Digital labour platforms can enhance women’s economic empowerment and contribute to gender equality in the Indian labour market.
In his Independence day speech, PM Modi put emphasis on women’s economic empowerment and a few days later Vice-president Naidu called for a national movement for women’s empowerment, and urged political parties to reach early consensus to render reservation to women in Parliament and State legislatures in order to ensure equal opportunities for them in all fields.
These statements come at an important juncture, as the nation continues to grapple with the low and declining rates of female labour force participation (FLFP) and pronounced gender inequalities in the world of work.
In fact, India has one of the lowest FLFP rates among developing countries, and as per latest available estimates it stood at 24.5 percent in 2018-19 for women aged 15 years and above (after declining sharply from 31.2 percent in 2011-12), and is well below the global average of 45 percent.
Though FLFP has remained historically low in India, however, latest trends confirm that women have been continuously dropping out of the labour force and increasingly attending to domestic duties, even when education levels have improved vastly and the economy has been growing at reasonable rates.
This has drawn much social and academic attention, and multiple explanations have been advanced towards explaining this puzzling drift.
One of the key drivers of the decline is the lack of suitable job opportunities for women in fast-growing sectors in the non-farm economy. Besides, women perform a substantial amount of unpaid work inside the household, and it constraints them from participating in paid market activities.
Scholars have long debated that flexible work arrangements may benefit women by bettering opportunities to balance their household responsibilities, unpaid childcare and paid work.
In this context, rapidly expanding gig/platform economy of India could be a viable alternative for millions of women, as it may help mitigate some of the barriers they face by enabling flexi-work and allowing women to access new forms of employment opportunities through online labour platforms.
Research by IWWAGE (Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy) explores the gender dynamics in the ‘on-demand’ gig economy of India and suggests that women are increasingly taking part on the digital platforms; especially in pink-collar work, and offers valuable insights into women’s experiences on such platforms.
We find that women highly appreciate the flexi-timings and better financial returns, which in turn increase their autonomy and enhance their overall status in the family.
However, women are also confronted with a lot of challenges and various constraints, as gig work is largely regarded as non-traditional work, and falls outside the boundary of conventional, standard forms of employment relations.
They encounter various issues; including issues of security and safety, regular income, upward mobility, lack of effective bargaining power and freedom of association, and the near absence of adequate labour and social protection mechanisms; which together contribute to their vulnerabilities in the long run.
Another interesting observation is that gig economy is largely an urban phenomenon so far but holds significant potential for expansion in rural areas.
To make it more inclusive, it is critical to bridge the gender digital divide (of mobile ownership as well as internet user penetration rates) and improve women’s digital literacy (by means of tailor-made training on basic digital skills), to enhance their equitable participation in the gig economy.
The results from IWWAGE’s study suggest that platform economy will continue to flourish and as we probe into the future of work, there are many reasons to believe that the gig economy can build gender inclusive labour market by boosting women’s participation in India.
Written by Ruchika Chaudhary.