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16 February 2022

Digital labour platforms herald a new era for working women, but deep-rooted inequalities persist

Valentina Beghini and Emanuela Pozzan

Digital labour platforms offer huge potential to expand women’s access the labour market, but they risk exacerbating existing inequalities

Digital labour platforms News story and event

Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

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Valentina Beghini is a Senior Technical Officer at the International Labour Organisation. Emanuela Pozzan is a Senior Specialist in Gender Equality at the International Labour Organisation.

Digital labour platforms offer huge potential to expand women’s access the labour market by offering flexible work opportunities, but they also run the risk of exacerbating existing inequalities – particularly for women and other workers vulnerable to discrimination. Digital labour platforms (DLPs) have been on the rise since the 2000s and offer work through web and app-based platforms, where the work is often service-based, such as driving, running errands or cleaning. In a fast-changing world of work, accelerated by technological progress, DLPs have been rapidly gaining momentum. This trend has increased exponentially since the start of the pandemic, with DLPs offering a flexible, alternative source of work at a time when redundancies were on the rise and employment was increasingly uncertain for many.

Although they have provided much needed employment opportunities through the Covid crisis, digital labour platforms fail to deliver essential social protections for workers. Even prior to the pandemic, lack of clarity over work contracts and a sluggish approach to regulation left DLP workers unprotected and excluded from labour laws. For these platforms to deliver on their potential to create decent work, this needs to be urgently remedied. Additionally, Covid response plans have often overlooked DLP work, leaving it out of emergency fiscal packages and other conventional social protection frameworks and so leaving many workers with no support in many national jurisdictions.

Before Covid, women made up just one in three “crowdworkers” on digital platforms. This gender divide was particularly skewed in developing economies and appears to have widened even further during the pandemic, with women working on DLPs at much lower rates than men. School closures and the unequal distribution of domestic and childcare responsibilities between women and men were very likely contributing factors to this disparity. This underscores how, similar to the offline labour market, the online labour market has in-built gender biases that pose challenges for women in accessing work. The lack of social protection, child and long-term care services, and care leave policies on digital labour platforms all limit women’s capacity to work in these digital spaces.

In the online labour sector, services can be broadly divided into those delivered purely online – eg software development – and those requiring a physical presence on location – eg cleaning or personal transport. A European Union survey indicates that men dominate in software development and transport services, whereas women work more frequently in certain on-site roles, such as personal or household services, thus reproducing the common gender segregation patterns found in traditional labour markets. Women are also more likely than men to perform clerical and data entry tasks, and writing and translation work. As women are disproportionately burdened with unpaid care responsibilities, they are often compelled to choose tasks that are less complex and demanding in terms of continued concentration, and thus are less likely to be well paid.

According to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) survey, discrimination on web-based platforms on the basis of nationality and gender is prevalent and contributes to exclusion from work opportunities, low pay, and poor pay differentials. This discrimination was highlighted particularly by women respondents and workers living in developing economies. A gender pay gap has also been identified among Uber drivers and other online platforms offering services. Similarly, an Australian survey found that the gender pay gap and the concentration of women in lower-paid digital occupations persisted on digital platforms.

Despite the lack of data, research has also highlighted that women engaged in the platform economy are particularly exposed to the risk of violence and harassment from users. This is the case in roles where platform workers interact with clients in spaces with no third party present, such as ride-hailing, home-sharing or personal and household services. Moreover, the sense of impunity and anonymity given to clients of on-demand platforms has been seen as a factor exacerbating the risk of sexism, discrimination, violence, and harassment.

To help counter the risks of further inequalities and exclusion on digital labour platforms, an increasing number of initiatives based on social dialogue and collective bargaining are emerging. For instance, in Canada, the workers’ organisation Justice for Foodora Couriers – created by a group of Foodora delivery riders to improve their fellow food riders’ working conditions – has launched a campaign for fair compensation for dangerous work, paid sick leave, and a respectful workplace free from harassment and intimidation. Moreover, in 2018, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of Digital Labour in the Urban Context was signed in Bologna, following negotiations between the unions and digital labour platforms. Among other provisions, the charter covers includes the right to a fair wage, health and safety, and protection of personal data. The charter is not binding but those who sign it – on a voluntary basis – must observe it.

As DLPs are likely to continue to grow in size and prevalence, it is important to leverage this opportunity to advance decent work, rights for all, and sustainable work practices. This can be achieved through social dialogue, including collective bargaining and tripartite cooperation. However, the digital labour economy is not automatically going to be more gender-responsive and inclusive than the offline economy. Achieving this requires a conscious effort to overcome gender biases and address gender inequality.

Creating online and offline worlds of work where women benefit and contribute on an equal basis to men requires reshaping the structure of work, society, and the economy with a gender-transformative approach. To achieve this ambition requires national policies that respect international labour laws, ensure adequate access to social protection, bargaining power and representation, and develop an ecosystem of care policies and services to relieve women’s unpaid care burden and engage more men in sharing care responsibilities. These principles must, therefore, be at the core of any intervention in order to retain jobs, expand decent work opportunities for all, and build a more equitable Covid-19 recovery.