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July 4, 2023 - Comments Off on Girl Boss? Think twice The Insidious Inner Workings of the Gig Economy and its Implications for women

Girl Boss? Think twice The Insidious Inner Workings of the Gig Economy and its Implications for women

Sania Saeed

“In capitalist society, spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labor-time. The bourgeoise cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of productions and with them the whole relations of society.’’ - Karl Marx,

I read Karl Marx’s words about 18th century Europe and cannot help but feel utter dismay for how much they ring true today. (1) The gig economy presents itself as a benevolent alternative to traditional labor systems, with employees deciding when and where to work. In reality, it is a profit maximizing system that allows for the exploitation of ‘workers’ whilst allowing a few venture capitalists in San Franciso to soak up profits by ‘using’ resources that they do not own. In this article I aim to uncover just some of the reasons why the gig economy mirrors classic patriarchal and capitalist ideals and therefore is as much of threat if not more, as traditional labor systems, to women.

An inside look into how platforms operate

Marx claimed that if all services in capitalist systems are sold at prices that reflect their actual value, that cannot leave capitalists with profits, unless they pay their workers less than the actual value of their labor.(2) Today the OECD asks a similar question: Why does Uber dictate what drivers can and cannot do and  what ‘wage’ they will be paid when they are not employees but ‘independent contractors’?(3)

Platforms ‘disintermediate’ traditional markets by removing the need for middlemen. (4). Uber for example, eliminates the need for taxi cab companies and gathers all ride takers and drivers using its app and thus reduces the frictions found in traditional markets that drivers and customers must face. Take for example, waiting by the roadside for a taxi that a customer cannot be sure will ever arrive.  Uber instead claims to facilitate interactions by becoming the sole intermediary. Waiting times for customers are reduced, information for drivers and ride takers is displayed on app, thereby reducing uncertainty for both parties. However, imagine a sole intermediary with a profit maximizing aim. It would be impossible to ask a self-governing, sole intermediary with a profit maximizing aim to not engage in opportunistic behavior. Free markets will always act in self-interest and this will always result in market failure. Uber therefore, mimics a monopoly engaged in many anti-trust activities including leaving taxi cab companies out of business and leaving riders with no choice but to work for Uber if they want to earn a living driving. (5)

There are several other reasons why platforms are potentially much more dangerous than traditional companies. Let’s take a traditional employee that must clock in at 9:00 am every day with a company card that checks what time they came in for work. Their job description maybe unclear and management may not provide them with the level of goal clarity required to be able to do their job with the high motivation because tasks are unclear and discretion is low. These are all legitimate problems in labor systems but the gig economy exacerbates them and allows for employee micromanagement traditional companies can only dream of. Companies like Uber can make links through drivers' behaviors online and their likely real-life reactions, thus being able to make very accurate predictions as to what actions will cause drivers to do what the company pleases. Algorithms help generate such social data but providing companies with a large sample size of user data which keeps updating and ‘learning’ how to more accurately capture and make sense of users' actions online (6), till optimum behavior is achieved. (7)

A New York times article (8) outlines just some of the psychoanalytical techniques Uber uses to alter and control employee behavior. It uses nudging behaviors such as showing drivers the next available ride as soon as they drop off a customer or telling them ‘’they are only 5 dollars away!’’ from reaching their monthly earning goals. These mimic sophisticated techniques used by casinos and health insurance companies. (9) Take for example, a technique backed by behavioral economists known as ‘loss aversion’ where people tend to weigh losses more than gains, so drivers are shown how many rides they have missed rather than the number of rides they have accepted. One particularly disturbing method is the deliberate ‘’gamification’’ of the platform by platform creators, (10) that makes taking endless rides ‘’addictive.’’ Drivers get badges for the amounts of rides they take and are nudged to be ‘’available all the time’’ by automatic queuing. This technique is similar to one deployed by Netflix which will line up shows that a customer is likely to watch after they finish watching one, thereby encouraging binge watching. (11)

