IGF 2020 WS #289 Women and the platform economy: Access, Autonomy and Agency

Time
Wednesday, 11th November, 2020 (11:20 UTC) - Wednesday, 11th November, 2020 (12:20 UTC)
Room
Room 1
About this Session
The platform economy is growing at a fast pace across the global South, with mixed impact on workers. This roundtable will focus on the role of women workers in this ecosystem, including issues of access, digital literacy and skills, and the impact of algorithmic management on workers' autonomy. We will also discuss possibilities of alternative models and strategies to ensure that workers' agency and rights are enhanced and protected.
Thematic Track

Organizer 1: Tandon Ambika, The Centre for Internet and Society
Organizer 2: Mewa Tasneem, University of Toronto
Organizer 3: Mawii Zothan, Tandem Research

Speaker 1: Mawii Zothan, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 2: Aayush Rathi, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 3: Lalvani Simiran, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group

Additional Speakers

The speakers for this session are Fairuz Mullagee, Simiran Lalvani, and Sofía B. Scasserra. The session will be hosted and moderated by the Centre for Internet and Society, India, and Tandem Research.

Moderator

Tandon Ambika, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group

Online Moderator

Tandon Ambika, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group

Rapporteur

Mewa Tasneem, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group

Format

Round Table - Circle - 60 Min

Policy Question(s)

What factors should be considered to improve women’s access to work opportunities on digital platforms? Topics: digital gender divide, future of work, worker rights, skills How can we design regulatory frameworks to encourage a more sustainable model of business for platforms and one that is fair to workers? Topic: platform governance, social protection in the platform economy How can we re-think social protection measures for workers on the platform economy? How can we rethink unionisation and worker agency as work and workers are increasingly datafied. Topic: Future of work, worker agency, social protection

This roundtable will centre on the challenges and opportunities in the platform economy, and the role – or lack thereof – played by women. The platform economy has been seen as an opportunity to bring women into paid work. It has been argued that the flexibility that platforms offer in terms of hours of working and space can enable women to balance paid work with care work.

As the cost of data drops and mobile phone ownership increases, it is likely that women in the global south are being brought within the fold of the digital economy. Sectors which have historically constituted women like domestic work, beauty, and wellness too are getting digitised, thereby opening up new avenues for women to access paid work. Microwork and freelance platforms too present new opportunities which enable women to challenge sociocultural norms around the role of women in society and within the household.

However, this potential remains largely unrealised due to several challenges that have become endemic to the manner in which the digital economy has unfolded globally.

The digital gender gap continues to remain significant, creating immense barriers for meaningful access and use. This gap also extends to digital literacy and skills, with the implications that even women who have gained access have not been enabled to utilise digital tools to enhance their income or move into new forms of work. The gender gap in access is compounded by the replication of occupational segregation in the digital economy, with women continuing to be concentrated in sectors with low wages and devaluation of skills, while being left out of sectors that are seen as masculine domains and which generally command higher pay. This ranges from sectors as diverse as data management to transportation.

Further, in a parallel to outsourcing in manufacturing two decades ago, the forms of labour that have opened up to feminised work forces can be exploitative and even demeaning. Discourses around empowerment through the digital economy need to be qualified with the discussion of the conditions of precarity, the absence of social security, and unstable work arrangements that have become the norm in the platform economy. Exploitation of labour, wages, and data by large multinational corporations places workers in a disempowered position and can replicate or even worsen inequality along the lines of gender, income, and geographic locations.

This session will explore these questions through a focused discussion on the manner in which employment relationships are being re-organised and disguised as self-employment and empowerment, and its impact on the feminised work force. It will highlight alternative forms of organising the platform economy, and further think through the manner in which the mainstream platform economy can be re-organised to integrate sustainable models of work. In doing so, we will also bring into focus ongoing forms of collective bargaining that have been devised in the context of the digital.

