Are India’s much-lauded startups failing their women workforce?

On October 8, more than 100 beauty workers gathered outside the head office of Urban Company in Gurgaon to protest their working conditions. The company, an on-demand platform for home services, initially responded by cracking down on protesters, threatening to withhold their identity cards and calling on police to take action against them.

After constant pressure from workers and the media, the company reaffirmed its commitment to “give a voice to the voiceless” and eventually announced some measures to partially meet the workers’ demands.

Arguably this was the first widely reported case of women working with digital platforms publicly organizing to take collective action. A deeper look into their demands sheds light on the gendered nature of working with India’s highly praised tech startups.

Women’s labor market decisions center around trade-offs between paid work and unpaid care work in the home. They also face limitations related to physical movement, security, and negative family attitudes toward their work. Digital platforms have been touted as a game changer that will increase women’s labor force participation and profits, due to the flexibility their model offers for workers to control their work.

However, far from increasing labor agency, platform models continue to reinforce gender norms and fail to account for the factors that shape women’s employment. The recent protests are a reminder that there is a lot that needs to be corrected if platform work is to advance women’s economic outcomes.

Flexibility for whom?

The term ‘flexibility’ can be understood in different ways. From the point of view of workers, it is usually understood as the ability to choose the time and quantity of work. Most platforms, including Urban Company, advertise this as one of their goals.

However, from a corporate perspective, this may mean reducing input costs while achieving high labor turnover and service quality. The platforms deploy a set of strategies for managing workforce resilience and matching concurrent demand. Key among them is the system of ratings that determines the number of leads provided to workers and can also be used to force them to work longer hours and perform unpaid tasks to meet customer demands.

In the case of the Urban Company, ratings of workers are determined not only on the basis of customer feedback, but also on the rates at which workers accept or cancel assignments. This becomes the antithesis of increased flexibility – workers find themselves having to work longer hours to meet incentives and avoid penalties. Women who find work through the application have significant childcare responsibilities, and in many cases they are the only earners in female-headed households.

Suman, a single mother who works as a primary service partner, asked us, “When my child has an accident, will I care about assessments or penalties? I have to stay home and take care of him. How will I take orders if they keep giving me leads?” Workers often face penalties such as unfair discounts. Negotiable pay and permanent account blocking at low response and high cancellation rates.

As Suman’s account explains, these punishments make it extremely difficult for women to take vacations for short periods. The list of requests made by workers also includes the ability to log off the platform for longer periods at the expense of maternity or other personal obligations, without re-subscribing to fees.

Another way the Urban Company manages workforce flexibility is through the use of artificial, arbitrarily defined categories of service. During the pandemic, amid extreme fluctuations in consumer demand and spending habits, the company has introduced five sub-categories within its vertical beauty services – Classic, Gorgeous, Extra Silver, Gold plus Luxe. The classification of workers into these categories was based primarily on the ratings, without regard to prior experience or quality of work.

For workers in the classic category, such arbitrary classifications without regard to previous experience in the beauty sector or quality of work can amount to undervaluing and underestimating their work. Workers who were promoted to higher categories shared many negative effects including higher costs of uniforms and equipment, increased distance between customer locations and reduced leads with higher commission rates. In fact, these ratings further obfuscate the rationale for generating leads and improving workers’ skills.

The authors asked The Urban Company about these and other things. This article will be updated if the company responds.

lack of support

One of the main concerns highlighted by workers relates to the complete lack of infrastructure support necessary for decent work. Women spend many hours commuting between their homes and the multiple service locations where they receive orders. Many find it difficult to access vital amenities such as drinking water and toilets while on the move and are denied access even within clients’ homes due to entrenched class prejudices and discriminatory practices.

Companies are also failing to support workers in emergency situations, which has emerged as a major cause for concern among women who often work in private settings such as clients’ homes. Workers emphasize the human need to answer their calls in the event of an emergency, rejecting technological solutions such as automated helplines and SOS buttons that leave workers fending for themselves if they are harassed by customers or in transit.

Beyond platform and infrastructure design considerations, workers highlight the structural fragility that stems from the platform companies’ business model. The “entrepreneurship” model that companies offer does not allow workers to access the income security that comes with regular paid work, nor the oversight and agency needed for self-employment.

Media reports after the protests praised The Urban Company for being smart and transforming labor relationships in ways that respond to workers’ demands. What is missing from the public discourse are the efforts hitherto unorganized workers have brought the company to the bargaining table with little outside support, while balancing paid work and care responsibilities.

These movements are gaining ground across sectors to hold big companies accountable for extracting labor from workers while claiming to empower them. Exploitative practices across lesser known platforms remain invisible and unmonitored, with most of them continuing to operate as normal. If the collective voices of the workers are to change conditions at the industry level, it becomes necessary to listen to and amplify their recommendations and act accordingly.

Ambika Tandon and Abhishek Sekharan are researchers at the Center for Internet and Society, where they study the impact of digital platforms on work cultures in India.

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