The history of labor relations and the science behind Division of Labour

‘’In a society based upon the purchase and sale of Labor power, dividing the craft cheapens its individual parts, this means that the labor power capable of performing the process may be purchased more cheaply as dissociated elements than as a capacity integrated in a single worker.’’(Harry Braverman,Labour and Monopoly Capital, The Degradation of Work in the 20th Century,1974)

Consider the above words written by Harry Braverman, a prominent Marxist political eonomist.They can be explained using the following example. A traditional labor firm that decides to hire a content writer will first have to sign a legal document to retain an employee. This employee will require lunch breaks, paid leaves, training and opportunities for advancement otherwise the employer may risk the employee leaving to seek a better work opportunity. The employee may otherwise decide to stay and engage in extra-contractual discretion by say, deliberately ‘going slow’ or working less during workhours. These are the inevitable, potential costs of hiring labor and give labor the bargaining power that creates a balance of power between the employee and employer which does not exist in the gig economy. Work in traditional organizations thus revolves around an employer and employee not only aiming to fulfill the terms of a legal contract but also maintaining each other’s ‘psychological contract'; the unsaid rules of reciprocity that say ‘’you do this for me and I’ll do this for in the future.’’(12) It is in both parties interest that the contract remains intact.

Now consider an offshore firm that decides to hire a lot of content writers from Upwork. The work that must be performed in the company has been broken up into tasks where the ‘employees’ now receive nothing but a below minimum wage per task. There is no future job security and workers have been ‘deskilled’ so that they lose their bargaining power because they are easily replaceable. Employers have historically used the ‘division of labor’ to gain an upper hand over workers and this phenomenon becomes only the more nefarious in the gig economy as the supply of workers is no longer confined to geographical boundaries leaving employers with more power than ever before. (13)

As I scour the web looking for freelancers I can interview, I notice numerous groups on Facebook such as Upwork for Freelancers, where Upwork users from all around the world ask each other for advice on issues that Upwork Support has failed to help them with. Some ask for help in dealing with scammers or dealing with clients that find ways to get work done and then refuse to pay. Most users merely vent about clients they can do nothing about but merely hope to help other freelancers avoid them. Fozia Sherazi, one Upwork freelancer, tells me about one conniving client who paid her for a month to make himself appear credible and then refused to pay anymore despite a contract for months of work. I ask her what Upwork did to help her. ‘’In such cases, Upwork doesn’t do a thing, I wrote thirty articles for him and they are still up on his website.’’

Fozia tells me how Upwork is really her only option if she wants to be able to afford living in a major city. ‘’I was spending more than I was earning at my regular job before I decided to try freelancing.It wasn’t easy and it took me almost a month and a half to secure my first client on Upwork after trying other platforms.’’ When I ask her if working on Upwork is more or less stressful than a regular job, she replies: ‘’Well with Upwork there’s always the risk of every client being your last.''

One user poses a question in the group Upwork for Freelancers. ‘’Is it a good decision to leave your full-time job and focus on just freelancing?’’.Others share their thoughts: ‘’I could never, the income is sporadic and some months I can only rely on my fulltime job’’. ‘’As long as you wake up with the mindset of earning zero dollars...’’ chimes another. Some of the comments are truly concerning and shed light on the job insecurity that users face. ‘’Upwork deleted my top-rated account and I lost all my savings just because a client hired me with a stolen credit card, there was no way I could have known about his card being stolen.''

What the Gig economy Means for Women

The platform economy reinforces traditional stereotypes and attitudes that hinder women in traditional workplaces, with additional limitations that include not having access to a trade union membership or an H.R department that could resolve issues of discrimination. According to deficient labor laws ‘contractors’ do not even have the right to anti-discrimination protection because they are not technically ‘employees’. (14)

Attitudes around gender have a cascading effect on women's work lives.Class,gender and education differences intersect to strengthen the divide between men and women/gender non binary folk. As an example, women with secondary education are six times more likely to use the internet than women with a primary level education. (15)

Cultural beliefs and societal conditioning mean women are less likely to even have access to the internet or have the necessary skills to operate technological devices. (16). Pakistani women are 38 percent less likely to have a smartphone for example than Pakistani men while only 48 percent of women use mobile internet. (25)

