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Addressing gender-based violence in the gig economy

December 7, 2021

Gillian Dowie

Senior Program Officer, Employment and Growth
Headshot of Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya

Fellow, Open Society Foundations

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to destabilize economies, it threatens to erase the incremental gains in women’s economic status achieved in the past quarter century. To address recent and longstanding inequities, governments, philanthropists, businesses and civil society advocates at this year’s Generation Equality Forum made commitments to advance women’s and girls’ access to technology and innovation.  

Citing a global study in which 38% of women reported personal experiences with online violence, the Forum’s Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality also called for policies and solutions against online and tech-facilitated gender-based violence and discrimination. 

As expressed in an earlier IDRC Perspectives article, leading experts recognize that the online space has exacerbated gender-based violence for women, both in private and public spheres. In related work, the IDRC-supported Feminist Artificial Intelligence Research Network is addressing bias in data and automated decision-making used in health, education, justice and social-protection services in the Global South. 

A recent IDRC paper bridges these insights to the world of work. Bias In, Bias Out explains how digital platforms and artificial intelligence may disguise discrimination in labour markets and expose women workers — particularly those engaged in platform or ‘gig’ work — to gender-based violence through new and poorly understood avenues. By “platform,” we are referring to the two-sided Internet applications used by businesses to source, manage and bill work, including services such as urban transportation, domestic work and light repairs. Codes that reflect historic patterns of discrimination are embedded in new technologies for labour markets. This may undermine policy efforts toward gender equality.  

Women in gig work 

Digital platforms are increasingly being used to mediate between self-employed and informal workers and clients. These workers make up the majority of the labour market in low- and middle-income countries and have generally faced well-documented vulnerabilities. They have been particularly at risk of gender-based violence with little or no access to formal recourse. IDRC and international donors have invested in research to inform how organizations representing these workers — such as the Self Employed Women’s Association, HomeNet South Asia, and StreetNet — can support improvements in their working conditions. It is therefore important to understand how violence against these workers is replicated online.  

As documented in Bias In, Bias Out, platform work may enable new forms of control over informal workers that have profound implications for their agency and safety. Platform domestic workers and women drivers using ride-hailing apps have reported that they feel platforms do not sufficiently vet clients and that even when they complain about mistreatment by a client, no further action is taken. Researchers who interviewed platform domestic workers and home beauty-care workers in South Africa, Kenya and Thailand have reported a pernicious interaction between ratings for workers and sexual harassment. These workers all stated that the platforms provide no means by which they can rate clients if the clients are abusive or inappropriate. However, they feel pressured by client ratings to tolerate abuses. Negative ratings by clients can pose a threat to workers’ livelihood, as many platforms automatically terminate or de-activate workers whose ratings fall below a defined threshold. Workers’ vulnerability to low ratings and an intimate workspace combine to create cover for harassment. 

Enhancing women’s agency on platforms 

Some promising initiatives are emerging that may create better working conditions for women using digital platforms, although data and evidence remain limited. Globally, we have seen a rise in platform workers organizing for labour rights and engaging in legal battles to be recognized as employees with a right to basic protections. For example, workers on the Indian platform Urban Company, which provides in-home beauty services, organized a coordinated strike and sit-in, compelling the company to provide additional support, including a helpline. 

Platform workers have also been forming collective spaces to protect themselves. In many countries, location-based gig workers such as drivers and delivery people are connecting via common messenger platforms and forming mutual-help networks. A study of women drivers using ride-hailing apps in Cairo found that they had formed communities of support with other female drivers and developed their own tools to communicate with both male and female drivers when they are in situations that require assistance. 

The use of platform cooperative models — where groups of workers form a social enterprise or collective to provide their services through a localized platform under their own management — may be a way to give more control to workers. In South Africa, domestic workers are experimenting with this model. Platforms with more limited geographic scope may also be better able to deal with grievances and be better able to protect their workers from violence and harassment. 

The importance of better evidence  

Lack of evidence on women’s choices and experiences surrounding digital, platform-based work makes it harder to develop solutions for a safe and violence-free workplace and adapt them to gender-based constraints. IDRC is supporting a research initiative on Women, Work and the Gig Economy, which aims to answer critical questions around how digital platforms can enhance women’s economic empowerment and build gender-inclusive labour markets in the Global South. 

Through this initiative, researchers in seven countries across South and Southeast Asia seek to understand the challenges and opportunities that women face in accessing and benefitting from platform-mediated work. They also seek to provide evidence-based recommendations to policymakers and platform managers on practices and scalable solutions that will lead to higher-quality, inclusive and safe work that aligns with adapted labour regulations. 

More research, policy and action are needed to create online spaces, including work platforms, that are safe and inclusive. Without intentional action, the many inequalities and experiences of workplace violence that have persisted in the ‘offline’ and informal economy will be replicated in the rapidly changing world of work.