Can you recognize your friends’ and family members’ hand gestures? People have distinctive gestures: maybe your friend clasps her hands when she’s nervous, your mom taps her fingers together when she’s excited, or your cousin wags two fingers when making an argument. Now, imagine local artisans who hand-make their wares. Their hand gestures are implicit in the production of an object. Indeed, archaeologists have found that Indian potters’ personal gestures can help identify the maker of a given pot. In this way, a maker’s gestures form an identifiable signature that is inherent in the object they’ve made. Furthermore, certain tribal groups may exhibit long-standing artistic practices that signal the origin of a piece through its materials, the tools by which it was made, stylistic selections, and other meaning-making choices.
In the Western economy, a premium is placed on hand-made wares: shoppers are consistently willing to pay more for objects that are hand-crafted by individuals. Particularly in an era of global outcry surrounding climate change – of which industrial fabrication is a major contributor – consumers are seeking out objects that invoke home-grown craftsmanship. This proclivity is part of a broader trend towards local, organic, recycled, hand-made, unique, and artisan purchasing behaviour. Similar trends are also occurring among Indian elites who are reviving the popularity of handloomed saris. However, the situation in India exhibits further nuance, as evidenced by a recent conversation I had with a contemporary Indian artist, who described a societal association of traditional hand-made wares with certain socially marginalized castes.
In a recent study, my collaborator Angel Hwang and I examined what factors influenced users’ perceptions of creativity online. We discovered that viewers evaluate the creativity of an output according to the perceived process by which it was made. Those items that involved more complex processes – and particularly those that are handmade – were rated as more creative (and therefore, more valuable) than those that were not. As has been shown in previous research, viewers accorded a premium to those pieces that contained representations of hand-made processes, such as visible brushstrokes. In these ways, a visual and physical representation of hand-made-ness, as well as advertising and branding messaging touting hand-made processes, serves to increase creative value.
As Payal Arora highlighted recently in the Recliner Designer podcast, Western ideals exhibit a dichotomy between “hand-made” objects and mass production: it is viewed as contradictory for an item to be both hand-made and mass produced. That is, Western populations expect that only a small quantity of a given hand-made object exists. However, Payal pointed out that in Indian contexts, many artisans are both hand-making and mass-producing traditional objects (e.g., saris). In many cases, these mass production sites represent poor working conditions and tireless bodily effort, where locals – women, in particular – toil for hours on end to hand-make a large quantity of a given object.
This presents a predicament for digital platforms on which such items might be sold. Western interfaces and economies begin to unravel when confronted with the sale of objects that are both hand-made and mass-produced. For instance, a platform like Etsy – purportedly designed for the sale of hand-made objects – uses algorithms to deprioritize objects that appear to be mass-produced. This results in an unfair disadvantage for such women artisans in the Global South. Furthermore, the platform maintains minimal accountability due to the “black box” nature of algorithmic decision-making.
Indeed, online platforms have resulted in many such disadvantages for populations in the Global South. As internet platforms are primarily developed by Western companies, Western norms of data governance are implicitly imposed upon an increasingly global user base. In the cultural sector, this process may represent a new form of appropriation. For instance, algorithms developed by Western entities are being used to“authenticate” artistic outputs. However, creation processes in the Global South – which are often communal – do not necessarily follow a Western construction of provenance. Similarly, algorithms that are used to determine whether an object is legitimately hand-made for the purposes of value creation (e.g. eligibility for Etsy platforming) may subscribe to the Western hand-made/mass-produced dichotomy described above, thereby improperly classifying the outputs of traditional Indian models of creative work.
It is a connected platform’s design with which a community interacts: as the only tangible and user-facing aspect of users’ online experience, an interface’s affordances shape data, usage, and privacy decisions. Therefore, it is imperative to consider how such interfaces may be designed in ways that are inclusive – rather than dismissive or even exploitative – of local cultural communities. When platforms are designed in an inclusive manner, access to a global audience of consumers may further reverse the colonialist power dynamic by providing local artisans with avenues for development, empowerment, and financial security.
The first step in designing platforms that are inherently inclusive is to conduct research into the diverse range of users that may interact with the platform. This will formulate a foundation of empathy upon which truly inclusive platforms may be designed. By understanding local creative processes, for instance, a platform may be designed that fits into existing cultural practices, rather than demeaning or obfuscating current modes of creative expression.
Nanako Era, Molly Bloom, Francesca Kazerooni, Liza Meckler, Emma Siegel, and Erica Ellis, and I have written a guide to inclusive research. While it centres the experience of people with disabilities, many of the approaches will resonate with those interested in conducting research that is inclusive of other attributes, including cultural identity. For instance, one must carefully consider the mechanisms by which participants are recruited: rather than cold, individual outreach, building relationships with trusted community groups could be most beneficial for the communal nature of creative collectives in the Global South. (Though, of course, it’s worth considering who may be excluded from such collectives.) Similarly, access is a key consideration: in the guide, we offer tips for ensuring that a participant is not excluded from research due to the devices they use or their mechanisms of transportation.
In the case of artisans that are selling both mass-produced and hand-made objects, Western platforms must re-consider their traditional models of the creative economy. By imposing their own assumptions about creativity on a global user base, Western technology companies are inhibiting local cultures’ creative norms.
The forced push towards digitization of schooling-related activities due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated growth of Indian education technology (EdTech) companies. The sector plugs into and supplements the legacy of after-school tutoring and extracurricular activities by building businesses that take these services online. 80% of India’s school teachers are women as reported in the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and Quarterly Employment Surveys. Education serves as one of the biggest employment bases for women from scheduled caste communities. In the accelerated environment for online education since the pandemic, the sector has seen investments of 2.2 billion USD, roughly half of the 4 billion USD that has been raised by EdTech companies in India in the last five years.
Given this rise, it is important to ask what business models these companies follow, and how this impacts the educators who ultimately do the teaching. Will EdTech go the way of the gig economy? Is EdTech work structured like Uber work? Since the pandemic, many delivery people and taxi driver woes have been made public. If EdTech companies start to adopt the business models of gig platforms like in food delivery, or the ride-hailing sector, then how do we see the future of our educators? What does EdTech do to the nature of the teacher’s work? How do the patterns of the Indian education sector relate to the ways in which we think about the kind of employment EdTech companies offer educators using their platforms?
These are important questions to ask as we see major disruptions in one of the most established and formal sectors of women’s employment – the education field, and how EdTech may shape the future of their livelihoods.
Private tutoring in India
Tutoring in India is a booming, profitable services industry which acts like an allied sector to all levels of schooling, as well as entrance into professional courses such as engineering and medicine. This private industry is spread across home-based tutoring (or own-account work) for single or multiple students, or micro to large size institutions spreading across the country in all rural and urban areas, with select cities acting as educational clusters like Kota, Madhya Pradesh. According to the National Sample Survey report on education, 21% students opted for private tuitions in 2017-18. Recent news reports from the COVID-19 era indicate that private tutoring in small towns and rural areas has gone online and is now being mediated through digital platforms.
For school education there is evidence to suggest that as more people can afford private schools (as opposed to public government schools where education quality is often in question) the dependence on tutoring has declined. Many of the teachers or tutors work across private schooling, public schooling and tutoring services using different methods of teaching. Their ability to earn, working conditions and industry varies across these segments.
Women use the education sector for employment
Given the variations in the sector, it is difficult to arrive at a clear picture of how many people are employed and under what working conditions.
Some market-based estimations suggest that there are 30 million teaching, non-teaching and support staff in private schools and tuition institutions, making education one of the top 5 employment providers in the country. Case studies indicate that contractual and part-time lecturers form a substantial chunk of the workforce in India’s higher education sector. This suggests that there is a large workforce that could be ready to take part-time or full-time teaching work mediated through platforms.
Dominant models in platform-mediated EdTech sector in India
The EdTech sector in India has dominant players – all unicorns – who are setting the tone for how the sector will play out. The marketplace model followed by Byju’s, Unacademy and Vedantu showcase just that. Here, businesses take charge of deciding the modalities of content delivery, pricing of the courses and marketing the platform to prospective students. The platforms are also responsible for content generation (in-house, or through a network of educators), and maintaining quality of the material on their platform. On the educator front, they control the recruitment, onboarding, upskilling, and reskilling of educators, assessments, payment for educators, and providing technical, and educational support to them.
These companies are not like on-demand models such as Uber. Rather, educational services are sold in multiple classes, courses, or packages; one where the educator’s qualifications and skill are not easily replaceable. Unlike in driving or food delivery where the identified, monetizable skill plays a big role in the sheer number of people who join and are dependent on platforms for their livelihoods. The rating system of driving and delivery platforms is an important place where we witness platform power, and platform’s controlling hand in service delivery. In the EdTech sector, the relationship between an educator and a platform company is a far more involved one than that of a food delivery worker or Uber driver. This raises concerns about the amount of power a company can wield in the management of educators, their skills, content, and ultimately the time they spend to do well on the platform and what they are paid for.
Who are the EdTech platform workers?
