Platforms, Power, and Politics: Perspectives from Domestic and Care Work in India

domestic_care_and_platforms.jpg

Illustration of two women domestic workers standing up together, surrounded by work assets and digital devices. Original artwork by Shruti Lal for CIS India.

CIS has been undertaking a two-year project studying the entry of digital platforms in the domestic and care work in India, supported by the Association for Progressive Communications as part of the Feminist Internet Research Network. Implemented through 2019-21, the objective of the project is to use a feminist lens to critique platform modalities and orient platformisation dynamics in radically different, worker-first ways. Ambika Tandon and Aayush Rathi led the research team at CIS. The Domestic Workers’ Rights Union is a partner in the implementation of the project, as co-researchers. Geeta Menon, head of DWRU, was an advisor on the project, and the research team consisted of Parijatha G.P., Radha Keerthana, Zeenathunnisa, and Sumathi, who are office holders in the union and are responsible for organising workers and addressing their concerns.

The Executive Summary for the project report is below.

The full report, ‘Platforms, power, and politics: Perspectives from domestic and care work in India’, can be found here.

The press release can be found here.


Introduction

Paid domestic and care work is witnessing the entry of digital intermediaries over the past decade. More recently, there has been tremendous growth of digital platforms. This holds the potential to impact millions of workers in the sector, which is characterised by a long history of informality and exclusion from rights-according legal frameworks. Digital intermediation of domestic and care work has been a space of high-growth, but also high-attrition. In India, order books of digital platforms providing domestic and care work services were reported to have been growing by upto 60 percent month-on-month in 2016. This is expected to shift the organisation of workers and employment relations profoundly.

Broadly, the discourse on digital platforms providing home-based services can be summarised as follows: proponents argue that digitisation will act as a step towards bringing formalisation to the sector, while critics argue that platforms could replicate the exploitation of workers by further disguising the employer-employee relationship. Similar debates around lack of protections and precarity have also taken place in other occupations in gig work such as transportation and food delivery. In fact, the similarity in precarity and the informal nature of this relationship across gig work and domestic work has led to domestic workers being labelled the original gig workers. Domestic work is a particularly vulnerable and unprotected sector, which makes work in the sector qualitatively different from most other sectors in the gig or sharing economy.

Through a feminist approach to digital labour, our project aimed to examine the dynamics of platformisation in, and of domestic or reproductive care work. Our hypothesis was that platforms are reconfiguring labour conditions, which could empower and/or exploit workers in ways qualitatively different from non-standard work off the platform. In order to interrogate this further, we studied several aspects of the work relationship, including wages, conditions of work, social security, skill levels, and worker surveillance off platforms.

Methodology

We borrowed from ethnographic methods and feminist principles to co-design and implement the research tools with grassroots workers and organisers. Between June to November 2019, we conducted 65 in-depth semi-structured interviews primarily in New Delhi and Bengaluru. A majority of these were with domestic workers who were seeking or had found work through platforms. We also did interviews with workers who had found work through traditional placement agencies to compare our findings, and with representatives from platforms, government labour departments, and workers collectives. Of the workers we interviewed, a majority were women, but men were included as well. Interviews in New Delhi were undertaken by CIS, while interviews with workers in Bengaluru were undertaken by grassroots activists in Bengaluru, affiliated with the Domestic Workers Rights Union (DWRU).

In implementing the data collection approach, we employed feminist methodological principles of intersectionality, self-reflexivity, and participation. The methodology draws on standpoint theory, which encourages knowledge production that centres the lived experiences of marginalised groups. We were acutely aware of our own positionality as high income, Savarna researchers studying a sector dominated by Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women from low income groups. This power differential was softened partially by involving DWRU through the course of the project. Workers across both field sites were also interviewed in spaces familiar to them, most often their homes, in languages that they were comfortable with including Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil.

