on gender stereotypes on platforms. While women mostly engage in beauty and wellness services, as well as formalised domestic and care work, men undertake more transport and delivery work.

This division meant that women were disproportionately affected when India undertook multiple lockdowns, leading to care and domestic services being shut down entirely.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the full-time workforce towards gig work. Photo credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP

Furthermore, wage disparities tends to manifest themselves in the gig economy. Pre-pandemic reports suggest that there was an 8%-10% gap in earnings between men and women gig workers in India. In fact, studies suggest that learned inequality makes women undervalue themselves and engage in lower paying jobs, contributing to this already prevalent wage disparity in the gig economy.

The platforms are also often biased against women because of their “on-demand” work schedules and incentive mechanisms. Engagement in domestic and childcare responsibilities often does not allow women to reap the benefits of peak hours, when both demand and wages are high. In addition, the paid and unpaid work combines into a longer working day for women than for men, thus contributing to their time poverty.

In fact, even in the absence of any discriminatory tools, the service user’s gender biases, digital divide, women’s engagement in the invisible and unrecognised care work and the absence of a comprehensive publicly provided care infrastructure keeps women at a disadvantage in the gig economy and tends to sustain the gender pay gap.

As a consequence, despite the easy accessibility and apparent attractiveness, platforms fail to create equal accessibility for women gig workers.

Recent reforms

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the full-time workforce towards gig work, especially women, who saw a multifold increase in domestic and care burden during the nationwide lockdown. Hence, with gig work becoming more popular, it has become imperative to regulate the gig economy and ensure a fair and efficient working ecosystem for all.

To that end, in September 2020, the government introduced the bill, Code on Social Security 2020, to register gig workers and set up a social security fund for them. This code mandates companies employing gig workers to allocate 1%-2% of their annual turnover or 5% of the wages paid to gig workers, whichever is lower, to the social security fund. The code aims to extend the social security benefits such as maternity leave, disability insurance, gratuity, health insurance, and old age protection to the workers in the gig economy.

However, the implementation has been slow at the bureaucratic front as states are yet to finalise the rules. It was initially scheduled for implementation on April 1 but is now expected to come into place in October.

Way forward

Currently, the absence of unions along with no minimum wages, health benefits, social security and dispute settlement mechanisms makes the gig economy a vulnerable place for the workers, and especially women. There is a need to empower the gig workers by forming an umbrella union that provides them with collective bargaining power. The formal recognition and information symmetry will help them to hold a better footing against the platforms.

While there has been a positive hope with recognition of gig workers in the labour code, the terms of their social security are rather ill-defined with no set regulatory authorities.

Thus, there is a need to offer mandatory coverage to platform workers under the centrally sponsored schemes such as Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana. This can be facilitated through the aggregators to ensure protection to women gig workers, who tend to be more vulnerable in the platform economy.

There is a need to build the right physical and social infrastructure that supports the engagement of women in gig work. Fostering social norms which encourage men to equally undertake unpaid care and domestic work and developing public care infrastructure will facilitate women’s movement into gig work.

It is inevitable that the unprecedented growth of gig work in India, especially post-pandemic will be steady. This growth, however, must include women. The barriers to women’s access to gig work can be eliminated with the right institutional framework, resulting in a more female-friendly future of work in the platform economy.

Garima Nain is a Research Fellow at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, Delhi. Ria Kasliwal is an independent researcher.