These business models necessitate a significant role for the platform worker, particularly in case of the final educator who is interacting with student(s). Workers may be responsible for any or all of the following tasks: course content creation, content moderation, course delivery, doubt clearance and 1-on-1 coaching. Some companies engage workers for specific activities, setting a per task rate, and workers get paid on a weekly, or monthly basis for the aggregate of the tasks they completed within that period. Others employ workers full-time, and these tasks fall under their daily job role.
Companies attract educators from the legacy system of home-based or neighbourhood-based tutoring opportunities by promising them greater reach, and flexible work hours. Each company has a skill assessment component as part of their recruitment and training processes, and only educators that clear preset content and quality thresholds in their chosen area are selected. In cases where companies provide proprietary teaching material, educators go through additional training as a part of the onboarding process.
Labouring as an Edtech worker
Educators are expected to have access to high-quality digital devices (laptops/desktops/phones), and a fast internet connection: two components that are seen as crucial to their ability to deliver the highest quality of online classes that are promised to students. Companies generally insist on a graduate degree (in any discipline), and prefer that teachers go through their proprietary training process and teaching materials. Given that teaching engagements are typically long-term (3-month course, or 9-month certification, for example), educators are expected to make minimum time commitments per week, and the more time they spend the greater is their potential to earn through the platform. This leads to a wide range of possibilities from as little as 2 hours/day to 30 hours/week. Firms say they are only able to track the time educators spend actively teaching on their platforms and have little idea on the time educators may take to prepare before, or after a particular teaching engagement.
In interviews we conducted with senior management at EdTech companies between 2020-21, we found that greater emphasis is placed on the soft skills that educators display, over the subject matter expertise that they have. Through constant monitoring by internal teams, and customer feedback, educators are assessed on their physical appearance via webcams as the main portal of communication on things such as attire and grooming, body language, and most importantly their tone and rapport with the students during teaching sessions. Educators are also implicitly expected to stay beyond the preset class duration, to clarify lingering doubts that student(s) have, and are nudged to be proactive, and go the extra mile in each learning session.
How are women faring as EdTech educators?
Teaching in India has seen the participation of women in significant numbers, however, the transition to teaching online through EdTech companies has yielded mixed results. Outside of organizations that exclusively engage an only female educator base (e.g. White Hat Jr.), most educator bases are dominated by men. A wide range of women work as educators online: college graduates preparing for postgraduate examinations, women that were forced to drop out of the workforce due to familial commitments, and former schoolteachers. In all cases, the relative predictability of timings of classes, and the flexibility and control to schedule when those classes happened are key drivers for women to take up these opportunities.
Our interviews with platform companies also revealed a common set of challenges that they faced in increasing the share of women educators on their platform. These primarily revolved around how teaching from home intersected with women’s existing caregiving and household responsibilities: women tended to take longer to complete the onboarding and training assignments, particularly if there is a lack of flexibility on how these processes are scheduled. In these interviews, what was not clear was whether platforms had to contend with potential women educators that had an issue accessing digital devices, stable internet, advanced digital skills to operate and adequately manage devices, and teaching in sync. This is despite evidence that suggests that women have far less ownership and access to devices and the internet than men. A reason could be that currently platforms are only funnelling the small sliver of women who have unmitigated access to infrastructure and hence online work. This raises several concerns for how inclusive the sector is in terms of employing the diverse population of teachers that India has.
The visual and auditory elements of teaching are important in the online delivery of education. This puts a lot of emphasis on the quality and quantity of content being generated. The time constraint also means that women are unable to continuously create their own new content, and often require more support, either through friends and family, or by engaging people to work with them on content creation and upkeep. The ability for companies to compensate women for class teaching, out of class preparation, content creation is a key point to look for in the coming months.
The gig economy is rife with loans that help workers buy assets that they need for work – like drivers who need cars to drive on Uber or Ola, or bikes to do delivery work. For drivers forced to work for lower incomes, these loans become predatory instead of facilitatory. The taxi and delivery sector are defined by a labour oversupply. Given that the education sector is a large employer of educators, it begs the question of what tactics platform companies will use to bring on teachers who cannot afford or do not have their own devices, internet access, webcams and other material needed for online instruction. The retention rates of Indian educators on EdTech platforms are unknown. When taxi platforms faced this issue, it led to predatory practices like loans for work assets, or dynamic wages that lower barriers to work on the platform. Will EdTech go the same way?
EdTech platforms can find more meaningful ways to retain educators to the platform – like stable wages, accounting for the costs of teaching and preparation time, insurance or benefits, and recognition.
For women’s work, the EdTech sector can offer work-from-home, and more control over scheduling class times but enforces a whole new set of expectations, surveillance, and modes of teaching. India’s New Education Policy (NEP) formulated in 2020 locates EdTech solutions at the core of how schooling will be revamped. There is a recognition that these approaches aren’t “teachers versus technology” [but] the solution is in “teachers and technology”. Early adopter educators might be digitally literate enough to make do, but as the employment funnel grows what outcomes can we expect for marginalized women teachers?
The lessons we can take away from other platforms opening their employment funnels are many, but redressal to many of these concerns is quite simple: stability. Stability of pay, time used, quality markers of a service and the stability that comes with having an open dialogue with platforms can waylay many negative parts of platform work. Offering stability doesn’t pit teachers against each other in a race to the bottom, nor against unfair algorithmic processes that are out of their sight and control.
Aditi Surie is a sociologist and researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements where she has been studying the platform economy for several years, her work unpacks the relationship between platforms, informality, labour and employment.
Krishna Akhil Kumar Adavi is a graduate student at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the platform economy, and technology startups in India. Previously, he was a researcher with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru.
“PM Modi announces a 21-day nation-wide lockdown as COVID-19 toll touches 12” read the headlines of the Hindu newspaper on March 24th, 2020.
Offices indefinitely closed, shops shut, and gatherings banned. People pushed into their homes, unknown of what will happen next. A mask, a sanitizer, and a six-foot distance became the new normal. Drones captured images of roads that, once congested with traffic, were now empty. On the front, these empty roads portrayed a country fighting a catastrophe. But what remained unseen and unheard were the many in its backyard fighting another battle – a battle of survival. Amongst those who fought for their livelihood in a dwindling economy were India’s 8 million + gig workers. Soon news emerged of these workers going on strikes and demanding relief from companies as they lost their earnings with the diminished demand during the national lockdown.
One might ask, who are these workers and what is their story? Well, here it is.
Meet Digambar Bansal, a 40-year-old man, who migrated and joined Ola to benefit from improved financial prospects promised by these ride-hailing firms. Unemployment and past abysmal working conditions with meager monthly incomes of INR 15000 (USD 200) contributed to his motivation, like many others, to join the platform. In the early stages of these unicorns, he claimed to have earned INR 90,000 (USD 1,200) a month in an interview with Mumbai Mirror. This led him to purchase vehicles and auxiliaries through third-party credits in hopes of an uplifted livelihood. This illusion, however, was short-lasting.
In recent years, his earnings have declined to INR 20,000-30,000 (USD 270-400) per month. With an EMI (equated monthly installment) of INR 10,000 (USD 135) and fuel worth Rs 500 (USD 6.75), along with car maintenance, Bansal faced difficulties in making ends meet back home. “Half of my income goes towards paying my EMI, and with what remains, I am torn between either providing for my family or spending on the car’s maintenance. We drivers are in a terrible state financially’’ claimed another driver, Thorat, aged 36, in the same interview with Mumbai Mirror.
From dreams to debts
These stories of drivers like Bansal and Thorat are not exceptional but represent the experiences of numerous drivers engaged with these platforms. The entry of ride-hailing firms accelerated the growth of the gig economy – a labour market characterized by freelance work through contracts or platforms. These firms hired workers like Bansal in enormous numbers by creating a pseudo formal sector based on volatile incentives and incomes. However, over the years, increased fuel costs, decreased rates per kilometre, and withdrawal of incentives have contributed to drivers’ financial attenuation. Yet, despite these setbacks, drivers have continued to work for the platform as they find themselves with principal repayments and increasing interests to pay for investments incurred on these false hopes given. Unfortunately, the financial distress does not end here.
Drivers like Bansal are gig workers termed as “partners” of the firms who utilize the platform to connect with customers and provide services. Hence, they are not considered company employees and are devoid of social security provisions like health care. Although firms have claimed to provide insurances, the on-ground reality speaks a different story. 95.3% of respondents stated to have no form of insurance in a survey carried out in November 2019. It also noted that if drivers do have insurance, many were unaware of its possession or how to claim it. Furthermore, like Bansal, many drivers are married, thus bearing the responsibility of their families. After accounting for costs and basic needs, these drivers are left with little to invest in health and education – a dimension of their life to which they solely contribute. At a time when these drivers were already struggling to make ends meet, their financial despair was intensified with the sudden enforcement of the national lockdown in March 2020 as COVID-19 struck India.