Feminist principles also instrumental during the data analysis, with focus on intersectionality and self-reflexivity. We highlighted the ways in which inequalities of gender, income, migration status, caste, and religion are replicated and amplified in the platform economy. In particular, we discussed the impact of the digital gender gap in access and skills on workers’ ability to find economic opportunities.

Findings

Our typology of platforms mediating domestic work finds three types of platforms – (i) marketplace, or platforms that list workers’ data on their profile, provide certain filters for automated selection of a pool of workers, and charge a fee from customers for access to workers’ contact details, (ii) digital placement agency, or platforms that provide an end-to-end placement service to customers, identify appropriate workers on the basis of selection criteria, and negotiate conditions of work on behalf of workers, and (iii) on-demand platforms, or companies that provide services or ‘gigs’ such as cleaning on an hourly basis, performed by a roster of workers who are characterised as ‘independent contractors’.

When it comes to the role played by platforms in determining employment relations, there is a wide variation within and across platform categories. There are both weak and strong models of intervention. On one end of the spectrum are marketplaces, with minimal intervention in the recruitment process, and on the other on-demand platforms, that exact control over each aspect of work. Digital platforms reconfigure the conception of intermediaries in the domestic work sector, functioning as next-generation placement agencies. All three platform types contain aspects that provide workers agency, as well as those that reinforce their positions of low-power. Platform design impacts the role platforms play in setting conditions of work, but does not determine it entirely.

(Re)shaping the terms of work

Across the three types of platforms, wages are slightly higher than or matching those of workers off platforms. Some marketplace platforms have incorporated features to nudge customers towards setting higher wages, such as enforcing minimum wage standards, or informing customers of expected wages in their locality. Conversely, on-demand platforms charge a high rate of commission from workers, despite refusing to recognise them as employees. This indicates that this is a misclassification of an employment relationship, given that workers are unable to set their own conditions or wages for work. Despite the high rates of commission and appropriation of labour by platforms, on-demand workers earn higher wages than workers on other platforms. The relatively high wage is a result of marketing on-demand cleaning as professionalised and more skilled than day-to-day cleaning. Tasks in the sector continue to be distributed along the lines of gender and caste, as has historically been the case. Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women are more likely to take up work such as cleaning and washing dishes, while men and women across castes are equally distributed in cooking work. Women dominate tasks such as elderly and childcare, as in the traditional economy. Workers in professionalised tasks such as deep cleaning that requires technical equipment and chemicals are almost entirely men.

Digital divides and workers’ agency

We find that workers are primarily onboarded onto platforms by learning about it from other workers, through onboarding camps held by platforms, or offline advertising by platforms. Such in-person onboarding techniques allows workers with no digital access or literacy to register themselves on marketplace platforms and digital placement agencies.

However, we find that low levels of education and digital literacy continue to impact platformed labour by creating a strong informational asymmetry between workers and platforms. For instance, we find that women workers from low income communities have very little information about how platforms work, causing deep distrust. Workers with digital devices and literacy (and therefore a relatively better understanding of the functionality of the platform), physical mobility and the resources to bear indirect costs that were outsourced to them were at a significant advantage in finding better-paying jobs. Workers who were seeking flexibility and were not necessarily dependent on the platform for their primary income were also better placed than those entirely dependent on platforms. Women workers tended to be disadvantaged on all these counts, limiting their agency and capacity to reap the benefits of the platform economy.

Across the three types of platforms, systems of placement and ratings add to the information asymmetry, as workers are not aware of the impact of ratings on their ability to find work or charge better wages. Ratings and filtering systems also hard-code the impact of workers’ social characteristics on their work. Workers are unable to exercise control over their data, further undermining their agency vis-a-vis platforms and employers. We identify a clear need for collective bargaining structures to protect workers’ rights, although platformed domestic workers remained distant from both domestic work unions and emergent unions of platform workers in other sectors.

Intersectionalities of formalisation

We find that inequalities of caste, class, and gender that have historically shaped the sector continue to be replicated or even amplified in the platform economy. What remains clear is that platforms in the domestic work sector adopt the logics of this sector, more than the converse. Platformisation is conflated with formalisation, and it is within this vector, from complete informality to piecemeal formalisation, that platforms operate. Labour benefits do not take the form of labour protections or welfare entitlements that are the central function of formalisation processes. Instead, the so-called benefits are intended to transform domestic workers to participate within the logics and vagaries of the market.

Policy Recommendations

Recognise and implement labour protections for domestic workers

Domestic workers have historically occupied the most vulnerable positions in the workforce, with limited legal protections. Exposed to the regulatory grey areas that platforms operate in, this doubly exposes domestic workers to precarious conditions of work. Despite an avowed move towards formalisation of domestic work, platform-mediated labour continues to retain characteristics of informal labour, even heightening some.

If pushed to do so, platform companies can be instrumental in resolving some of the implementation challenges that governments have faced in enforcing legislative protections sought to be made available to domestic workers. Platforms have databases of workers, which can be used to mandatorily register them for social security schemes offered by the government. This data can also be used for better policy making, in the absence of reliable statistics particularly on migrant workers in the informal economy.

Reduce the protective gap between employment and self-employment

The (mis)classification of “gig” work within labour law frameworks is still a matter that continues to be hotly debated within policy practitioners, legal scholarship, and civil society actors. Three positions, in particular, have been taken—treating gig workers as employees, independent contractors, or occupying a third intermediate category. More recently, there have been some legal victories guaranteeing employment protections and increasing platform companies’ accountability. However, these successes have been more visible in Global North jurisdictions.

Regardless of the resolution of these ongoing debates over employment status, labour frameworks should provide some universal protections to all categories of labour. Such protections must include universal coverage of social security, in addition to rights such as freedom of association, collective bargaining, equal remuneration and anti-discrimination. Policies geared towards achieving this objective would be significant in reducing the protective gaps between different categories of labour, and would particularly help historical and emerging occupational categories of workers such as “gig” workers and domestic workers.

Recognise the specific challenge(s) and potential of platformisation of domestic work

Platforms hold the potential of acting as effective facilitators in informal labour markets. Even when they do not replace existing recruitment pathways, they provide alternate ones. Workers were more likely to register on a platform if they were entering the domestic work labour market recently (often distress and migration driven), or had not enjoyed success with informal, word-of-mouth networks. However, platforms also heighten labour market insecurities, and create new ones. These potential risks need to be specifically recognised through appropriate frameworks, such as social security, discrimination law and data protection.

Tailor policy-making to platform models

We identify three types of platforms, each of which intervene to varying degrees in the work relationship. We recommend that digital placement agencies and marketplace platforms be registered with governments and enforce basic protections for workers such as provision of minimum wage, preventing abuse (including non-payment of wages) and trafficking. On-demand companies on the other hand, must be treated as employers, and workers be accorded employment protections including social security.

In addition to rights-based policy actions, legal-regulatory mechanisms geared towards mitigating the precariousness of platform-based work are required. This can take the shape of clarifying and expanding existing legal-regulatory formulations, or preparing new ones. Such policy making should factor in the power and information asymmetry between domestic workers (and gig workers, generally) and platforms.

Further, in the absence of health or retirement benefits, risks and indirect costs of operations are shifted from employers to workers. For instance, workers provide capital in the form of tools or equipment, support the fluctuation of business and income, and can be ‘deactivated’ from an application as a result of poor ratings or periods of inactivity. Any regulation aiming to extend employee status should mandate platforms to support such indirect costs.

1. Research notes with reflections from union members.
2. The event report from a stakeholder consultation with workers, unions, companies and government representatives.
3. A reflection note on the participatory approach taken by the project.
4. A paper with a comparative analysis of the policy landscape on domestic work in the platform economy.

Publication date: 
Friday, June 25, 2021
Year of publication: 
2021