New Global Report Sheds Light on Gender-Based Experiences in Gig Economy

Gig work, also known as the platform-based economy, is on the rise around the world. Technological developments like digital labour platforms are largely associated with precarious work like low pay and dangerous working conditions.

Gig work is a form of non-standard work where a worker is defined as an independent contractor or freelancer and generally does not have a permanent job with workplace protections, does not have regular working hours, is not paid sick time, does not have access to extended health coverage or pensions etc.

More often than not, this designation of independent contractor or freelancer is not by choice; workers are told they simply do not qualify or cannot work for a company as an employee.

In BC, for example, gig workers are typically misclassified as “self-employed contractors,” and are generally not governed by normal employment standards between workers and their employers, such as minimum wage rates or statutory entitlements.


Gender and Non-Standard Work

The casualisation of labour is not new or unique to the gig economy. Any non-standard job that relies on an employer-driven model of flexibility and downloading financial costs and risks from the employer to the worker has a disproportionate impact on women, especially Indigenous women, Black women, racialized women, newcomer immigrant/refugee women, women with disabilities, and trans and two spirit people.

Racialized women, for example, already make approximately 59.3 percent of what white men make in the workforce in Canada. Platform work, driven by the intensification of work through on-demand services, has an amplifying impact on women workers already carrying the burden of unpaid domestic and care work.

Further, platform work (and non-standard work generally) denies women workers the benefits of labour and social protections such as minimum wage, parental leave, anti-harassment policies, sick day entitlements, workers compensation, pensions, and supplementary benefits such as health insurance. In an open letter to the BC government, 61 leading experts in labour law, policy and economics write that “this business model allows platform firms to avoid normal employment expenses and responsibilities, to shift costs and risks (including risks associated with fluctuations in business conditions) to workers and thus to artificially reduce their labour costs.”

By valorizing the myth of the individualist entrepreneur, the platform economy is resulting in a regression in labour protections and social gains for marginalized women workers. This solidifies a lifetime of the feminization of poverty and the gendered dimensions of precarious work.


Gender and Platform Work

“Other than the common things of fatigue, there’s the risk of facing sexual harassment …the risk of being accused of theft, the risk of overwork. […] Plus, no social insurance, no health insurance, no medical insurance, nothing.” – Batoul Al Mehdar, quoted in Gender and Platform Work report

Very little is known about the experiences of women and gender diverse peoples in the gig economy. A new report, titled Gender and Platform Work by Fairwork, shines a light on the experiences of women workers across all areas of platform work. With an incredibly impressive range – involving 38 countries around the world, interviews with 5,000 workers, and research into over 190 digital platforms – this report highlights the specifically gendered experiences of women in location-based platform work.

The Gender and Platform Work global report finds that women workers’ experiences in platform work are indeed both produced by and reproduce gender-based discrimination:

  • Women workers face unequal access to platform work because of persistent gendered digital divides in many countries, thus exacerbating existing inequalities.
  • Women workers are often earning less than a living or even minimum wage.
  • Women workers are conducting unpaid work in the gig economy, especially in the feminized sector of platform work such as domestic, beauty, and care work.
  • Women workers report unsafe working conditions, including sexual harassment and violence.
  • Women workers experience gender-based discrimination and abuse by platforms and consumers.
  • Women workers are further cemented into sectors that are historically considered feminized work, such as domestic, beauty, and care work.

One of the report’s co-authors, Anjali Krishan, told the Guardian in an interview “There were so many reports of violence and abuse. The thing that really came to the fore was the incidence of sexual harassment. I didn’t expect them to have to deal with so much – it was shocking.”

Given a general trend towards the masculinization of driving, ride hailing, and delivery work, most women generally tend to take on domestic work and at-home beauty services within the platform economy. This is a particularly gendered and privatized form of labour occurring in the home that increases isolation and removes women from the relative safety of public space.

“Every time you enter a house, you’re literally debating whether it’s a good customer or a bad customer. So, it’s every service that you go to, you don’t know which side of the customer you’re going to get,” describes Mounika Neerukonda in the report.

The report also found that many platforms’ attempts to deploy solutions to gender-based discrimination and gender-based violence have simply worsened the situation for women workers. For example, platforms banning women workers from certain jobs, or preventing women from working at night, or subjecting women to intrusive surveillance measures, all serve to decrease women workers’ autonomy, reduce womens’ earnings, and increase platforms’ control over workers.

The report concludes that “there is nothing inevitable about poor working conditions or entrenched gender inequities in the platform economy.” Platforms and governments can make substantial changes to end gender-based discrimination against women workers, and to ensure decent work, living wages, and safe working conditions for women workers in location-based platform work. All levels of government and all platforms must act to eliminate systemic gender-based discrimination and gender-based violence in the workplace.


Understanding Precarity in BC

A recent engagement held by the BC government found that, in BC as in elsewhere, gig workers are earning less than minimum wage for the hours they work.

A summary report by the provincial government highlights that “low and unpredictable pay is a top concern for workers” and that “workers face safety risks, and they want better protections.”

Similarly, a recent BC Precarity Survey has found that especially racialized and Indigenous women, younger workers, and recent immigrants were less likely to have a standard job. In fact, nearly 60 percent of Indigenous men, racialized women, and Indigenous women in BC are in non-standard jobs, like those in the platform economy. Overall, the findings demonstrate how the “burden of precarity falls more heavily on racialized and immigrant communities, Indigenous peoples, women and lower-income groups. In other words, precarious employment compounds systemic, intersecting inequalities in our province.”

Battered Women’s Support Services is part of a multi-year Understanding Precarity Project in BC in order to research and take action on the impacts of precarity in the province. The 6-year initiative includes 26 community organizations and 4 universities in the province.

The Understanding Precarity Project in BC defines precarity as “a concept that describes pervasive forms of uncertainty, insecurity and instability.” Such dimensions of social precarity are not secondary to labour precarity and permeate throughout work, home, social, and communal life.

As the “It’s More than Poverty” report in Ontario puts it: “Precarity has real implications for economic well-being and job security of workers. But it also reaches out and touches family and social life. It can affect how people socialize, and how much they give back to their communities. It causes tensions at home.”

A comprehensive understanding of precarity helps us better understand how and why certain communities are more likely to experience precarity, and how precarity intersects with existing inequalities. For example, we know that lack of financial independence is not only a significant contributor to financial precarity but is also a significant contributor to gender-based violence.

BWSS will be contributing to the work of the Understanding Precarity in BC partnership by using a feminist, intersectional approach to understand how structural precarity shapes and is shaped by experiences of gender-based violence.

Gender-based violence, including domestic, intimate partner, and/or sexualized violence – leaves victims and survivors in incredibly precarious positions with respect to their immediate individual and/or familial needs such as income, housing, health, and safety. For Black, Indigenous, newcomer immigrant/refugee, and racialized survivors of gender-based violence, institutional responses such as the police, criminal legal system, family court, child welfare, income assistance, and immigration, often deepen precarity by further entrenching survivors in controlling, non-responsive, and inaccessible state processes when they are attempting to access some measure of safety and stability in their lives.

Thus, working from an intersectional feminist perspective, we know that eliminating gender-based violence is intertwined with promoting gender equity and ending precarity.