The economy came to a standstill, and demand for cabs dwindled. The Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) carried out four surveys from March-June 2020, which recorded that the drivers’ average weekly income commencing April 15 was less than INR 2500(USD 33). The Reserve Bank of India extended the moratorium till August 31st 2020 but did not waive off the interest. Similarly, funds set up by the ride-hailing firms were limited to the cost of disease or necessary supplies and did not include finances like EMIs. This piling interest compelled drivers to work in a low-demand economy, exposing themselves to the virus, despite being devoid of health insurance and sick leaves. Many drivers feared getting infected, not because of deteriorating health concerns but because it meant missing out on weekly earnings to cover the debts. The first wave of COVID-19 pandemic exposed that being sick is also a luxury not everyone can afford.
Gendered hope through legal reform
Amidst this upheaval came a ray of hope for these drivers as the government announced the Social Security Code 2020, the first law to recognize gig and platform workers formally. Under the code, the government aims to set up a social security fund for these workers. The aggregators have also been instructed to contribute 1-2% of their annual turnover towards the fund. Moreover, the National Social Security Board will act for the gig workers and platform workers under this code instead of only unorganized workers in the 2019 bill.
Although this initialization of labour laws depicts recognition of a long-ignored community, the sector’s small community of women who have been further pushed back during the Pandemic are yet to be recognized.
The affliction runs deeper as one takes a bird-eye view and notices the differentiated gender access to these gig platforms. The primary reason behind the sector’s low engagement of women is the initial investment in vehicles. A report by Aapti institute an institute that generates policy-relevant accessible knowledge to support the creation of a fair and equitable society noted that women often relied on family savings for initial funding as opposed to third-party loans due to inaccessibility to lenders. Obstacles that further hinder their investment in vehicles are unplanned pregnancies and care of families, which halt the earnings required to cover interests and EMIs. Moreover, mechanisms for safety and protection against harassment when going to unknown locations to pick up customers have not been ensured.
It is vital that these labour laws provide resources to help women get back on their feet as they can no longer rely on family savings, which have been exhausted during the pandemic. Measures to boost their entry, like maternity leave and extension of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013, should be carried out as security at workplace is a right of every individual. Lastly, channels to ensure women can use the social security funds at their discretion need to be implemented.
For the larger community of gig workers, some aspects of the code require further work. A clearer distinction between gig and platform workers is required as presently workers engaged in these platforms can be categorized as both. Moreover, to obtain the benefits, the central government requires workers’ digital registration and regular update of details – a digital know-how many workers do not possess. It has also bifurcated social security measures for the centre and state, making the implementation difficult for the workers to understand. These drawbacks are impediments that need to be tackled to complement the government’s mission to formalize the platform economy and make the new labour laws indispensable towards ensuring workers’ social security.
From consumers to contributors
One can now say thatthe gig economy is evolving. However, these labour law initiatives are being financed by the government and companies through a fixed annual contribution. Consumers, the demand driving force of the economy, have long ridden on the competition-fuelled low-cost ride-hailing firm services. To sustain upliftment, a partial cost shift to consumers is required. However, they are not moral actors who will arbitrarily accept appreciated prices. Hence, necessitating incorporation of novel means by stakeholders mentioned to persuade consumers in order to annually increase the monetary social security contribution and witness a long-term change is a must.
In general, consumers tend to humanize frontline employees and feel compassionate towards them. Hence, we suggest that ride-hailing firms should add a personal touch to their app by providing more than basic driver details such as a short introduction and family background, hence humanizing them more to facilitate a better connection a priming effect to persuade consumers to contribute. Contribute for what? For example, Zomato under its Feed India initiative automatically rounds off the bill with the balance amount going to its Feed India fund – an optional tip that consumers have the autonomy to remove. However, this mechanism provides a nudge to consumers to contribute rather than simply asking them if they wish to tip or not. These ride-hailing firms can incorporate a similar structure with proceeds going to workers’ social security. This is the first step towards monetary consumer contribution, an optional one – since no company in this era of market capitalization would risk permanently increasing cost and losing market share. However, in the long run, upliftment can thrive only when partial permanent cost is shifted towards consumers, requiring other stakeholders to help burst consumers’ bubble of the cab-aggregator economy.
What role stakeholders have to burst this bubble?
Research suggests that consumers’ positive attitude towards gig labour can be due to make-believe worker-consumer interaction imperative to maintain favourable ratings, thus obscuring consumers’ view of workers’ experience. This holds importance as a consumer’s perception of working conditions affects their intention to both, use and recommend a service. Moreover, research notes that ethical labour practices often can command a greater monetary consideration from consumers in markets. Hence, we call for organizations and trade unions to voice stories of these workers to create consumer awareness and elicit an empathetic consumer response. Also, to support companies to devise ways of charging premium by promoting investment in labour practices as the reason behind the price appreciation. Further, to help them recognise socially conscious groups of their customer segment. A study suggests that women and educated people are particularly socially conscious; hence these companies could benefit from such segments suggestively through means of optional higher surge from corporate cabs and cab-for-women initiatives. Lastly, for the government to ensure proceeds from implementation of phased partial dispersal of burden on consumers go towards upliftment of workers only.
It is time to employ a sustainable long-term solution to uplift the lives of workers like Thorat and Bansal. On this road ahead, ethical consumerism would be the turning point to help them overcome the hurdles of this pseudo-formal economy and go the next mile!
The traditional taxis have always remained heavily male-dominated, but female drivers have always posed a serious threat to the long-established ideas of patriarchy and masculinity.
“If you are driving, I need to check my insurance,” “Will you be able to reverse the car? And what about parking? Do you need me to do it for you?” “Why are you using both hands on the steering wheel and leaning forward?” “Please concentrate on the road. I don’t want to die,” “Oh, there is a woman driving behind us. Let’s check her out,” “I am sure a woman is driving this car because its moving slower than a bullock cart.”
If you are a woman, that too an Indian, you must have been subjected to these stereotypical statements, often masquerading as ‘jokes’, at some point in your life. And not to forget the frequent stares and the occasional honking if you slow down your vehicle.
When considering the strategies for India’s economic rebound, it is imprudent to overlook the potential of the wider digital economy, as this all-pervasive technology has altered urban landscapes and living in the last decade in the country. An explosive combination of cheap handsets, lowest data costs in the world and rapid advances in vernacular language processing, has led us to this moment. Therefore, a platform economy of service providers and users can prove to be a robust vehicle for post-pandemic growth. Platform sectors span mobility, logistics, home improvement, beauty & wellness and many others, and the workers deriving their livelihoods from these jobs stand to gain from the safety and hygiene measures put in place to transition to an economy opening up.
Mahalakshmi is a Bangalore citizen in her mid-thirties. Her greatest joys are her ability to support herself in life and driving. She is a partner with a ride-hailing aggregator service in India, and regularly takes up trips in her self-owned sedan during the night – at least, till the pandemic hit and lockdowns and other restrictions were put in place. Through her children, whom she has enrolled in ICSE schools (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education; a school syllabus regarded as more competitive, elite and expensive by India’s mean income standards) to attain world-class education, she vicariously lives her unfulfilled academic dreams that ended in high school. Mahalakshmi represents many platform-entrepreneurs, especially women workers, whose lives have been transformed by the digital revolution and advent of the platform economy in India.
Women like Mahalakshmi still are a rarity in the mobility platform economy of India, despite best efforts directed at increasing representation of women in unconventional jobs like driving or delivery work. In the Indian society, conservative dictums situate women’s “proper” place in the domestic sphere, let alone in service jobs like driving which have traditionally been men’s forte. But it is important for women to be ridesharing service providers, from not just the perspective of their economic mobility; it also makes streets safer, mobility more accessible to women, and brings gender parity to public spaces that are otherwise dominated by men.
Mahalakshmi, who especially enjoys the longer trips outside her regular city beat, is one of an even rarer group, but signals a shift of gears. There is an active effort by digital mobility platforms tailored towards skilling women in such jobs, mediating their financial access to improve their chances at micro-entrepreneurship through the platform economy, and in acknowledging that structural changes – such as hygienic public restrooms and gender-sensitised traffic police, toll booth operators, male drivers, etc. – are needed. By increasing women’s public participation in this sector, social change is expected to follow.
Apart from the mobility economy, women platform entrepreneurs are found in the services of home-based spa and salon service providers. Women in India are regarded as primary caregivers of their families, and the conventional job market also prioritises women providers for services such as healthcare, primary education, childcare, geriatric care, or beauty work. Replicating such historic trends in care work, but with greater pay, perks and flexibility than available in any other type of jobs, women have found lucrative opportunities in the at-home services platform, and stand to gain the most when the economy reopens post-COVID: Platforms are prioritising partner vaccinations, compliance with COVID-Appropriate Behaviour (CAB) and ensuring safety and hygiene for all actors.
The Ola Mobility Institute (OMI) has undertaken extensive research on the Indian digital platform economy and documented trends across urban services sectors that are now online; primarily, the digital economy of services is found in mobility, e-commerce & logistics, on-demand food delivery and at-home services, including home maintenance and salon services. Platform companies focus on matching skilled professionals with urban consumers in need of their services, and essentially act as digital intermediaries or online marketplaces. OMI studies the Future of Work from the prism of platform partners as micro-entrepreneurs, while fully accounting for nuances in a market like India where the conventional economy has a high number of self-employed workers and an even higher proportion of wage workers. These trends are replicated within platform relationships, and makes for a comparative study between work in and outside of the platform economy.
In the report, “Unlocking Jobs in the Platform Economy: Propelling India’s post-Covid Recovery”, OMI has collected primary data and presents the trends in the mobility platform economy in mid-2019; it shows how pre-pandemic, workers associated with platforms consistently supported more dependents than those outside of it, earned a higher income based on hours inputted, accessed finance and bought assets for the sharing economy, all different from the trends spotted in the traditional economy. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the resultant economic shutdown, platform workers have accessed more immediate relief, welfare nets and found work in emergency response operations coordinated by platform companies, thus securing incomes in albeit small ways.
A platform-led recovery from the economic effects of COVID-19 cases surging in 2021 can be realised: combined with meaningful reform, platform work can be made more secure, remunerative and an effective form of micro-entrepreneurship. Self-employment has long been the mainstay of the Indian labour market: the challenge is to prevent it turning exploitative. The study from OMI reveals that self-employment and asset ownership have important roles to play in buoying incomes in and outside the platform economy, and this can be achieved through reforms in the financial sector and lending practices. Driver-partners such as Mahalakshmi also benefit from being asset owners, i.e., owners of the means of their work, such as a vehicle, in the case of the mobility economy, and therefore are able to attain socio-economic mobility rapidly, through the platform economy.
Much of the debate around regulating work hinges on ‘on-the-job-benefits’. Therefore, to achieve universalised social security, well-funded state-led social safety schemes such as family healthcare and small savings for dignified retirement, and beneficiary qualification independent of worker status has to be normalised. This would require the recognition that equitable schemes can be designed only based on:
recognising the variety of platform work
augmenting social security financing through innovative means (like multi-source funding including civil society contributions)
institutionalising scientific methods to design these schemes
supporting workers and ensuring benefits reach them,
and welfare-state governments like India can lead the charge in effective labour reform.
This is the spirit of the recommendations in the “RAISE framework” captured in OMI’s report on ways to achieve lucrative and secure platform jobs, without burdening the job creator alone.
Women like Mahalakshmi deserve the chance to explore productive micro entrepreneurship. Future of Work is about equitable access and remunerative jobs which accommodate flexible needs without penalising workers with respect to their social security. The digital economy is the perfect testing grounds for such a solution, to benefit skilled workers across the spectrum, and it is time to acknowledge that truly socialised security is the only way to equalise our job market.
Sreelakshmi Ramachandran leads the Future of Work track at the Ola Mobility Institute, where she works on the experience of mobility workers in and outside the platform economy, social security systems and opportunities for mobile-based skilling. She also examines job creation in the light of the sustainability push, as well as financing public infrastructures and asset creation. She holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from IIT-Madras and is interested in all things urban.
Ting! A beauty worker checks her mobile. A ‘lead’ appears on her mobile screen from the platform service aggregator she has registered with. She accepts it, calls the customer through the platform that has helped her become a microentrepreneur, confirms the request and location of the customer and rides off to the location. She rings the bell. Once the customer greets her, the worker does what has become a routine since the onset of COVID-19: She sanitises her hands, dons a fresh pair of gloves, face mask, and face shield before entering the house. She sets her products neatly and gets to work. Once finished, she sprays everything she has touched with sanitiser, from the doorbell she rang to the tap she used in the customer’s washroom to fill water for a pedicure session. She packs all her belongings and collects soiled products (used waxed strips and such) to dispose of them on her way to another gig.
Meanwhile, the now relaxed customer is asked by the app to rank the beauty worker on her hygiene: Did she wear a mask? What about gloves? Did she leave any used products behind? In short, how successful was the worker in her attempts to disappear without leaving any proof of her physical presence?
Behind all this is a Standard Operating Procedure that regulates the worker’s behaviour, which is then monitored by the app with the help of the data provided by the customer. Based on this feedback, the worker receives a hygiene rating. Moreover, Machine Learning (ML) is utilized to recognize if the worker was wearing masks and gloves through pictures that the worker has to provide before the gig.
The above describes a day in the life of service partners (who provide services and are variously refereed to as service partners, providers or professionals) and customers (who avail services through the platform) associated with the app-based, on-demand platform aggregators. On-demand platforms (like Urban Company and Housejoy) match service partners or ‘pros’ with customers in need of home-based services such as cleaning or salon treatments, through leads. To do this, they charge a commission. Any hitch or issue within the service partner app or the customer app leads to the breakdown of the entire ecosystem. This is where the Software Development Engineers step in. They ensure that the entire experience from booking a service to feedback remains seamless. These engineers must at all times remain alert to whatever complaints arise, either from service partners or customers, even while working to eliminate manual intervention in other aspects. I spoke with a couple of Software Development Engineers (on the condition of anonymity) working for Urban Company to gather insights about their role within the organization, the importance of service partners and customers in process of designing technologies.
Role of Software Development Engineers (SDEs)
On-demand platforms are veered towards maximising customers’ experience (which has long been established as a brand on its own). This is also reflected in the kind of words one uses in industrial design and innovation—such as experience economy or service economy. In order to keep up with such a fundamental organizational change, companies turn towards the concept of ‘service design’.
Speaking about what companies expect Software Development Engineers to do, SDE 2 explains:
“we translate all the business fundamentals, business logics into tech solutions. Essentially, automate the entire process. So, this is what the expectation is from you when you are working as a software developer.”
But this is not the only requirement. The idea, another SDE from Urban Company says, is to make sure that the service partners and customers (who book services on the app) are comfortable with the environment provided for them within their separate apps:
“[…] for instance, we need to create a solution to the problem of auto-suggestion of products. If a service partner working in the beauty segment is ordering products, we have to work with the team that predicts market trends and make sure that their suggestions appear at the top of the page. Then we must take into account if pros are comfortable with that placing. Should it appear right at the very top of the page, or when they go to the particular product’s page, is that where the prompt should go?” (SDE 3)
The SDEs I spoke with agree that creating smooth environments for service partners or pros is more complicated than the flows involved with customers. Therefore, more engineers work on the service partner app. SDE 4 notes that the design of the interface is such that one must take into account what the service partners are making of any new feature launched (whether in terms of understanding what it does or ease of use). SDEs must also co-ordinate with other teams that are most likely to be affected by changes they make. They must also adhere to the company’s business goals in order to create something that works, fixes, and reduces the burden of manual intervention. Although, the SDE says, “you cannot always predict how something might turn out to be, but that is what makes it exciting as well”. This mostly invisible work of making sure that features do all these things–enhance customer experience, reduce manual intervention, help service partners make decisions, but above all improve the business logic of profit-making for the company is done by the SDEs.
Asked if engineers undergo any training since they design technologies for those who are marginalized due to multiple factors (gender, class, type of work they are engaged in), I received no definite answer.
Service design: From productivization to servitization
The concept rather the philosophy of service design is broadly understood as the activity of planning and organizing the resources of a business, i.e., people (in the case of the platform ecosystem: service partners, employees, customers), props (AI and ML based algorithms), and various other processes (workflows, Standard Operating Procedures and other dimensions involved in order to ensure smooth services) to directly improve the employees’ experience (in this case it is would include both SDEs and service partners). This ensures thatevery component is laid out and thought through in detail to ensure a smooth ecosystem. Ecosystems are best understood as collaborative environments where various resources of the company work together to co-create values.
The philosophy of service design shines through in what my interviewees explain: UC assumes that SDEs take into account the views of service partners during all stages of development of a feature. SDE 1 and 2 report that UC focuses on a ‘win-for-all’ approach. In fact, a recent study by Fairwork India has found that UC tops the list of companies that provide “fairwork” based on 5 principles: 1) Fair pay 2) Fair conditions 3) Fair contracts 4) Fair management 5) Fair representation. Confirming this, SDE 3 states that engineers regularly call partners (personal information is encrypted and not shared with anyone) to check if a particular feature seems okay to them. “It is common sense, you know, I mean you are making something for someone, whom to call, if not the recipient?” SDE 2 says that it is easier to guess what a customer wants “because you are one yourself… we have all availed services… but understanding the POV of the pros is difficult… we all call and talk with pros as and when required”. In fact, SDE 2 also admits that when she joined the platform, she was uncomfortable with “round the clock tracking” of service partners. However, when the service providers themselves expressed that this was an acceptable trade-off, she made her peace with it.
“I think the idea is you want them [service partners] to succeed as well. They do really work hard. So, again, no one tells you to do it, but you think about it, how do we give them the best chance to succeed and then create a feature” says SDE 4. For instance, SDEs collaborated closely with the business team to anticipate “sprees” (such as the sudden demand for roll-on waxing), so that service partners could stock up on products needed for such services. However, this view must be balanced by the fact that the business logic of profit-making is supreme, in the face of which even long-term, scalable tech solutions must take a backseat accruing what SDE 2 refers to as a “tech debt”.
This logic inevitably organizes the relationships within the ecosystem in a hierarchical fashion. Customers and their experience and satisfaction are placed at the apex since they bring business, and software engineers enable “extra-legal” mechanisms (rating, tracking etc.) to monitor the service partners through the app in order to ensure quality of services. Even though service partners are considered as a crucial resource (SDE 3), the oversupply of workers compared to the demand, and control mechanisms in the form of rating and reviews serve to maintain power asymmetries between the platform, customer, and the service partner.
