The ‘flexible’ gig economy is not such a great option for women after all

Flexibility is difficult for many workers to take advantage of in practice.

Abigail Hunt Emma Samman
19 November 2019, 9.00am
Salome Molefe, a domestic worker and union organizer in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Image: Solidarity Center, CC by 2.0

The gig economy – which sees Uber-style platforms link workers to the purchasers of their services – is growing globally. Policy players from the World Bank to the European Parliament have lauded platforms for their role in creating jobs – including for women, who are often excluded from labour markets. Gig economy platforms tell a similar story, claiming they offer women flexible work, allowing them to balance employment with caring responsibilities such as childcare.

Supporting women to manage disproportionate childcare load is welcome – globally, women are held responsible for unpaid care, carrying out three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men do. But as new research from the Overseas Development Institute shows, the gig economy is not necessarily living up to its promise to tackle care inequalities and support women’s work-family balance.

We looked at workers’ experiences of platforms offering services such as home cleaning, ride-sharing, beauty and massage services and home maintenance in Kenya and South Africa, finding in both countries that managing childcare continues to pose significant difficulties to many women workers.

Flexibility limited in practice

The gig economy can offer more flexibility than other types of paid work typically available to many workers – which women we spoke to welcomed. But don’t believe all of the hype – we heard from many that their ability to manage care and gig work was still limited. At times the challenge was so great that some – notably single workers – engaged in risky childcare strategies such as leaving young children alone when carrying out gigs due to lack of other options..

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

There are several reasons for this. First, workers can’t simply pick up work whenever they wish. Clients determine demand for gigs, as they can choose from a pool of available workers on a platform whenever they want to purchase their services. As a result, workers can be ready to go out and work, but end up waiting around for a booking to arrive if they are not selected.

'These days l have been getting Monday bookings, but sometimes you can be disappointed when you are trusting that obviously Monday l am going to work. You already have a client that you have recruited that takes you every week so sometimes they can cancel the booking and you don’t have anything to do other than staying at home.’ (Precious, domestic worker, Cape Town)

At the same time, not all workers get equal opportunities to access gigs. Platform ‘superstars’ with high ratings and a more extensive track record of successfully completed jobs tend to get relatively more work, while others don’t get so much. This can make it harder for new starters to earn money on the platform, or those who have less availability and so have completed fewer gigs overall.

All this means that many gig workers’ incomes are overall low and insecure, so many take on gigs outside their preferred schedule to maximise earning potential – therefore limiting their ability to be truly flexible and work when they want.

‘Because I’m like jobless, I can’t ignore [a gig]. I must go.’ (Patience, waitress, Nairobi)

And not all gigs are offered at times that workers want to work – for example, many clients only want a cleaner to come around when they are in the house, meaning more gigs are on offer during weekends or early mornings. But this may not suit the workers due to a lack of childcare at those times. What’s more, in some places gig timings pose an increased security risk – we heard several accounts of workers in South Africa being violently robbed en route to early hours gigs.

‘Last month when l was on my way to my booking, the robber wanted to take my handbag that had my cellphone inside. I could not afford to give away my handbag to the robber so the robber stabbed me with a knife.’ (Akumzi, domestic worker, Cape Town)

Flexibility is just one part of the puzzle

It’d be easy to think that increasing women’s control over their own working schedules is what’s needed for a better work-family balance. But while our findings show that workers welcome flexibility offered by platforms at the times they are able to benefit from it, realising women’s equality in the world of work requires more than tinkering with schedules. Focusing only on workplace flexibility is a failure to recognise that women take on more unpaid care than men in the first place – leaving women to fit in even more hours of work instead of involving men to rectify this inequality.

‘As a woman, you must cook, wash dishes. In the morning, you prepare the children to go to school. So much work. You must wash clothes. So that’s the job. And also take care of the chickens. I am everything.’ (Ruth, housekeeper, Nairobi)

And while some women workers may want flexibility in the timing of paid work, and find this through gig work, the reality is that many do not engage in part-time or temporary gigs out of choice or with managing childcare as a primary motivation. Instead, many are drawn to platforms through a lack of better jobs and social protection to support them – or the other main alternative faced by many: unemployment.

‘There are no jobs in my area so if the platform doesn’t send me a booking l will be at home sleeping. There is nowhere l can go really.’ (Akumzi, domestic worker, Cape Town)

Many gig workers we spoke to were accustomed to poor working conditions, most often in the informal economy. From this low starting point we found that gig work can certainly be an improvement – from higher hourly earnings to helping make their skills more visible. However, overall, gig work cannot be seen as providing quality employment to women, with overall income often insufficient to meet the cost of living and a lack of protections, including at critical times such as during maternity leave. In the end, what women wanted most of all was a stable job with consistent income.

‘I was pregnant when l joined the platform [but] it’s no work no pay there. I wasn’t active for three months.’ (Simlindile, domestic worker, Johannesburg)

Women workers the world over are facing the negative effects of precarious employment, and the gig economy risks adding to the problem. Gig platforms and policymakers can do much more to change this, first and foremost making sure gig workers earn a fair, secure and stable income and supporting worker access to public social protection.

Achieving gender equality in the world of work also means tackling care loads, by giving workers greater control of their working schedules, but also by fostering social norm change so men take on their fair share, and developing comprehensive care infrastructure services – notably childcare – to support women to engage in paid work when they want to.

A narrow focus on flexibility simply won’t get the job done.

Ukraine's fight for economic justice

Russian aggression is driving Ukrainians into poverty. But the war could also be an opportunity to reset the Ukrainian economy – if only people and politicians could agree how. The danger is that wartime ‘reforms’ could ease a permanent shift to a smaller state – with less regulation and protection for citizens.
Our speakers will help you unpack these issues and explain why support for Ukrainian society is more important than ever.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Economics journalism that puts people and planet first. Get the ourEconomy newsletter Join the conversation: subscribe below


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData