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July 4, 2023 - Comments Off on For women in the gig economy: internet shutdowns spell enduring consequences

For women in the gig economy: internet shutdowns spell enduring consequences

Wasfiya Sheikh

37-year-old Karachi-based stay-at-home mom, Sara Shahzad, earns a living by delivering home-cooked meals via a popular food delivery app. Her income gives her a degree of financial independence – but when Pakistan plunged into a nationwide internet blackout last month, she was caught off guard. Unable to fulfil her orders for the day, Sara was left with no choice but to discard whatever she had prepared – food and ingredients amounting to 7000 rupees.

In early May, following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan experienced an unprecedented internet shutdown that lasted over three days affecting 125 million people. Even after services were restored, the lingering effects remained, with severely limited bandwidth hindering businesses across the country.

In the current age of rapid digitization, the internet has emerged as a powerful platform that facilitates networking and creates economic transformation. However, it can also be employed as a tool for censorship and control by both authoritarian and democratic governments. This is not a new strategy, as demonstrated by an example from 11 years ago when the anti-government protests in Cairo gained global attention and the Egyptian government deprived its people of internet connectivity.  Similarly, in Pakistan, the recent internet shutdowns and rock blockades were implemented as a means to deter protests and manage clashes between the people and the police in major cities. According to the Kill Switch database run by internet watchdog, Bytes for All, there were 24 reported internet shutdowns last year alone.

Last month’s internet shutdown had wide-ranging consequences for Pakistan’s economy, not just limited to gig workers. Tech driven logistics companies saw sales volumes drop drastically, down by at least 36 percent according to an Al Jazeera report. Telecom companies lost a total of at least $2.85 million, while the government lost at least $1 million in tax revenue. P@sha, an association representing Pakistan’s IT sector, said the sector lost at least $3 million per day throughout the internet shutdown.

While some of us missed out on accessing social media platforms for news, networking and streaming our favourite netflix shows, others, like Sara, suffered a significant financial setback. In that one week when the internet connectivity was disrupted, she managed to fulfil only five orders, a stark contrast to her usual average of 30 orders when the internet is fully functional. The limited orders she did receive during the shutdown originated from nearby locations that did not rely on internet connectivity for delivery.

Sara, who lives in an extended family system, was a talented amateur chef who ventured into the world of food delivery during the pandemic. The unexpected internet shutdown put her in an extremely disadvantageous position. In a patriarchal society where women often face limited mobility, space, and time, digitization has opened up opportunities for many women to secure employment and financial independence – but the sudden shutting down of the internet heightened Sara's vulnerability and precarity as a woman in the informal economy. Navigating household responsibility while running a business in an extended family system is already challenging for her – with the internet shutdown, she had to juggle ways to access her customers on top of her existing responsibilities.

Sara’s decision to enter the world of food delivery coincided with a time when conversations around the gig economy and perceptions of labour were changing drastically across the country. The pandemic saw an increase in reliance on the platform economy – specifically, gig workers engaging in transport (Uber and Careem), home delivery services (Bykea and Foodpanda), and domestic work (Mauqa Online and Ghar Par). During concurrent nationwide lockdowns, gig workers – often delivering groceries, home-cooked meals, and other household essentials – found themselves at the frontlines of the crisis, exposed to the disease with very little protection. As platforms washed their hands off gig workers – treating them as independent contractors rather than salaried employees – conversations around gig workers’ rights also became common parlance.

And as an “independent contractor” – a gig worker, in other words – associated with a popular (and notoriously cutthroat) food delivery platform, Sara was dedicated to her craft. This was not her first business venture – holding a marketing degree, she had previously attempted to set up a business exporting women’s clothes, but when the pandemic hit and freight rates became astronomical, she pivoted over to food delivery. From the beginning, Sara devoted herself to building a strong presence in the food delivery market and cultivating a network of loyal customers.

Sara relies heavily on online orders and has effectively utilised digital platforms to establish her business – and it has taken her two years to achieve a frequency of orders that gives a degree of financial independence. At the same time,  there are drawbacks associated with the gig economy, particularly for women, since people working from home are required to put in extra hours as the line between their working hours and personal time becomes blurred. Studies have reported high rates of attrition in the workforce among women because of the burden of simultaneously carrying out unpaid work at home and paid work in their professions. This burden becomes amplified for women who work for home-based gig platforms and have to grapple with the dual burden of domestic responsibilities and paid employment. Sara also mentioned that despite having fixed working hours, she often finds herself working outside of those designated hours. receiving calls and messages on her phone.

However, her reliance on online orders and building a customer base through digital platforms has given her “digital confidence.” This term refers to an enhanced level of comfort and proficiency in using digital tools to perform effectively and efficiently. For instance, she implemented strategic measures such as assigning a dedicated WhatsApp number for order management and delivery, as well as creating new accounts on popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to ensure a consistent and influential online presence.

Still, there are growing pains, and the learning curve has been steep – she finds herself stumbling from time to time. As I stepped into Sara’s home to talk about the impact of the internet shutdown on her business, with a hint of frustration in her voice, she shared that she had just received an online order for Chowmein, but had forgotten to update her availability status on the food delivery app. Concerned about disrupting her operations, I suggested that she prioritise her customer’s order. However, she assured me that her husband would step in and take care of it.