The inadequacy of service design
In some sense, when SDEs speak of developing Standard Operating Procedures in order to provide a holistic experience for the customer, they move beyond thinking about mere productivity of service partners. But this does not take away from the fact that workers are still expected to display skill and dexterity at work. They are expected to take a minimum number of leads (which can be read as productivity of a particular partner) and their ratings and continued association with the platform depends on customer satisfaction.
The aim of service design is to move beyond thinking in narrow terms of providing “goods” to the broader concept of offering services. In short, not productivization but servitiziation is the goal. However, this necessarily requires productizing the worker’s skills. We need to problematize this move from good-dominant to service-dominant logic. The burden of delivering the actual experience ultimately falls squarely on the shoulders of service partners. This is especially so in the case of home-based services such as beauty and wellness, where a worker’s physical labor involved in the performance of beauty-work contributes the most in creating a feeling of wellbeing for customers. This burden is reinforced by the fact that their work is constantly supervised by both the app and the customers. The multitude of problems and the high degree of precarity gig workers in the home-based sector face is well documented. Therefore, despite of the human-centric focus of service design, the burden of delivering customer satisfaction with the goal to generate profit is felt more keenly by the service partner first and foremost.
My interviews reveal that SDEs do think about the service partners and that there is a modicum of care they feel towards them. Still, there is much left to be desired in terms of ensuring that all resources are equally empowered within the ecosystem. For human-centric design to live up to its name, it is imperative that businesses adopt an ethics of care within design that could help balance logics of business, technology and the needs of workers.
In the fight for greater gender equality and inclusion, governments, NGOs and other stakeholders are increasingly recognising the power of nudges to change human behaviour. The results are promising.
Ever heard the question: “Would you like fries with your burger?” or “Do you want to supersize that drink?”
You’ve been nudged. When you are presented with the option of adding something to your order without necessarily having thought of it before, you’ve been presented with a new choice to consider. Do I want it or not?
Since 2008, behavioural nudges have gained traction globally. Governments, such as in the United Kingdom, have set up Nudge Units to influence policy decisions, drive environmental issues, maximise tax compliance and influence better health choices, to name a few.
In 2016, the UK Government sent customized letters to 800 doctors stating: “80 percent of practices in your local area prescribe fewer antibiotics per head than yours,” offering three alternatives to antibiotic prescriptions instead. This trial led to 73,406 fewer antibiotic prescriptions and aseries of experiments to improve the collection of tax arrears, using information on peer compliance on tax regimes to improve collections. It was so successful it was also replicated in Costa Rica and Poland.
Closer to home—Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya is Africa’s second largest informal settlement. Residents typically struggle with rampant lethal water borne diseases such as cholera. Despite interventions offering discount coupons for chlorine solutions (a relatively cheap and effective treatment), resident uptake was poor and disease persisted.
By applying nudge theory and by instead placing large containers with chlorine solutions near water sources, the programme made the path of least resistance more available. The result? The uptake of chlorine solutions increased from 10% to 60%.
“A nudge […] is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. […] The intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”
Transparency – the nudge does not hide options, rather it is obvious and clear;
Choice autonomy – a person is always empowered and enabled to make the final choice;
Clear benefits – the nudge has a clear upside for the person making the choice
Nudges have also received their fair share of criticism—with critics pointing out their coercive and infantilizing approach towards people’s behaviour. Others suggest that nudges are too short term, and that they are not powerful enough to shift systems and structural issues that led to challenges in the first place. However, we posit that nudges are not meant to act in isolation and are but one tool in a suite of interventions to target a range of issues.
Thoughtfully designed nudges can indeed act as a force for good, as exemplified below. But can nudges only work to shape consumer preferences or improve tax collection? We outline the case for including nudges in our arsenal of interventions to address the ever-greater need for gender inclusion, below.
The fight for gender equality just got worse
As Oxfam International puts it, COVID-19 is the “inequality virus,” rolling back decades of progress made on gender and racial inequality. The pandemic has also been dubbed as a she-cession, with the world’s nearly 750 million women working in the informal economy seeing a fall in incomes of almost 60%.
In South Africa alone, two-thirds of the three million jobs lost during the hardest phase of the lockdown were experienced by women. They were impacted by both school closures and additional child care obligations, and are losing their livelihoods faster because they are more exposed to economic sectors that were hardest hit—like tourism and retail. Lockdowns throughout the world have triggered a significant increase in gender-based violence—the “shadow pandemic” that has trailed the virus as second-wave cases surge and lockdowns return. In the UK, over just one weekend in March, calls to domestic violence helplines rose by 65%.
Now, more than ever we need practical and pragmatic solutions to help women across the globe deal with the gender inequities now exacerbated by the pandemic.
So, what could nudges offer in the way of addressing these challenges?
Lisa Kepniski and Tinna Nielsen’s Inclusion Nudges approach uses nudge principles to design more inclusive communities and organisations—helping reduce bias, enhance inclusive collaboration, and reduce discrimination. As they suggest: “knowing is not enough—designing for inclusion is a must.”
Harvard Kennedy School Professor Iris Bohnet’s book, “What works: Gender Equality by Design” offers yet another example of behaviour-based solutions. Bohnet provides insight into research-based tools that focus on debiasing organisationsnot individuals. Using an understanding of and experimenting with human behaviour, Bohnet proffers solutions that tilt hiring and promotions in favour of a more gender equitable approach in both boardrooms and classrooms.
COVID-19 has exposed the volatility of women’s precarious incomes, witnessed a rise in gender-based violence, and seen the return of gender norms and stereotypes that further lock women out of the labour market We discuss three examples of where nudges can be used to promote gender inclusivity—to reduce violence, increase job applications, and promote financial inclusion.
Nudges can shift sexist attitudes towards women
Nudge theory and its application has become a new approach to tackling gender based violence (GBV), which at least one in every three women experience during their lifetime (World Health Organisation). Moreover most violence experienced by women is at the hands of an intimate partner. In fact, 38% of all women murdered globally is as a consequence of a relationship with their male intimate partner.
Ideas 42 is a not for profit organisation applying behavioural science to drive social change. To tackle the issue of Intimate partner Violence (IPV) in Chennai, India, the Ideas 42 team partnered with local organisations by targeting alcohol consumption through the Beautiful Home Project. Using the behavioural nudge of reciprocity (getting something in return for what I do), rickshaw drivers were offered the option of money remitted into a savings account to remain sober during their workday. This nudge in the form of a financial incentive reduced daytime drinking, and IPV dropped by 30%.
More encouragingly, when financial incentives were coupled with short couples therapy interventions, IPV reduced by 50% in the treatment group.
With the doubling and tripling of GBV over the course of the pandemic, this remains a pressing issue for society to address. Governments all over the world are providing toll-free hotlines as well as options for discreet/ no-dial phone options for those unable to call using regular phones. These initiatives can be amplified and further strengthened with nudge theory, and provide a valuable addition to the expansion of social and psychological support services.
Nudges can encourage more women to apply for work
Women in In the United Kingdom are much more likely than men to make the transition to part-time work after the birth of their first child (Behavioural Insights Team). But the move to a part-time role can be detrimental to their career prospects with many women working part-time failing to acquire promotions within the workplace. COVID-19’s lockdowns and ensuing school closures has meant that the burden of care has fallen disproportionately to women, with many women opting out of the workplace entirely.
Even before COVID-19, Zurich Insurance in the United Kingdom sought to understand and address the causes of their gender pay gap and to seek remedies. Baseline studies showed that part-time staff were 35% less likely to apply for promotions. This was primarily driven by the assumption that progression was not possible without an equivalent increase in the number of hours worked.
Nudge theory suggests that as human beings we are likely to choose a course of action that is easy and friction-free. So, Zurich Insurance switched the “default” option for all new job vacancies to become open to part-time workers, job-share and or full-time employees. Hiring Managers were able to “opt-out” of including part time workers as eligible for the role they wished to advertise. However, this was only possible if they could provide a solid substantiation for doing so.
Three changes were then made to the hiring process:
The heading of the job advertisement referenced the part-time working options
Part-time working options were included at the beginning of the advert text
The advert included a reference sentence to part-time work inclusivity
The nudge experiment ran for 12 months. Results showed a significant increase, 16.4% in the proportion of female applicants to roles at Zurich Insurance. Moreover, at a senior level the increase was even greater at 19.3%.
These nudges can be adapted in a COVID-19 world to encourage more women to return to the workplace in the face of additional care responsibilities.
With innovative experiments that encourage more flexible work-choices for women from the outset (at the application stage rather than in-employment), we could bias our global work-from-home experiment to instead make progress on the (re-)inclusion of women into the workplace.
Nudges can increase women’s financial inclusion
Financial inclusion as a pathway out of poverty has also been at the centre of nudge design. Empowering women with financial autonomy can be achieved through better access to digital financial services, and in particular through platforms like mobile money. For female-headed households, mobile money has proved effective in encouraging the accumulation of savings and by facilitating the switch to a business occupation.