SDGs

GOAL 5: Gender Equality
GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
GOAL 10: Reduced Inequalities

The platform economy in the global south has seen an increase in uptake in recent years. A number of on-demand services have entered the market - for domestic work, beauty services, home services in addition to the already widespread hyper-local delivery, and transport services. Microwork and online work platforms that allow workers to compete in a global marketplace have also seen increased adoption. Governments and policy makers too see platforms as opportunities for employment for a number of young workers entering the market and are collaborating with platforms on skills development and job creation programmes. This workshop will focus on access, autonomy, and agency for women workers in the platform economy in the global South.

Expected Outcomes

We will prepare a summary of the discussion to be published collaboratively by Tandem Research and the Centre for Internet and Society. Separately, we will publish a list of recommendations for various sectors towards ensuring just and equitable participation of women in the platform economy.

Relevance to Internet Governance: Digital platforms have come to play a vital role in almost every aspect of life - whether it is commerce, communication, or to access information. They have also come to determine the opportunities for livelihood and wellbeing and are fast becoming the infrastructure on which modern life rests. Regulatory frameworks for digital work platforms have been difficult to design because of the ambiguity in which platforms function and define themselves. By claiming to be mere technology providers, platforms circumvent their responsibilities towards workers. They occupy a crucial space in the digital ecosystem and have profound implications for the future of work and workers.

Relevance to Theme: This session covers several of the key questions to be addressed within the inclusion track. The issues of the digital gender gap in access and literacy are central to the discussion on the platform economy. We will push the boundaries of the discussion on access by bringing in post-access concerns around exploitation and just and equitable organisation of work. Finally, we will focus on alternative and sustainable platforms models, as well as collective bargaining within the mainstream economy, to arrive at critical steps towards realising meaningful inclusion of women in the platform economy.

Online Participation

Usage of IGF Official Tool.

 

Agenda

The session has been planned as a roundtable session. The speakers will make 3 short interventions to frame the discussion. The interventions have been phrased to elicit responses to the policy questions we seek to address. Each intervention will last 5-8 minutes, followed by 20 minutes for discussion in breakout groups. The discussions will be framed by the questions stated in the themes below.

Break out group 1: Access - The gender digital continues to prevail across most countries in the global South. While the cost of devices and data packs is one factor, social and cultural norms also contribute to the gap in internet use. As work is increasingly mediated by digital technologies, women are bound to lose out on economic opportunities. With increasing digital interventions in work, the skills needed to work and navigate the workplace are fast changing. How can we ensure that these developments are not exclusionary?

Break out group 2: Autonomy - Worker autonomy on digital platforms - both on-demand services and online work - is severely hindered because of the use of algorithmic monitoring systems. Platforms may use the language of micro-entrepreneurship and flexibility but these novel forms of monitoring control every aspect of work on the platforms - from setting wages to dictating hours and locations (for on-demand services) of work. Misclassifying workers as contractors while still exerting strong control over the terms of engagement has been a long standing issue which needs to be urgently addressed with regulations that strengthens worker protections. The ongoing pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities facing workers. How can we imagine social protection in the age of digital platform work? What kind of regulatory frameworks can we design to make platforms more accountable towards workers?

Break out group 3: Agency - A dispersed workforce is one of the characteristic features of digital work platforms. While geographic locations are no longer a limitation to accessing work opportunities, it has had an adverse impact on bargaining capacity and worker agency. However, workers have found ways to resist. Platform workers have staged protests to demand more protections for themselves during this pandemic, while others have found ways to organise and form solidarity within the confines of the socio-technical systems in which they operate. How can we re-imagine unions, worker agency, and bargaining rights on digital work platforms?