Irum from Chistian Tehsil is 19, working in Lahore as a housekeeper to earn an income to help her parents. ’’Who doesn’t want a smartphone? She looks at me like I have asked her a very silly question. ‘’Everyone wants one, but my family is poor, and I could buy one but I want to save the money’’. She tells me however that her brothers all have smartphones (for recreational not business purposes) whereas she has a basic handset and only knows how to make calls and receive them. All the housekeepers I speak to express sentiments of technology being a ‘’buri cheez aurtoin kay liye’’.(‘’Unsuitable thing for women’’). These unsurprisingly, happen to be thoughts conveyed to them by the male members of their families.

Ruksana Aslam is a Careem driver with a two- time performance award from Careem. She has done countless interviews lauding her as a single mother who has taken up multiple jobs to support her family but none of the interviews really focus on how difficult the job can be or how drivers or ‘’captains’’ are left at the mercy of the company to treat them however it wishes.

Technological advancements do not operate in a vacuum and therefore cannot help women whilst surrounding culture, class and education differences hold them back. This is because even women who have access to the internet will find that the traditional conditions of the labor markets haunt them online as well. The platform economy is thus, not ‘gender agnostic’(17). Women delivery riders for example, must suffer from a gender pay gap by not being able to work at the most profitable times because these are usually weekends or nightshifts when they cannot risk their safety or must carry out duties at home as primary caretakers. (18)

Women must also bear the brunt of ‘’The Motherhood Penalty’’ in the gig economy. This can be illustrated by the fact that even with men working from home during the pandemic, the responsibility of care work fell disproportionately on women.(20).One gig worker in a Wired Article(21,) shares how she is met with apathy when clients accidently learn that she is a  mother, she is automatically assumed to be ‘’unprofessional’’ and is seen as a ‘’distracted’’ worker.

The gig economy leaves women to tackle with workplace harassment practically all by themselves. An article by Wired Magazine(21) shares the account of a female designer from New York who shares that a client asked her for an impromptu zoom meeting (‘’Just throw on a shirt and a smile’’) and upon reporting him there was no clear investigation and instead her complaint was outsourced to other Upwork users using a chatbot system.

Rukhsana tells me how harrowing the harassment she faces is. ‘’Customers will ask for ‘’personal pickups’’ or suggestively ask if I can pick them up at late hours where I then have to remind them that I do not offer any services other than driving. Even if I park my car somewhere men will come to me and leave their cards asking when I can meet up with them.’’

The gig economy further dehumanizes the workforce by destroying work life balance and calling it ‘hustle culture'. Workers work in a vacuum where there is little to no interaction with fellow employees and no sense of a divide between the working hours and the end of a work day. (23). This is particularly more dangerous for women as the lines between work and leisure blur completely. Ayesha* tells me about how clients on Upwork will expect availability at all times ‘’even if the working hours have been decided beforehand through a contract.’’

Consider the following sentiments presented by a group of members of British Women’s Liberation Workshop in 1970 and their eerie similarity to the sentiments many Pakistani women might admit to feeling today:

‘’Ironically, housework is often seen as being self-determined labor- ‘’your time is your own’’. In fact, in order to keep up, in order to be ‘’a good housewife’’, one has to work to a predetermined routine. The freedom of the housewife is in fact the denial of her right to do a job -even the division work/ place of work, leisure / home does not apply to the housewife: her place of work is also the place of leisure and further it is her work which provides the basis for other people’s leisure. Being literally house-bound, afraid of leaving the house and being seen is a typical woman’s syndrome. Developments and technology on their own cannot change women’s position in the home.’’ (The Body Politic, Women's Liberation in Britain 1969-1972)(24)

Women, especially those living in an increasingly regressive culture like Pakistan's, the ‘earn easily from home!’ promise just reinforces the patriarchal ideas of  ‘chadar and chaar diwari’(veil and four walls),where womens’ rightful place is the home and stepping outside is termed as ‘immoral’’.It destroys the line between the domestic labor carried out at home and encourages women to undertake even more ‘invisible’ work, one where they do not exist to their employer. Instead of women being allowed to work outside the home,they find now that the home, work and ‘third place’ dissipate into each other, under the guise of ‘’convenience’’.One Pakistani Facebook user on The Facebook group Upwork for Freelancers pleads with the admin (a Top earning freelancer on Upwork that manages the group) to help her get her account back.’’My family will not let me work outside the house, please help me get my account back, it's my only means of getting an income.”