Data produced by Financial Inclusion Insights shows the significant gender disparity in Pakistan regarding financial inclusion. The data presented further serves to highlight the work to be done in the provision of products to address this imbalance. In 2017 only 14% of Pakistan’s population were financially included. And while 60% of the population had mobile phones, only 39% of the female population had mobile phones as compared to 80% of the male population.
Moreover, only 13% of Pakistan’s people were utilising mobile money products. And whilst 20% of the men had mobile money, a mere 5% of women had.
Ideas 42, partnering with Women’s World Banking and Mobile Money provider Jazz Cash, whose female customer base was only 10-15%, conducted a series of nudge experiments. Using social norms, reciprocity (in the form of financial incentives) and text messages that were tested for greater appeal to women, for example by emphasizing their roles and context and more frequently using words like “sister” and “mother.” This was sent through a referral network, they targeted improved female financial inclusion. With the implementation of these nudges, it was projected that new customers (via referrals) would increase by 31% and 10,000 of these would be women (full study here).
While nudges can be powerful and can shift one’s thinking, they need to be taken together with a suite of other programmes and interventions to affect deep and lasting change. When reducing barriers to women’s greater inclusion could be as simple as encouraging women to make referrals through text messages, making part time work a default option for hiring managers, or promoting reduced alcohol consumption and thus decreasing the risk of partner violence.
If we reimagine the world with women at the centre, perhaps we can tilt the world towards equality. Think about that the next time you hear “Do you want some fries with that?”
Helen Smith is a Solutions Design Lead at Harambee and brings over two decades of experience in the transformation of human capital in South Africa. One of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator’s founding employees, Helen has led the design and implementation of products and programmes to accelerate young people into work, partnering with some of South Africa’s biggest employers to prioritize inclusive hiring. As part of Harambee’s expansion into new markets, Helen was instrumental in developing contextualized products for youth employment in Rwanda. Prior to working in youth development Helen led large scale transformation programmes in the field of Human Resources and Change Management. Helen holds a Post Graduate Diploma from WITS Business School in Johannesburg and an honours degree in Social Anthropology, Gender Studies, from the University of South Africa.
Sharmi Surianarain serves as the Chief Impact Officer, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa. Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Sharmi is an activist for opportunity creation for young people, particularly women. She is an Aspen African Leadership Initiative Fellow, Class of 2020 and sits on the Boards of Emerging Public Leaders, Ongoza, Metis, Instill Education and is on the Advisory Council for the NextGen Ecosystem Builders Africa 2020. Sharmi holds a B.A. from Harvard University, a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Across the African continent, the concept of a “side hustle” is not new. Slow job growth, accompanied by a high number of labour market entrants, has meant that young people have for a long time been engaging in informal ‘side’ work to make ends meet. Young people in African countries experience unemployment rates double that of adults (UN, 2017). Around 63 % of the labour force in Africa is involved in some type of self-employment (McKinsey and Company, 2012), and even in South Africa, famous for its inexplicably small informal sector, 30 % of millennials have a side hustle (Geopoll, 2017).
However, the connotation has almost always been pejorative—even the terms used for this kind of work are belittling. Side hustle—something that you do on the side, with a hidden meaning that you aren’t serious. Informal. This is not formal enough, and formal is what is desirable. Young people and societies alike have relatively little respect for these ‘jobs’; informal or gig workers are under-valued and they remain perched on the margin of our imaginations and our institutions. Governments have long been focused on how to formalize informal business to increase the tax base, when in fact formalization is not always the right step (often because it doesn’t work), and social protection and support for such workers would be more valuable (Rogan & Skinner, 2019).
While there is no doubt that these jobs have been plagued by precariousness, the myth and promise of the ‘formal sector job’ must be challenged. Formal sector jobs have long been held in high prestige—built on the narrative that a college degree and a steady desk job signal success and prosperity. Side hustles are seen just as stepping stones to a more stable and prosperous future.
But, as country after country across Africa, and indeed the world, fail to deliver on this promise, the false narrative of an aspirational linear pathway—from school to college to work—has to be interrogated. Recent data from an intervention by Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa finds that young people are divided 50/50 between wanting a job and wanting to start a business. We need more realistic and viable pathways to both options.
Without romanticizing the precariousness of side hustles, we must accept that they are here to stay. Informal work and businesses have been around for a long time, especially in low-income countries, and the precarity of work is only increasing. African institutions—our schools, financial institutions and governments—have to reconfigure themselves to adapt to the world of the side hustles, making these opportunities work for young people, rather than ignoring them and hoping they go away or using regulation to fight against their existence.
Firstly, education and training institutions need to shift to keep up with young people’s lived reality. Young people who do not have a formal job are rarely idle,often keeping busy through volunteering, hustling, or doing piece work alongside many other responsibilities including secondary and higher education. But rarely does a side hustle transform into a more meaningful opportunity. Young people often rely on sheer luck to break out of the cycle of low-level equilibrium gigs.
Xoliswa “Lizzy” Skosana started We Like Cake while she was studying for her Master’s degree and also while concluding another business venture. Her passion for baking drew in her sister as well, who had completed matric (South Africa’s high school examination) and did not know where to go next. The pair started the business from their mother’s kitchen. Slowly, and with the help of the “university of YouTube”, they started growing and moved into a garage, kitted-out with professional equipment. The business grew alongside school and other work, but they continued to need significant support, and were lucky to receive this from family. From her mother’s kitchen to her garage, Lizzy now has a storefront in Booysens, in Johannesburg, and in the three years of running her business, only started as ‘full time’ this past year.
Our institutions—in this case schools and universities—need to accommodate Lizzy’s circumstances, potential, and ideas, instead of waiting for her to work around them to get to her next step, and figure it out. Schools and colleges need to not only offer training in entrepreneurship and importantly, financial literacy, but also actively encourage side hustles as part of their curriculum, providing flexibility for young people to start and continue such businesses. Schools and colleges could partner with an array of entrepreneur support organisations, financial institutions, and investors to actively encourage young people on their side hustles—instead of exclusively focusing on a linear path through to graduation and employment. Young people could be studying and earning cash from a side hustle and this should be encouraged and accommodated by schools and universities.
Secondly, financial services institutions should keep up with the times. There are many examples of young women and men who struggle to access financial services products that suit their circumstances—whether loans and startup capital, or products to improve their business productivity such as vending platforms and mobile banking. These products, importantly, need to be accompanied by the basic financial literacy training that is needed for young people to sustain and grow their gigs.
Take the case of Masingita Maluleke, a partner of Harambee from Soweto, Johannesburg. Armed with a bucket and soap, she started her side hustle while still in college, working to make ends meet. When Masingita’s high school teacher said to her “you won’t pass matric”, because she was unable to read and write on account of her dyslexia, she fell into a deep depression, even attempting suicide. She partnered up with a friend to start a cleaning and laundry business and slowly got it off the ground by using her networks at church and handing out flyers at the local mall. They started attracting more clients and when someone suggested they apply for a tender they had no idea what to do as they did not have a bank account, and they did not know how to register the business. Getting all the documents in order to register took a lot of time and money, as they had to pay someone to help them, even though the process should not cost anything. Managing the finances and administration became a huge burden and they were frustrated and ready to give up. The time lost on the administration meant lost business. Eventually, with some luck in meeting mentors and investors, the side hustle took off, and now Masingita has two licensed businesses under her belt and is also employing others. Had Masingita not found someone willing to support her to get her business investment-ready, she would have lost a lot more time. For many young people, such delays could push them irretrievably into poverty.
Innovations like A2Pay and Yoco in South Africa (fintech companies that provide simple digital technology to support emerging traders to drive growth, efficiency, financial oversight and more) fill a critical need in South Africa, where mobile banking is still in its infancy. By meeting informal and gig workers where they are instead of waiting for infrastructure to improve and coupling these innovations with community-based interventions that drive financial education, we can improve productivity. Community based organisations can also act as “ombudsmen” of these products—flagging malfeasance and exploitation and encouraging inclusion and fair practices.
Lastly, public institutions and labour market platforms need to reconfigure to this new normal. Everything about labour market institutions in Africa and much of the world is informed by labour norms of nearly a century ago—our laws, policies, regulations, and ideas around what constitutes ‘work.’
Even though gig work can be precarious, it offers young people the flexibility to engage in a portfolio career. A formal job may not be the best option for all, and in fact, informal work may even be preferred. Blattman and Dercon’s study on textile workers in Ethiopia found that many of those who got a job—in a beverage bottler, garment factory, shoe factory and industrial greenhouse operations—soon changed their minds and quit those jobs, instead opting for gig jobs that their counterparts had—working on the family farm, construction, or even hawking. While these findings may be hardly generalizable, it is clear that our outdated notions of what constitutes an ideal job for young people may be failing both the market and young people themselves.
However, flexibility does not have to mean precariousness. Instead of presuming access to formal sector jobs, which get the bulk of protections in the form of unemployment insurance, governments should plan to design social protections around informal work as well as zig-zagging or unconventional pathways. These could range from conditional grants for young adults looking for work, to livelihood grants and business support to encourage young people to start their own work and side hustles. Such efforts could particularly shield informal and gig workers from crises like COVID-19.
