Women, Work, and the Digital Economy: Our new Issue

Anandita Ghosh Blog

Photo by Self Employed Women’s Association, from World Economic Forum

The Gender & Development team is happy to share its November 2022 issue on Women, Work and the Digital Economy.

The massive scale at which the economy is undergoing digitalisation – in the form of digital labour platforms, mobile technologies and digital financial services, has had a transformative effect on work, labour relations, mobility of goods, people and services, and the overall local, national and global economies. This process of digitalisation is seen as offering a critical policy pathway to achieve gender equality as well as sustainable and inclusive economic growth (OECD 2017, 2018). However, the process of digitalisation and its effects are far from socially inclusive or gender just, as the contributions in this Issue clearly demonstrate. Most striking are the gendered, racial and caste implications of digitalisation in the form of lack of equitable access and benefits of digital technologies, with vast sections of the population both in the global North and South living in ‘digital darkness’. The process of digitalisation of various aspects of our lives, as well as the digital inequities and divides were further deepened with the onset of the global pandemic and associated lockdowns due to lack of access to digital resources and literacies.

Guest edited by Uma Rani and Ruth Castel Branco and co-edited by Shivani Satija and Mahima Nayar, this special issue of Gender & Development sets out to examine the inequalities and contradictions embedded within the digital economy, as well as investigate how marginalised labour groups resist, challenge and navigate these inequities in order to assert their agency and demand decent and dignified work. The issue draws empirical evidence from a diverse set of countries including Argentina, Brazil, China, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, and Uganda, from across multiple sectors such as beauty work, domestic and care work, food delivery, ride-hailing, factory and home-based work, micro- and small-scale entrepreneurship, and public provisioning. The issue explores three key questions: a) the impact of digital technologies on the labour process, relations, and conditions of work; b) the ways in which women and other marginalised groups resist inequities through individual efforts and collective organising; and c) how states could contribute to a sustainable, inclusive, and equitable digital economy through public policy. Overall, by focusing on the experience of marginalised women, this collection of inter-disciplinary papers brings the discussion of women, work, and the digital economy at the intersection of exploitation, exclusion, and labour resistance, thereby contributing to the incipient male-dominated literature on emerging forms of worker struggle.

Impact of new technologies on women and marginalised groups: empowerment or disempowerment?

Many contributions in this special issue challenge the global policy narrative that promote platformisation of the economy as key to achieving women’s economic empowerment through increase in labour force participation and an increase in work flexibility and labour autonomy. Anwar, in his research based on interviews with women working on both remote and place-based platforms in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa, challenges this global policy narrative through a critical and intersectional lens to unpack the multiple challenges women face in terms of increased work intensity, lack of flexibility, and negative physical and psychological implications.

Similarly, Majid and Mustafa through their research in Pakistan, explain that women marginalised by caste, culture, and religion might find it difficult to access digital resources or to find jobs even when they have digital skills due to the socio-cultural norms that restrict women’s access to digital technologies.

Restrictions on mobility and access are further compounded by surveillance and control by the state. Raj and Juned explore the impact of the digitalisation of governance on the everyday lives of transgender people who belong to marginalised populations, and often lack the skills and literacies to navigate public digital systems to access basic citizenship rights in India.

The promise of worker flexibility, autonomy, and dignity offered by digital labour platforms is also challenged and unpacked through these critical contributions. Tandon and Sekharan, Centeno Maya et al., and Kwan based on their research on ride hailing, beauty workers, and delivery workers platforms in India, Mexico, and China respectively, also highlight that women workers who do opt for flexible work hours are penalised by the algorithm and end up losing future clients. These authors underscore the intersectional vulnerabilities that workers face in these digital labour platforms due to the lack of gendered design and masculinist algorithms. Rodriguez et al. in their study of home care workers working via platforms in Brazil shine light on the control over labour work and autonomy and penalisation through invisible managers and exploitative algorithms. Sibiya and du Toit, Kalla and Ghosh et al based on their research in South Africa and India, respectively, also point to the misclassification of workers as ‘self-employed’ or ‘contractual’ by digital labour platforms, which leads to denial of basic rights, decent and dignified work conditions and labour and social protection.