Rukhsana tells me ‘’We operate in a heavily male dominated society where customers will feel entitled to ask me why I am ‘allowed’ to leave the house or don’t I have a husband who can earn for me? People also seem to have an ego problem with the way they treat us,they think if they have bought a ride,they have bought the driver as well.’’

I ask Rukhsana how Careem helps female drivers in dealing with issues like these. ‘’Careem has been a great support to us female drivers, we had a helpline exclusively for females and could call it for any issues we faced on the road. Once Uber acquired Careem (24) everything seemed to change. Careem slashed our female only packages and changed its policies so that now only women who have their own cars can drive, which means that many female drivers are now unemployed. The high prices of petrol and the new taxes mean that driving has now become impossible for many. Careem has taken away our privileges and now treats us like there are no differences between our circumstances and those of male drivers,it’s all over for us female drivers now.’’

The advertisements on my Facebook and Instagram pages keep reminding me that if I can just learn the skill of marketing myself in a highly saturated freelancing market, I too can earn easily from home whilst having a ‘laptop lifestyle’ and ‘’be my own boss’’.Such heady promises introduce a host of problems. They allow for potential fraudulent third parties to sell their training programs in a country with bare minimum legal protections. Most of all they make light of a crumbling economic system where local jobs shrink in number and the ever-growing young population finds itself facing a reality where the difference between skilled and unskilled labor shrinks with every passing day.

1:Marx and Engels,The Communist Manifesto,1848

2: (Capital ,Marx,1867)

3: (Monopsony and the Business Model of Gig Economy Platforms by Marshall Steinbaum, OECD)

4: (Platform Revolution,2016)

5: (Monopsony and the Business Model of Gig Economy Platforms by Marshall Steinbaum, OECD)

6:(Big Data Is Not a Monolith,2016)

7: (How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push It’s Drivers’ Buttons, Jon Huang, NYTimes).

8: (How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push It’s Drivers’ Buttons, Jon Huang, NYTimes).

9: (Kahneman and tversky,1979)

10: (Uber worked and Underpaid, How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy)

11: (How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push It’s Drivers’ Buttons, Jon Huang, NYTimes)

12: (Psychological and Implied Contracts in Organisations,Denise Rousseu,1984)

13: (Be Your Own Boss? Long Term Labor Trends and The Rise of Uber’’,Timothy Minchin,Australiasian Journal of American Studies)

14: (Be Your Own Boss? Long term Labour Trends and the Rise of Uber’’,Timothy Minchin,Austrailisan Journal of American Studies)

15: World Wide Web Foundation, Women’s Rights Online, Translating Access into Empowerment

16: (The digital divide: the special case of gender, J. Cooper,2006)

17: (Focus on Labour Exploitation,2021,The gig is up: Participatory research with couriers in the UK app-based delivery sector)

18: European Institute for Gender Equality, Gender inequalities in care and consequences for the labor market

19: (European Institute for Gender Equality, Gender inequalities in care and consequences for the labor market)

20: Global Gender Gap Report,2022, World Economic Forum

21: The Gig Economy is Much Worse For Women, Wired.

22: World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report,2022

23: Dehumanization Is a Feature of Gig Work, Not a Bug(by Eric Anicich,HBR

25: Women & Mobile: A Global Opportunity A study on the mobile phone gender gap in low and middle-income countries

P1: ‘’Shrew’’ Magazine Volume 3 No 2

P2: ‘’Socialist Woman:National Paper of the Socialist Woman Groups” Summer 1972 (

*Name has been changed on request.

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

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