Labour regulations need to be reformulated to suit this new reality, as Uber’s CEO outlines. We need to move away from the false binary of choosing between full time, formal, protected work, versus non-formal, unprotected and precarious work. Labour market platforms could build pooled benefits funds subsidized by the government and serving gig workers across multiple platforms. Gig work and linkages platforms should themselves be subject to ratings—to benefit from tax and other incentives.
The need to reimagine systems to support gig and informal work has never been more urgent. In South Africa alone, 3 million people have thus far lost jobs due to COVID-19, and of those, two-thirds are women (Spaull et. al., 2020). The informal sector has been particularly impacted— and again, women, particularly those in informal self-employment, recorded large cuts in working hours and earnings. While some jobs may be recovered as the government finally eases lockdown measures and the economy hobbles back open, many jobs may be permanently lost. There is no doubt that gig and informal work are on the rise for many youths without other options in the months and years to come.
We need to actively invest in developing scenarios for institutional support of informal work and side hustles. Our institutions must be fundamentally reimagined—education, finance, governments, and linkages platforms—to unlock the potential of these gigs and to allow young people to reach their fullest potential.
Side hustles, given their increasing presence in lives (and economies) across the world, can no longer be relegated to the margins of institutional and regulatory systems. Indeed, they will form the main narrative of the book on the future of work.
Julia Taylor is part of the Impact and Storytelling team at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa. Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Julia is committed to addressing inequality and creating a more just and sustainable world. Julia’s work at Harambee has involved implementing new opportunities for youth employment and ensuring impact and strategic alignment for new initiatives. She holds a B.Com from the University of Cape Town, a PGD in Sustainable Development from Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute, and a Masters in Environment and Development from Edinburgh University.
Sharmi Surianarain serves as the Chief Impact Officer, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa. Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Sharmi is an activist for opportunity creation for young people, particularly women. She is an Aspen African Leadership Initiative Fellow, Class of 2020 and sits on the Boards of Emerging Public Leaders, Ongoza, Metis, Instill Education and is on the Advisory Council for the NextGen Ecosystem Builders Africa 2020. Sharmi holds a B.A. from Harvard University, a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
I remember getting stranded in the middle of the road a few years ago when an Ola cab driver remarked that my trip had stopped abruptly and he could not take me to my destination. Frantic, I still requested him to drop me home, but he refused saying he cannot complete the ride since the app stopped working. On another unfortunate day, I was unable to find a cab back home as the drivers kept refusing to take up what they saw as a long ride. When I eventually found a cab, the driver continuously complained about how multiple short rides benefit him more. I tried to tip him after he finished the ride, but instead he requested me to book the same cab again, for a few kilometres, as that would reap more rewards. While I wanted to oblige, I couldn’t find the same driver, even though he had parked his car right outside my house. In yet another incident, I spent the entire night at the airport as I was terrified to book a cab at that late hour. I regretted not checking the flight timings before confirming the booking, having overlooked the fact that women need to be cautious about these things.
Although my first response was to blame the cab drivers for what I saw as an unprofessional attitude, it slowly dawned on me that they have their own constraints. In the first scenario, the app had actually stopped working, so he couldn’t complete the ride due to the fear of getting penalized, which also resulted in a bad rating by me. In the second situation, I wondered why the algorithms reward shorter rides rather than longer ones. Moreover, how do they assign drivers if proximity isn’t the only factor and why was my driver not aware of that? In the third instance, why couldn’t I be assigned a woman driver to make me feel safer when traveling late at night?
I spoke to a few senior managers and executives working at popular ride-sharing apps in India to find the answers.
A senior manager of a well-known ride-sharing platform explained their tracking practices on condition of anonymity:
“The location of driver-partners is tracked every two-three seconds and if they deviate from their assigned destination, our system detects it immediately. Besides ensuring safety, this is done so that the drivers do not spoof their locations. It has been noticed that some drivers use counterfeit location technology to give fake information about their location – they could be sitting at their homes and their location would be miles away. If the system identifies anomalies in their geo-ping, we block the payment of the drivers.”
Though the ‘frauds’ committed by the drivers are out in the public domain, it is seldom discussed how constant surveillance reduces productivity and amplifies frustration resulting in ‘clever ways’ to fight it. The drivers are continuously tracked by ride-sharing apps and if they fail to follow any of the instructions provided by these apps, they either get penalized or banned from the platform. This technology-mediated attention can intensify drivers’ negativity and can have adverse effects on their mental health and psychological well-being.
Algorithms control several aspects of the job for the drivers – from allocating rides to tracking workers’ behaviour and evaluating their performance. This lack of personal contact with the supervisors and other colleagues can be dehumanizing and disempowering and can result in the weakening of worker solidarities.
When asked if the algorithms can adjust the route for the drivers, especially for women, if they need to use the restroom, a platform executive said, “They always have the option not to accept the ride if there is a need to use the washroom. The customers cannot wait if the driver stops the car for restroom break and at the same time, who will pay for the waiting time?”
While this makes sense at first glance, in reality, algorithms of a few ride-sharing platforms like Lyft penalize drivers in such cases by lowering their assignment acceptance rate (number of ride requests accepted by the driver divided by the total number of requests received). Lee and team, HCI (Human Computer Interaction) scholars from Carnegie Mellon University explored the impact of algorithmic-management on human workers in context of ride-sharing platforms and found:
“The regulation of the acceptance rate threshold encouraged drivers to accept most requests, enabling more passengers to get rides. Keeping the assignment acceptance rate high was important, placing pressure on drivers. For example, P13 [one of the drivers] stated in response to why he accepted a particular request: ‘Because my acceptance rating has to be really high, and there’s lots of pressure to do that. […] I had no reason not to accept it, so […] I did. Because if, you know, you miss those pings, it kind of really affects that rating and Lyft doesn’t like that.’”
Uber no longer displays the assignment acceptance rate in the app and states that it does not have an impact on drivers’ promotions. Ola India’s terms and conditions state “the driver has sole and complete discretion to accept or reject each request for Service” without mentioning about the acceptance rate. However, Ola Australia indicate the following on their website: “Build your acceptance rate quickly to get prioritised for booking! The sooner and more often you accept rides (as soon as you are on-boarded), the greater the priority and access to MORE ride bookings!”
The lack of information coupled with ambiguity complicates the situation for drivers, who would try not to reject the rides under any circumstances. Moreover, the algorithms are designed to create persistent pressure on the drivers by using psychological tricks as pointed out by Noam Scheiber in an article for The New York Times:
“To keep drivers on the road, the company has exploited some people’s tendency to set earnings goals — alerting them that they are ever so close to hitting a precious target when they try to log off. It has even concocted an algorithm similar to a Netflix feature that automatically loads the next program, which many experts believe encourages binge-watching. In Uber’s case, this means sending drivers their next fare opportunity before their current ride is even over.”
The algorithmic decision-making also directs our attention to how the rides are allocated. The product manager of a popular ride-sharing app said:
“Apart from proximity, the algorithms keep in mind various parameters for assigning rides, such as past performance of the drivers, their loyalty towards the platform, feedback from the customers, if the drivers made enough money during the day etc. The weightage of these parameters keep changing and hence cannot be revealed.”
All the four people interviewed said that number of women driving professionally is considerably low. This makes it difficult for the algorithms to match women passengers with women drivers. Secondly, this may delay ride allocation for women passengers as the algorithms will first try to locate women drivers.
A lack of understanding of how algorithms assign tasks makes it difficult to hold these systems accountable. Consequently, a group of UK Uber drivers have decided to launch a legal bid to uncover how the app’s algorithms work – how the rides are allocated, who gets the short rides or who gets the nice rides. In a piece in The Guardian, the drivers’ claim says:
“Uber uses tags on drivers’ profiles, for example ‘inappropriate behaviour’ or simply ‘police tag’. Reports relate to ‘navigation – late arrival / missed ETA’ and ‘professionalism – cancelled on rider, inappropriate behaviour, attitude’. The drivers complain they were not being provided with this data or information on the underlying logic of how it was used. They want to [know] how that processing affects them, including on their driver score.”
The fact is that multiple, conflicting algorithms impact the driver’s trust in algorithms as elaborated in an ongoing study of ‘human-algorithm’ relationships. The research scholars discovered that Uber’s algorithms often conflict with each other while assigning tasks, such as, drivers were expected to cover the airport area but at the same time, they received requests from a 20-mile radius. “The algorithm that emphasizes the driver’s role to cover the airport was at odds with the algorithm that emphasizes the driver’s duty to help all customers, resulting in a tug o’ war shuffling drivers back and forth.” Similarly, conflict is often created when drivers are in the surge area and they get pings to serve customers somewhere out of the way.
Ultimately, we need to shift from self-optimization as the end goal for workers to that of humane algorithms – that which centres workers’ pressures, stress, and concerns in this gig economy. This would also change the attitudes of the passengers, who need to see platform drivers as human drivers, facing challenges at work, like the rest of us.