1. Key Policy Questions and related issues
The gender digital continues to prevail across most countries in the global South. While the cost of devices and data packs is one factor, social and cultural norms also contribute to the gap in internet use. As work is increasingly mediated by digital technologies, women are bound to lose out on economic opportunities. With increasing digital interventions in work, the skills needed to work and navigate the workplace are fast changing. How can we ensure that these developments are not exclusionary?
Worker autonomy on digital platforms - both on-demand services and online work - is severely hindered because of the use of algorithmic monitoring systems. Platforms may use the language of micro-entrepreneurship and flexibility but these novel forms of monitoring control every aspect of work on the platforms - from setting wages to dictating hours and locations (for on-demand services) of work. Misclassifying workers as contractors while still exerting strong control over the terms of engagement has been a long standing issue which needs to be urgently addressed with regulations that strengthen worker protections. The ongoing pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities facing workers. How can we imagine social protection in the age of digital platform work? What kind of regulatory frameworks can we design to make platforms more accountable towards workers?
Worker autonomy on digital platforms - both on-demand services and online work - is severely hindered because of the use of algorithmic monitoring systems. Platforms may use the language of micro-entrepreneurship and flexibility but these novel forms of monitoring control every aspect of work on the platforms - from setting wages to dictating hours and locations (for on-demand services) of work. Misclassifying workers as contractors while still exerting strong control over the terms of engagement has been a long standing issue which needs to be urgently addressed with regulations that strengthen worker protections. The ongoing pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities facing workers. How can we imagine social protection in the age of digital platform work? What kind of regulatory frameworks can we design to make platforms more accountable towards workers?
2. Summary of Issues Discussed

The session covered issues around the access, agency, and autonomy of women workers in the platform economy. Around access, we discussed occupational segregation, with women concentrated in ‘feminine’ jobs and having reduced access to jobs that do not traditionally have women workers. We also discussed the impact of gender norms on access, which have no easy solutions.

In the discussion on agency, Sofia Scasserra discussed the challenges faced by women workers in representing themselves through traditional unions in Latin America, as more ‘feminised’ sectors get left behind. However, more and more women are joining trade unions, and have devised concrete strategies such as logging out, filing petitions around workers’ safety in court, and pushing for media attention to gain traction to workers’ issues. These strategies have led to some positive developments in Latin America, which can show the roadmap to other economies – in Argentina, there is a draft law formulated in consultation with trade unions which will pro-rate all benefits such as leaves, social security contributions from employers etc. This allows workers to gain benefits while retaining the flexibility of gig work. There is also a provision for algorithmic audits to determine gender biases, which protects women workers from automated discrimination.

In the section on autonomy, Fairuz Mullagee discussed the shift to non-standard forms of work through digital technology. The flexibility of the platform economy is also leading to fragmentation of work, and while people may be earning more than minimum wage, they are excluded from legal protections. She suggested digital tools as a pathway for transformation and improving collective bargaining. There also has to be increased accountability for platforms, including taking the responsibility for the replication of inequality through algorithms. Principles of fair work and counteracting monopolistic behaviour are some of the ways forward to achieve this.

3. Key Takeaways

During the breakout sessions, each for access, agency, and autonomy, participants shared their insights on key issues. 

Laws that protect basic labour standards and access to social protection need to be extended to platform workers. However, the law is not the only way to increase platform accountability - this can also be done through algorithm checks which will solve many issues on platforms. 

There was agreement on the fact that regulatory frameworks need to be implemented properly. Without proper implementation processes or enforcement, regulation and legal frameworks may not make a difference to empowering workers or improving conditions of work. 

Principles for fair work based on fair pay, fair contracts, fair wages, ability to collectivise, and access to grievance redressal are a good starting point to start thinking about decent work on platforms. These principles need to be talked about in greater detail among like minded groups. 

Access does not always translate to meaningful participation therefore different models of organization like self help groups should be explored. 

Digital literacy and skilling remain questions that need further exploration because existing programmes and initiatives don’t seem to factor that specific challenges that women face. 

7. Reflection to Gender Issues

The session focussed on women in the platform economy. Women tend to be overrepresented on feminised platforms like care work that tend to be less visible to both policy makers and trade unions, making them vulnerable to be left behind from unionising activities. The digital gender divide is a pressing issue and there is a risk that as work gets digitised women will continue to lose out on opportunities. We spoke about women’s access to job opportunities, inequities in working terms and wages, and the difficulty of unionising women working on platforms.