Mobile phone ownership in Pakistan is rooted in inequality. Only 50 percent of women own a mobile phone compared with 81 percent of men – this is equivalent to 22 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone. Women like Sara have access to agency that millions of women in the country don’t, and are subsequently able to reap the economic benefits that mobile phone ownership guarantees – but blackouts like the one we saw last month are detrimental to women’s digital inclusion and financial independence. More specifically: The consequences of the shutdown, for women like Sara, are wide-ranging. Her Home Chef rating on the food delivery app she uses has plummeted, and this has affected the frequency of orders she receives.

And although mobile internet use among women in Pakistan has doubled, a GSMA  study from 2021 indicates, from 10 percent to 19 percent, internet blackouts are detrimental to this growth – particularly for women like Sara, who have become increasingly reliant on digital connectivity for their livelihoods and to access essential services and information.

Learning how to leverage social media to market her business hasn’t been Sara’s only challenge. In a cutthroat market with rigid profitability rules imposed by food delivery services – such as a 33 percent cut from orders –  alongside existing rivalries among food business owners, and the presence of uninformed customers, it is already difficult for a woman to sustain herself. The unexpected internet shutdown only added to her preexisting struggles.

The first three days of the shutdown were wasted in frustration and anticipation. The lack of information regarding the duration of the internet outage only exacerbated her anxiety. The whole time she clung to the faint hope of receiving her daily orders – but signals were intermittent. “I found myself compulsively checking my devices, desperately hoping to witness a flicker of connectivity, but all I encountered was a deafening silence,” she told me, describing the extent of her helplessness.

Although the internet blackout was limited to mobile broadband, WiFi speeds had also been throttled. Apart from relying on food delivery apps to get her orders out, Sara also occasionally received orders from customers on Instagram and Facebook – but social media sites had also been banned. Furthermore, the inconsistent availability of internet signals left her in a state of uncertainty, unable to make adequate food preparations for the remaining day due to the intermittent signal reception. Disheartened by the food wastage encountered on the initial day, she did not make any pre-arrangements for the following days.

And on rare occasions, even when she was able to secure orders, it became a struggle for delivery services to reach the exact locations without the access to the internet and Google Maps. “It felt like we were trapped and facing challenges from all sides,” she told me.

One customer called Sara and started placing an order, but when she explained that the food was available but couldn’t be delivered due to the lack of internet and delivery options, the customer grew frustrated and ended the call. Such experiences can also affect the ratings of home chefs, which they have worked hard to maintain for months or even years. Recently, Sara observed an individual, whom she suspects could be a food competitor in her locality,  attempting to manipulate her ratings by placing orders and later bombarding her online business with highly negative reviews. This persistent harassment has caused her rating to drop by 0.3 points. “It is disheartening. I fail to comprehend why someone would stoop so low,” she told me, expressing her pain. Sara also mentioned an absence of solidarity within the industry, which may contribute to lack of support and negative competition. There are no unions for gig workers in Pakistan, even though at least 2 percent of the country’s labour force is engaged in platform work, according to the Oxford Internet Institute’s Fairwork Project.

Sara described the food business as tricky, where the quality of food is crucial – especially when it comes to meat. Planning is essential, and unexpected shutdowns like this are unfair to them. During the 9th and 10th of Muharram, when the internet is deliberately shut down for safety reasons, home chefs are accustomed to the situation and make necessary preparations. Similarly, during the monsoon seasons, when riders may not be available, it allows them to adjust to food preparations accordingly. However, it was different this time. The ban came out of nowhere, there was absolutely no coverage, and Sara was caught completely off guard.

However, immense help from her husband helps her navigate through her household responsibilities and keep her restaurant open till 4 am at night. For instance, while Sara cooks the food, her husband takes care of the groceries. If her sister-in-law needs to use the kitchen while Sara is cooking for her customers, she patiently waits for her to finish before accessing the shared space. Despite the support from her family, difficulties arise when it comes to pricing and profitability.  Food delivery services prioritise their own profitability, making it tough for Sara to maintain accessible prices for her customers while still making a profit.

Sara, along with many other women in the gig economy, defies numerous societal and patriarchal norms to sustain herself in a competitive market. From owning a cell phone to cultivating digital confidence, she exemplifies resilience and determination. However, it is crucial to foster inclusive environments for women who work from home that not only increase their representation but also bolster their confidence.

Such abrupt closures greatly demoralise women like Sara. While may not be a significant issue for some, for those who depend entirely on their food business for income, it represents a significant setback. Sara also experienced severe mental strain during the internet shutdown, causing her extreme anxiety. She sincerely hopes she doesn’t have to face such circumstances again, as they pose a significant risk to her business. Furthermore, this could potentially undermine the upward trend of women’s participation in the gig economy observed in recent years. Sara believes that large corporations may have the resources and strategies to handle unexpected internet shutdowns. However, for women like herself, such situations pose a significant financial setback that can take months to overcome.

The absence of women in the gig economy would not only hinder overall economic growth but, more importantly, erode trust in the systems, discouraging their participation. What we need are sustainable systems that go beyond mere accommodations, creating an atmosphere that actively encourages and supports their involvement.

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Digital 50.50, Feminist e-magazine

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