A few years ago, when I was in Cape Town, South Africa, I quickly learned that Uber rides were the best way to navigate the city. They seemed relatively affordable, quick, comfortable, reliable, and safe. But I was a little conflicted about my choice, being well-aware of the long list of scandals surrounding the company and I was reluctant to endorse it in any way. Bearing this in mind, I asked the Uber drivers about their experience working for the company, fully prepared to hear accounts of injustice and exploitation.
To my surprise, the stories the drivers told defied my expectations. Most of them came from Zimbabwe, a much poorer neighbouring country. In 2018, the year of my visit, Zimbabwe’s GDP per capita was 1306 USD while South Africa’s was 7434 USD. Zimbabwe had endured a series of severe droughts as well as floods; it had also suffered considerably under Robert Mugabe. Once praised for liberating the country from colonialism, the leader was later blamed for driving Zimbabwe into “hyperinflation, isolation, and political chaos.”
Learning where these Uber drivers came from made me realize how privileged I was for being able to travel to the other side of the world to take a comfortable ride with them. I also began to understand that the perspective of the distanced critic (taken from the countless articles and reports criticizing Uber) does not fully represent how their drivers feel. As Payal Arora has pointed out, such critical takes “do not account for the tremendous optimism expressed by the vast millions of people coming online for the first time in the Global South.” Arguably, the average Uber driver is more concerned with making a living, and less about the politics surrounding this company. For them, Uber is the best choice from a short list of available options. Yet, the discrepancy between the stories I read and those the Cape Town Uber drivers told me, made me wonder: Why was I so overprepared to confront Uber’s exploitative practices and so underprepared for these drivers’ optimism?
From techno-optimism to techno-pessimism
During the nascent years of the internet, many scholars and other observers painted a fairly bright picture of our future. There was a widespread expectation that the internet will have inclusive and democratizing effects on society, a hope for a newfound independence from the gatekeepers who controlled information flows. While this sentiment still circulates among a few techno-enthusiasts, the predominant narrative has completely flipped. Just take a glimpse at these popular recent book titles:
The list goes on. Readers with an appetite for doomsday literature have a lot to chew on. It seems like the internet is no longer a driver for progress but for oppression and inequality. Even some key figures who helped building the big platforms have joined the critique. A recent example is the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”, which is full of accounts from regretful developers.
Trapped in the negativity loop
It is hard to argue with these critical perspectives. Such books and films are full of examples and quite well-researched. However, there is another side to the story that doesn’t get heard as much – the optimism emerging from the vast underprivileged populations due to these digital alternatives. More importantly, I am concerned that the sheer dominance of dystopian narratives may actually negate what actually works for these people, throwing the baby with the bathwater.
It is not easy to introduce examples of hope that go against the current mainstream barrage of negativity. Anyone who attempts this, becomes a suspect of whitewashing the addressed problems. Not without grounds. Silicon Valley spends hundreds of millions on lobbying to brighten its image. Moreover, the most powerful and privileged benefit from the existing inequalities and have little desire to change them.
Nevertheless, key stakeholders who shape the debates – journalists, activists, academics – have few incentives for taking positive perspectives, while there is significant peer pressure to join the paradigm of pessimism. These groups are critical by default. From their perspective, it is much easier to add to the overwhelmingly negative narrative, while any optimism makes them suspicious of being naïve at best and complicit at worst.
This incentive structure results in a negativity loop: Negative stories produce negative stories. While I am deeply sympathetic about the contemporary critical takes on issues like tech monopolization, digital surveillance and algorithmic black-boxing, it is essential to balance this against the user perspective, especially those who have few choices to begin with. In their worlds, with limited options, digital platforms can be genuinely liberating in spite of their oppressive tactics. My concern is that the negativity loop may blind us from even seeing any hope, the essential raw material for progress.
Uber’s gender gap – to bridge or not to bridge
To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a close look at my initial example of Uber in South Africa. There are many aspects one could criticize about the company’s engagement there. An obvious one is the shocking gender gap: In 2017, only 3.8 % of the Uber drivers were female (IFC 2018, p. 24). There are many reasons for this discrepancy – from cultural stereotypes that render women unfit for driving to real safety concerns. Not only are Uber drivers in South Africa exposed to the country’s notoriously high rate of violent crime, they were also subject to brutal attacks from meter taxi drivers who felt that they created unfair competition.
In 2015, aware of the striking gender gap between professional drivers (not only in South Africa), UN Women and Uber planned to launch a campaign with the ambitious goal to create one million jobs for female drivers within five years. The cooperation did not last long. The International Transport Federation published an open letter arguing “[w]omen already make up a high percentage of the precarious workforce, and increasing informal, piecemeal work contributes significantly to women’s economic dis-empowerment and marginalization across the globe”. Shortly after, UN Women cancelled the partnership.
Certainly, a cooperation with such a controversial partner leaves an organization like UN Women vulnerable to criticism. However, the swift cancelation strikes me as somewhat defeatist. Whatever problems there were, shouldn´t the aim be to solve them together especially given that companies like Uber provide employment to many in these contexts, due to their low barrier of entry?
One of the few voices who dared to argue in this direction was Charles Kenny. In an article for the Center for Global Development he argued:
“Doubtless the positions would appeal to few women who were already in full-time stable jobs with heath care, guaranteed pay and other benefits. But, of course, the vast majority of women working in the developing world aren’t in such jobs. Many are engaged in far less lucrative and less safe activities than driving a cab. So perhaps some of them would feel economically empowered by the new jobs on offer. At the very least it might be worth finding out rather than assuming the opposite on their behalf.”
Five years later, Uber still holds its controversial status. What also continues is the tendency among some critics to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy and realities of empowerment Uber drivers may share. A case in point is the interpretation of interviews with numerous drivers in South Africa by Andrea Pollio, a geographer at the Future Urban Legacy Lab. Many of them were enthusiastic about their experience, similar to the ones I spoke to. For example, two of his interviewees stated this:
“the great thing is you don’t have specific working hours. You can work whenever you want, I can go offline if I’m busy. It’s a great business innovation, it allows me to work when I can. True, Uber tells you when there are more people on the streets and less cars, they recommend a timetable, but you are free to comply or not (…).”
“I think this is a much better life that I have. I just wait, and a client will eventually come. I don’t drive around, and that allows me not to waste fuel, and so I don’t need clients desperately because I’ve wasted fuel … I just wait, and that’s the best thing, the satellite will eventually send a client (…).”
Pollio explains that this “self-empowerment” through Uber is just a “tale” (Pollio 2019, p. 766) and implies that such statements are merely “echoing the language” of a promotional video the company had released. This ‘correction’ of the optimism emerging from the lived realities of these drivers speaks to a long standing development practice of making subjects fit the script.
As much as tech companies like Uber try to overemphasize their emancipatory power (which they clearly do), we see an equal and opposite force of critical observers downplaying the positive impacts these digital platforms may have at the ground level. One reason Pollio gives for his dismissal of the drivers’ optimism is that many of them were forced to rent cars, which leads him to conclude:
“Despite the empowerment rhetoric, or the fact that drivers described themselves as entrepreneurs, they did not own idle capital, but accessed ridesharing through a mediating technology of subordination.”
As precarious as such arrangements may be, they are not a contradiction to empowerment. Take the story of Tsungi Pamela Kujinga, a woman from Zimbabwe, desperate to make a living in Cape Town while providing for her two children. Since her car did not meet Uber’s minimum standards, she was forced to work for a commission under another driver. While this practice could be judged as exploitative, one needs to also acknowledge that it eventually helped her to buy her own car and create her own business.
She is not alone. 90 % of the few female Uber drivers in South Africa stated that “working with Uber allowed them to purchase products or services they hadn’t been able to afford before.” Moreover, these drivers noted that Uber’s GPS tracking makes them feel safer. Indeed, Charles Kenny pointed out the increased safety Uber drivers enjoy:
“Compared to a traditional taxi system where drivers pick up at random and passengers can pay in cash, Uber at least ensures that every driver (and the company) knows who is taking and paying for the trip – it is recorded as part of the transaction on the application.”
As obvious as this may seem, the now popular critical focus on “surveillance capitalism” will likely miss such promising opportunities of tracking technology.
Embracing experiences of empowerment
Let me be clear: I have no doubt that there is a lot wrong with Uber and other digital platforms as they build market concentration and dominance, and we should demand change in these arenas. It is equally obvious that nobody should be forced to work under precarious conditions. However, it is just as clear that for people like Ms. Kujinga, Uber provides an opportunity to improve their situation and gain independence. Beyond individual perspectives, the gig economy might also have side-effects that are particularly beneficial for the Global South, for instance, an increased formalization of its vast informal labour market.
We need to break out of the negativity loop. We should seek to shape our future technologies by taking into account the full spectrum of user experiences, especially in the all too often marginalized Global South. Let us not downplay or negate experiences of empowerment because it doesn’t fit the narrative of oppression. Rather, we should aim at discovering and strengthening the agency of the marginalized and attend just as much to what works and what to keep, while we continue to push for change. In Ms. Kujinga’s words:
“As women, let’s take the opportunities we have and make a better life for tomorrow’s female generation. Let’s pave the way!”