Study: ‘Uberisation’ of domestic work not necessarily empowering women

A woman hangs laundry in Vashisht, India. (lukexmartin/Flickr)

In developing countries, more women are using Uber-like apps to secure domestic work, but they are not necessarily benefiting from the new technology.

With 67 million domestic workers globally, the domestic work sector is enormous and relies heavily on women and migrants, according to a recent Overseas Development Institute (ODI) study. Many of these workers have little or no education and are at risk for further marginalization and mistreatment in a sector characterized by informality and insecurity.

The study assessed the benefits and risks for workers amid a dramatic rise in on-demand Uber-like mobile apps for domestic work in developing countries. Much like the ride-sharing app – but for home services like cleaning, cooking and child care – these platforms claim to offer quick, cheap services to consumers and flexible opportunities for workers.

The ODI report found that the companies more or less do what they promise, but the business model can and should be improved.

MyDidi in India, Domestly and SweepSouth in South Africa are just a few examples in the report. The apps are booming in India, the authors noted, and they are expanding up to 60 percent month over month.

The companies claim to offer numerous benefits to both domestic workers and consumers, such as “choice over working times, tracking of hours worked and wages earnt, and potentially better remuneration compared with other forms of domestic work.”

Many of these companies have also taken steps to overcome gendered digital and financial divides – providing bank accounts or embracing low-tech means – and investing in insurance to protect workers from injuries and damage to personal property at work.

One of the downsides to this approach is the erosion of the traditional employer-employee relationship, which could hurt workers’ incomes. An on-demand domestic worker identified in the report as ‘Busi’ explained that navigating unknown neighborhoods with no public transport, on foot, means that she sometimes arrives late to work only to find that the job has been canceled.

“This is really sad for me because I have a family to look after, I am a single parent,” said Busi, according to the report. “At the end of the week when I look at how much I have worked for, I ask myself why I am killing myself like this.”

Another problem with on-demand domestic work, the report warned, is that it is “not automatically empowering, and there is a great risk that marginalized groups will remain excluded.” Many mobile platforms allow users to select workers based on demographic characteristics, such as age or gender – and rate and review them – which could reinforce discriminatory practices that already characterize the traditional domestic work sector.

The authors of the report said that these drawbacks are especially problematic in a sector so heavily dominated by women. Gender equality advocates have long stressed the importance of alleviating women’s disproportionate unpaid domestic work burden and expanding women’s economic opportunities.

“Further concerted effort is required to ensure poor and marginalized groups are not left behind,” the authors write in the report. And as the rise in on-demand domestic work in developing countries is still in its infancy, it is not too late to “raise standards and ensure a fair deal for domestic workers.”

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About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau or email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.