Author: Jinat Jahan Khan
During the last decade, the global workforce has undergone a significant and profound transformation. One of the most prominent transformations was the emergence of different digital labour platforms (ILO, 2018). Through these platforms, people are able to provide and take different services leveraging digital mediums. Undoubtedly, increased technological advances and internet access played a vital role in expanding the digital labour market. However, global economic conditions, the growing positive mindset towards gaining more flexibility and freedom in work, and the demand for part-time and additional income sources with less formal requirements and complexities have accelerated the expansion of digital labour. The success of digital labour platforms has inspired the platform growth trajectories of developed countries so that they expand and provide the access of these platforms to people of developing countries as well, and inspired local companies to introduce their own local platforms and applications within the country.
The terms such as ‘Platforms’ or ‘Platform economy’ may seem a bit unknown to some people, but these platforms are used by thousands of people of different classes in many countries, including Bangladesh. Some of the most well-known platforms in this country facilitate digital commerce in the areas of ride-hailing, food, parcel or grocery delivery, home-based care or maintenance services, etc. These services are offered by platforms such as Uber, Pathao, Foodpanda, Daraz, Sheba, and so on. The phenomenon of digital platforms is not even a decade older in Bangladesh. It started with the arrival of Uber, a ride-hailing platform, in this country, and now different platforms are in the market to provide a wide range of services and operate in almost every kind of service sector (e.g., delivery services, home-based care services, etc.). While some of the platforms are actively promoting inclusive opportunities to work by removing barriers of entry for people from disadvantaged groups, including women, occupational segregation is observed in this economy, based on gender. This article has explored the gender aspects of the platform economy, especially in Bangladesh.
Women in the global platform economy
The emergence of the platforms got recognition mostly due to ride-hailing and food delivery platforms. And in the beginning, only men were involved in providing services. With its growing popularity, simple requirements, and benefits, women started to participate in the platform economy as well. However, the platforms they were able to participate in were highly segregated due to their gender and the socio-cultural norm on the distribution of gender roles for offering ride-hailing or delivery services.
In a positive light, this emergence of location-based digital labour platforms attracted some new types of services in the digital labour economy, which were already existent in the non-digital arena. However, even in these platforms, . The platforms developed for providing household chores and care services are more likely to hire women to work. The conventional belief that women are primary caregivers and likely to know how to do household chores, has led to taking this step by platforms. For instance, Hassle.com is a well-known platform that provides home-based cleaning services in the UK. About 86.5% of the workers on this platform are women. On the contrary, 94% of Uber workers are men in the UK. 95% of workers of Deliveroo, a food delivery platform are also men (Hunt et al., 2019). Moreover, the platforms that offer different care services are highly dominated by women workers, as it has been observed traditionally. In India, there are over four million workers in the platform economy. But only 2% of these workers are women who are mostly involved in home-based services (OMI & CIFF, 2021). This shows a high degree of feminisation in the world of work.
A survey on the platform economy of eight countries including Pakistan, India, Ghana, Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, Turkey, and Ukraine conducted by Rest of World and Premise showed that there are differences between men and women platform workers in terms of type of work, working hours, and work satisfaction. It showed that women are more likely to be in those sectors of the platform economy that usually pay less. The survey revealed that men generally perform high-paying gigs such as ride-hailing, and only 19% of the drivers and 23% of the delivery workers at different platforms at the surveyed countries are women. On the other hand, the number of women workers increases when it is about the platforms that have home-based and care services. Overall, 35% of domestic workers and 44% of care providers in the platform economy are women from the surveyed countries. It also observed that social and economic inequalities resulted in such situations in the platform economy. These inequalities include disparities in education, lack of social support networks, limited access to well-paying jobs, etc. This survey demonstrated that women are less financially satisfied than men in these countries, except Turkey and Ukraine. In countries where gender discrimination is acute, such as Pakistan, women have very poor access to financial resources and documentation (e.g., property deeds, bank accounts, or any formal paperwork to signify ownership and access to resources), due to which it becomes difficult for them to invest in assets and participate in the platform economy. In each country surveyed in this study, women are found to work fewer hours than men do, because they typically perform additional caregiving responsibilities at their home. Due to such obligations, they are unable to work for more time and earn more (Siddiqui et al., 2021).
