Getting Her Gig on: The Future of Work for Indian Women
March 4, 2020
After seven years of doing pedicures and washing hair in a South Delhi beauty salon, Vaishali was tired of waking at dawn to do the day’s cooking and get to work on time, tired of her unpleasant boss, sharing tips with coworkers, and long days on her feet that left no time to relax or to spend with her family. She decided she needed a change and more control over her schedule.
Today, she is much happier.
Since quitting her job, Vaishali has been on call as a beautician with a technology-based start-up, finding work, gig by gig, through a mobile application. She visits the homes of three to five customers a day, on average. She has a high school education and basic beautician skills, but through the start-up she has been able to expand her skills and services to include facials, for which she can earn more. Originally from a small town in West Bengal, Vaishali has been living in New Delhi for over a decade, with her husband and five-year-old daughter. She’ll go back to her small but growing hometown and start her own salon once her daughter starts high school. By then, she hopes to have the skills and experience to run her own small business.
“Vaishali” is actually a composite character, but her story, based on accounts I have heard from many women, illustrates the changing face of work for women in India. Fifteen years ago, women from India’s villages and smaller towns would migrate to the city as trailing spouses, where they would work taking care of the home. Paid employment in the formal economy would have been out of the question, though some might have pursued informal employment as domestic help or housecleaners. Domestic responsibilities and lack of education further restricted women from venturing out, especially as newcomers in an unknown metropolis.
This March 8, International Women’s Day 2020, will mark 25 years since the Beijing Declaration on the status of women. Yet, even today, gender norms and employment regulations in India tend to exclude women from white-collar clerical and retail sales jobs—a major employment sector—and the female portion of the labor force in the formal economy has hovered at just 26 percent for most of the last decade. As a result, women are far more likely to work in the informal sector—as beauticians, domestic help, and housecleaners, for example—and it is here, in the informal economy, that aspiring young women are finding work through mobile technology.
In the past decade, gig-economy start-ups like Flipkart, Zomato, Urban Company, and Housejoy have offered women jobs with far more freedom and flexibility than the formal economy can provide. For a woman with a basic high school degree and a family to support, the rapidly expanding gig economy offers an attractive alternative to formal employment. Seventy percent of corporations in 2018 used gig workers to fill major organizational gaps. Women make up 50 percent of the gig-economy labor force, and the gender pay gap is narrower than the formal economy.
For women professionals, technical experts, and semiskilled workers, the gig economy is a game changer. The Asia Foundation’s exploratory research indicates that women gig workers enjoy the flexible work hours and the ability to balance employment with unpaid care work. They like being their own boss and avoiding difficult employers, squalid workplaces, and exhausting, multiple-client schedules. Many women gig workers become their family’s primary breadwinner, altering the traditional balance of power in the home and suggesting that the gig economy will increase women’s agency and decision-making power more broadly. Though gig work does not guarantee a steady income, the benefits seem to outweigh that risk.
There are other risks to consider, however, including concerns about how the gig economy will be governed. The traditional definitions of employee and employer have changed, and gig workers are loosely considered to be “partners.” There is a lack of clarity on issues such as fair labor practices, access to benefits, taxation, social security, and dispute resolution. India has a stringent law against workplace sexual harrassment, but how does the law apply in the gig context? With many informal gig workers visiting private homes for work, women in the gig economy may be more vulnerable to sexual assault or harassment on the job. How will the courts address this? Who will be held liable?
The experiences and expectations of low-skilled women in the gig economy have yet to be studied, and current evidence is largely anecdotal. Moving forward, more research is needed to understand how these new technologies function in practice and affect women’s economic participation. There are also larger concerns about women’s safety, the need for fair and nonexploitive labor practices, and access to benefits and insurance. These are issues that will require the concerted efforts of government, civil society, and the legal fraternity, but most importantly, the voices and participation of women gig workers themselves.
Diya Nag is associate director of programs for The Asia Foundation in India. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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