On October 8, more than 100 women beauty workers gathered outside the head office of Urban Company in Gurgaon to protest against their work conditions. The firm, an on-demand platform for home-based services, initially responded by clamping down on protesters, threatening to block their IDs and inviting police action on them.
After continued pressure from workers and media, the company reaffirmed its commitment to “giving a voice to the voiceless” and eventually announced some measures to partly meet workers’ demands.
This was arguably the first widely-reported instance of women working with digital platforms publicly organising to take collective action. A deeper look at their demands sheds light on the gendered nature of work under India’s much-lauded tech startups.
Women’s labour market decisions are structured around trade-offs between paid work and unpaid care work at home. They also face constraints around physical mobility, security and negative familial attitudes towards their work. Digital platforms have been touted as game-changers that will increase women’s workforce participation and earnings, because of the flexibility their model offers to workers to control their work.
However, far from increasing workers’ agency, platform models continue to reinforce gender norms and fail to account for factors that shape women’s work. The recent protests are a reminder that there is much to be corrected if work on platforms is to enhance women’s economic outcomes.
Flexibility for whom?
The term “flexibility” can be understood in various ways. From the workers’ perspective, it is usually understood as the ability to choose when and how much to work. Most platforms, including Urban Company, advertise this as one of their goals.
However, from the firms’ perspective, it could mean minimising input costs while achieving high labour turnover and service quality. Platforms deploy a range of strategies to manage workforce flexibility and match concurrent demand. Key among these is the system of ratings that determine the number of leads offered to workers and may also be used to coerce them into working longer hours and performing unpaid tasks to satiate customer demands.
In Urban Company’s case, workers’ ratings are determined not just on the basis of customer feedback, but also the rates at which workers accept or cancel tasks. This becomes antithetical to increasing flexibility – workers find themselves compelled to work longer hours to meet incentives and avoid penalties. Women who find work through the app have significant childcare responsibilities, and in many cases are sole earners in female-headed households.
Suman, a single mother working as a prime service partner asked us, “When my child has an accident, will I care about the ratings or penalties? I have to stay at home and take care of him. How will I take orders then if they keep giving me leads?” Workers often face penalties such as non-negotiable deductions from wages and permanent account blockages upon low response and high cancellation rates.
As Suman’s account illustrates, these penalties make it very difficult for women to take leaves for even short intervals. The list of demands put forth by workers also includes the ability to log out from the platform for longer periods on account of maternity or other personal obligations, without rejoining fees being deducted.
Another way in which Urban Company manages workforce flexibility is through the use of artificial and arbitrarily determined service categories. During the pandemic, amidst intense fluctuations in consumer demands and spending habits, the firm introduced five sub-categories under their beauty service vertical – classic, prime, silver plus, gold plus and lux. Classification of workers into these categories was primarily based on ratings, without taking into consideration prior experience or quality of work.
For workers in the classic category, such arbitrary classifications without considering prior experience in the beauty sector or quality of work could amount to deskilling and undervaluation of their work. Workers who have been promoted to higher categories have shared several negative implications including higher costs for uniforms and equipment, increased distance between customer locations and reduced leads with higher commission rates. In effect, these categorisations further obfuscate the rationale for lead generation and upskilling for workers.
The authors asked Urban Company about these and other matters. This article will be updated if the firm responds.
Absence of support
A key concern highlighted by workers is regarding the complete absence of infrastructural support necessary for dignified work. Women spend long hours commuting between their homes and multiple service locations where they receive orders. Many find it difficult to access critical amenities such as drinking water and toilets while on the commute and are denied these even within customers’ homes due to entrenched caste prejudices and discriminatory practices.
Companies also fail to support workers in case of emergencies, which has emerged as a key cause for concern among women who often work in private spaces such as customers’ homes. Workers emphasise the need for a human to respond to their calls in case of an emergency, rejecting technological solutions such as automated helplines and SOS buttons that leave workers to fend for themselves in case they are harassed by customers or in transit.
Beyond considerations of platform design and infrastructure, workers highlight the structural precarity that stems from the business model of platform companies. The “entrepreneurship” model put forth by companies does not allow workers to access the income security that comes with regular-wage employment, nor the control and agency that is necessary for self-employment.
Media reports after the protests have lauded Urban Company for being nimble and transforming work relations in ways that are responsive to workers’ demands. What is missed in public discourse are the efforts taken by hitherto unorganised workers to bring the firm to the negotiating table with little external support, while also balancing paid work and care responsibilities.
These movements are gaining ground across sectors to hold bigger companies accountable for extracting labour from workers while claiming to empower them. Exploitative practices across lesser-known platforms remain invisible and unchecked, with most continuing with business as usual. If workers’ collective voices are to transform industry-wide conditions, it becomes imperative to listen, amplify and act on their recommendations.
Ambika Tandon and Abhishek Sekharan are researchers at the Centre for Internet and Society, where they study the impact of digital platforms on labour cultures in India.