Women in the Bangladesh platform economy
In Bangladesh, there are very few platforms where women are seen to be involved in digital platform-based labour. In ride-hailing and food delivery services, it is rare to find any women rider with a handful of exceptions. There were some ride-hailing platforms, Obon and Lily, that were dedicated to women riders and passengers only. But these came to a halt, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the shortage of women riders. The shortage was apparently not only due to the pandemic. While closing, Obon mentioned that one of the major barriers for women to participate in this platform was social attitudes (Islam, 2021). Socially, many people often view riding bicycles or motorcycles as a masculine activity. Due to different gender stereotypes, women who are involved in activities relating to these are often looked down on (Conerly et al., 2021). Besides, many women riders complained about the inappropriate glares and sleazy remarks by bus drivers, truck drivers, car drivers and pedestrians making them uncomfortable to continue their tasks on the platforms (Islam, 2021). There are also issues of security due to which women riders cannot continue working at night, and some platforms are addressing this by limiting the working hours for women till afternoon. Security has been a major issue in any kind of job for women, and in the platform economy, this issue was more visible. For instance, as women are more likely to involve in home-based care services, they are often in danger of getting harassed physically or verbally by the clients. Moreover, the lack of economic security can be more challenging for women. At present, only for platforms that provide home-based services such as cooking, cleaning, beauty services, and care services, a significant presence of women workers is observed.
In Bangladesh, it is quite rare to find platforms where women platform workers are appointed. Two of the most common platforms where women are working now are HelloTask and Sheba. HelloTask is the only platform in the country that offers domestic work on demand. This platform only assigns women who provide services like cooking, cleaning, washing, or any kind of household chores. On the contrary, only a small portion of Sheba has women workers, primarily providing beauty services. Other than these, a platform called Amar Astha is also known to provide caregiving services, and they only appoint women as such caregivers. Though it may look like a golden opportunity for women to participate in the platform economy, there are more problems to deal with for women compared to men, especially regarding personal safety, social and economic security. Unfortunately, there are very few resources to understand the working conditions of women workers in Bangladesh.
Last year, the Fairwork Bangladesh Ratings 2022 report showed the working condition of women platform workers to some extent. The report included women platform workers of HelloTask and Sheba, and some of the common issues that were found from the interviews conducted with these women workers.
included different security issues as they go to customers’ houses to provide services. While Sheba workers are more aware of what to do in case of security concerns, due to the platform’s frequent awareness campaign in this regard, HelloTask workers seem to be less aware of the course of action. The latter platform has a policy on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) for workers’ protection, but the interviewed workers were not aware of such a policy. However, the workers at HelloTask are mostly aware of the helpline of the platform, with an interactive voice response-based system integrated in it. This also shows the differences in workers’ awareness among different platforms. Note that most Hello Task workers have prior experience of being traditional domestic workers, while Sheba women workers are individuals who have previously worked as beauticians or are still working in beauty parlours. And there are some specific social perspectives regarding the value of these jobs. There is a clear wage gap and educational gap between these two groups of women workers as observed in conventional work environments. Like traditional scenarios, HelloTask workers belong to less financially solvent classes and have less formal education attainment compared to Sheba beauty service providers. Thus, HelloTask workers seem to be in a more vulnerable condition (Fairwork, 2022).
Since people are likely to pay less for domestic work, it has resulted in lesser payment amounts for these workers. However, the payment is a little higher on the platform than what they get in traditional way of domestic work in some cases. The reason is that the payment for these workers is set on the basis of the market rate for domestic work in the particular area and a commission is also imposed by the platform. One more thing observed from the Fairwork report is that men are always aware of their platforms’ commissions and some of them even participated in strikes to keep the commission in check, whereas women workers are not well informed. A possible reason for this could be the variation in the types of platforms men and women workers are involved with and the varying concentration of men and women workers in different types of platforms with different models of payment. For this, most Sheba workers can calculate and keep track of their salary and commission, but most HelloTask workers do not even know or are not able to keep track of the commission as they receive their income directly from the platform, after platform cuts it from the payment received from the customers. Even though it seems that the platform economy provides more flexibility and freedom, workers often have no option but to choose to work. It is because the decline in doing a gig decreases the opportunity to get a gig in the future, which is true for both of these platforms as well as for those platforms that are exclusively for men or have men as majority of their working pool (Fairwork, 2022).
Despite these issues, many women workers prefer to work for these platforms. One of the main reasons is that, through platforms, there are more certainties to get work opportunities than the traditional way. And even if the income is not too high, it is better than what they usually get from non-platform sources. However, these workers need more training and awareness to survive and earn in the platform economy. Even some workers recognise that safety facilities and health protection policies can make them better off, and some platforms are working on addressing such barriers of working through training and awareness building, many platforms are yet to introduce a proper model to address such needs.
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