Women working in male dominated sectors such ride hailing and delivery face double discrimination. Micha et al writing about ride hailing platforms in Argentina presents her findings about women riders facing loss in ratings and rides if they refuse a male client, along with the risk of facing sexual harassment. Even in feminised sectors of beauty work as explained by Ghosh et al and Tandon and Sekharan in the Indian context, and in the domestic work sector as explained by Rodriguez et al in Brazil and Sibiya and du Toit, Kalla  in South Africa, the nature of platform work is highly gendered and precarious where workers are not afforded any opportunity to upskill, organise or register cases of complaints. These contributions that cover both men and women dominated services reveal the gendered challenges that workers face in the digital economy. At the same time, they also explore the resistances and assertions by workers in these digital labour platforms, to tweak, reshape, and reconfigure these spaces to suit their needs, as well as demand decent and dignified work.

Navigating the inequitable digital economy

Despite challenges in access and usage, women in informal work have been able to use digital technologies to augment their incomes and enhance their businesses as shown by de Silva in her research on informal women workers in Sri Lanka. Often when women are not able to access digital technologies like mobile phones due to socio-cultural norms and lack of required literacies, they develop interdependent, collective networks of trust and reliance and use scarce digital devices to help each other as shown by Borborah and Das in Assam, India. Other contributions extrapolate that workers upskill and cultivate client networks in the hope to start their own business, especially in the case of beauty work. Thus, there are innovative ways in which workers navigate the hierarchies of the digital economy in order to carve out opportunities for themselves.

Worker protests and emerging forms of worker organisation

The contributions in this issue share cases where workers have organised protests to demand decent work despite the severe limitations imposed by digital labour platforms. Ghosh et al, Sibiya and du Toit, Dhar and Thuppilikkat, Kwan, and Tandon and Sekharan discuss the use of social media platforms as well as informal networks deployed by workers to share grievances, mobilise support, and demand basic working conditions and rights. In some instances, these individual resistances have coalesced into coordinated strike action, drawing from histories of collective labour organising. In some countries like Brazil and Spain, women platform workers have developed co-operatives that value not just productive but also reproductive labour and build on collective support structures of care as discussed by Salvagnie et al. These cooperatives though nascent in their development, are slowly carving a path towards a more inclusive, feminist digital economy, and need to be financially supported by state and non-state institutions. Kwan also shares the important role of cooperatives in her paper based on ride hailing platforms in China. An example of digital labour cooperatives that provide insurance to marginalised women in rural India is also discussed by Agarwal and Chatterjee. Multiple contributions thus reiterate the potential of worker owned and worker governed platform cooperatives in weaving worker solidarity and enabling collective organising that could demand more gender equitable labour outcomes.

The role of the state and public policies

The rapid pace at which the economy is being digitalised invokes the critical need for government regulation, especially when it comes to digital labour platforms (ILO 2021). There is also a need to recognise workers as beyond contractors or independent employees and guarantee decent work conditions and basic workers’ rights, formalise work relations and hours of work, and include the voices of workers, especially marginalised women and other groups in policy discussions as explicated by von Dietrich and Garcia and many others. Overall, many authors in this special issue like Dixit and Banday and Anwar question the ‘empowering’ potential of digital fixes and neoliberal policy solutions without addressing the gender, race, and caste-based inequalities and discriminations embedded within the concept and process of digitalisation.

Digital economy and the future of work

The papers in this special issue make important contributions to the growing body of literature on new technologies, as well as the gendered forms of worker organisation, mobilisation, and resistance across sectors dominated by both men and women. They explore the range of individual and collective assertions of marginalised labour groups in resisting and reshaping the terms of platform capitalism, and how these could potentially shape the future of work along the principles of social inclusion, dignity, and gender justice.

We hope that this issue on women, work, and the digital economy will constitute a valuable resource for scholars, academics, and gender justice activists.

This special double issue guest edited by Uma Rani and Ruth Castel Branco and co-edited by Shivani Satija and Mahima Nayar