Care in the Platform Economy: Interrogating the Digital Organisation of Domestic Work in India
Ambika Tandon and Aayush Rathi
Paid domestic work is witnessing the entry of digital intermediaries, affecting millions of workers in a sector that is informal and outside the domain of legal protections across the world. In India digital platforms providing domestic work services have grown at a rate of 60 percent month on month.1 We understand paid domestic work as including tasks performed inside the home—cooking, cleaning, washing, and child and elderly care—and typically by low-income women. This occupational or task-based segregation can also result from the sexual division of labour that relegates women to performing domestic tasks inside the household or the ‘private sphere’. With socio-economic norms around reproductive work treating it as economically unproductive and thus not work, the relegation to the private sphere contributes to the invisibility and lack of recognition of domestic work as paid labour.
In India, as in other parts of the global south, domestic labour has historically been invisibilised, undervalued, and feminised. Undervaluation stems partly from the type of workers engaged in domestic work—workers in this sector are predominantly Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi women, who have migrated from rural areas in search of work.2 In addition, much like other manual tasks in the informal sector, it has been delegated to ‘unskilled’ work in the hierarchy of labour in the neoliberal economy—which is critically contingent on the “head versus hand hierarchy . . . encoded in caste with mental labour assigned to dominant castes and physical labour to oppressed ones.”3
The similarity in precarity and the informal nature of this relationship across gig work and domestic work has led to the labelling of domestic workers as the “original gig workers”.4 A debate, however, has taken shape among those who see potential and those who see enduring exploitation in platformised domestic work. Proponents of the platformisation of domestic work in India argue that digitisation will act as a step towards bringing formalisation to the sector, while critics argue that platforms could leave workers open to exploitation in the absence of protections. Similar debates around lack of protections and precarity have also taken place in other occupational sectors of gig work such as transportation and food delivery.’
Very little literature assesses platforms’ impact on domestic workers, especially regarding their identities, labour conditions, employment relations, and potential to collectively organise. Assessing digital platforms as an alternative to placement agencies and word-of-mouth placement becomes important as the domestic work sector is set to grow further6 and provide a significant source of livelihood for women from low-income groups with low levels of education, in a context where they may be unable to find work in other sectors in the informal economy.7
There is a similar dearth of research on other labour placement agencies in India, and the lack of regulation or even registration implies that there is almost no data about the number of such agencies that operate nationally. N. Neetha’s work, which remains one of the most exhaustive sources on placement agencies in northern India, finds that they commonly charge exploitative commissions from workers, withhold wages, and are complicit in bonded labour and human trafficking.8 Gajjala describes these dynamics as creating a context in which workers’ exploitation escapes critique; “displaced bodies are absorbed into a consumer base and also made available for various deskilled (and underpaid) forms of labour, while their forced mobility is characterized as progress”.9
In this chapter we examine the shifts platformisation has brought to the employment relationship in domestic work. In doing so we seek to further an understanding of domestic work, specifically, and gig work, broadly, such that it may inform workers’ collective struggles. We explore domestic workers’ alternating identities between ‘self-employed’ and ‘employed’ that may frustrate and yet offer new opportunities for collective organising. We argue that design and operational logics of digital platforms play a key role in worker identity, as does workers’ imagination of digital platforms through their interaction with corporate digital and analogue infrastructures. We also argue that collectivisation will be contingent on the workers’ potential to overcome the isolation inherent to the platform economy and align with collective identities. As our interviews with workers suggest, workers are meaning-making subjects who view their employment relationship in contradictory ways that both impede and generate new possibilities for domestic worker organising. The sections of this chapter explore models of employment relationships in the platform economy, platforms as negotiators, and the logics of platforms, as these dynamics inform domestic platform workers’ contradictory identities. Before turning to this analysis, we discuss our methodology.
This chapter draws from a larger project that explores the contours of the platform domestic work economy, including models of employment relationships, the ways that platforms negotiate working conditions, and what we identify as the logics of platformisation. We supplement this structural analysis with an investigation of the perspectives of platform managers, state government officials, and workers on platforms, through 60 semi-structured in-depth interviews we completed between June and November 2019. In this chapter, we focus on how the platform economy and the perspectives of workers interact.
We selected New Delhi and Bengaluru as the field sites for the study because both cities have historically functioned as prominent destination nodes in the placement network of domestic workers in the country, and consequently, the largest concentration of digital platforms in this sector are operational in these cities. The interviews in Delhi were carried out by the authors, while interviews with workers in Bengaluru were undertaken by union members from the Domestic Workers Kights Union with no prior experience of research. Thus, we integrate feminist principles of participation in the research process by codesigning the research project with on-ground organisers and workers.
Structures of Domestic Work in the Platform Economy
Global literature on the gig economy in the domestic work sector points to two kinds of digital platforms—marketplace and on-demand.'0 Marketplace platforms are virtual job boards, where the function of the intermediary is limited to information exchange between the customer and worker. The intermediary controls the kind of information available about—and therefore visibility of—each entity in the transaction. It also matches workers and employers, which is most often an algorithmic decision, and could collect feedback about workers. We did not find any instances of marketplace platforms that collect feedback about employers from workers.
On-demand platforms provide short-term services, closest to the ‘Uber model’ of the gig economy. It is worth noting that of the tasks we consider as comprising paid domestic work, that is, cooking, cleaning, washing, and child and elderly care, on-demand platforms only hire workers for providing cleaning services. UrbanCompany, the only platform company that ventured into provision of other domestic work, such as cooking and care services on an on-demand model, spoke of the unprofitability of these services because of the lack of demand, since customers largely require full-time workers.
In the on-demand model, workers are algorithmically matched to customers, with the terms of service, including wages, set by the intermediary. Workers do not negotiate any part of their contract but are treated as independent contractors by most platforms. Apart from wages, companies determine the tasks to be performed, provide uniforms, collect extensive feedback, and surveil workers through various means while they perform their tasks.
The final category we identify, digital placement agencies, is not present in previous literature and is perhaps unique to the Indian context. They replicate the business models of traditional placement agencies. They create a database of workers, who are manually or algorithmically matched with employers based on their requirements. Unlike marketplace platforms which work on subscriptionbased models, digital placement agencies demand a high one-time fee for providing employers access to as many workers as is necessary until the employer is satisfied.
As the following sections describe, platforms’ structural choices are key determinants of the access to, performance of, and experience of digitally mediated work. We organise key findings of this project such that platforms’ roles in shaping gainful labour market outcomes for workers is highlighted. As such, we disaggregate these outcomes to understand how, and how much, each of three models of platforms similarly and distinctly impact the securing of the outcomes.
Platforms as Negotiators
Platform companies can negotiate conditions of work on behalf of workers, or can even set the terms and conditions of work for both workers and employers. There is wide variation within platforms’ roles as negotiators for domestic workers, with both weak and strong models of intervention in the employeremployee relationship. On one end of the spectrum are marketplace platforms, with minimal intervention in the recruitment process compared to on-demand platforms that exact control over each aspect of work on the other. Digital platforms have reconfigured the conception of intermediaries in the domestic work sector, functioning as next-generation placement agencies. As such, they may provide workers with agency or reinforce their powerlessness in setting the terms and conditions of their work.
Most marketplace platform companies prefer to act as distant intermediaries, positioning themselves as job boards or listing sites rather than demonstrating active interest in the nature of work that workers are being placed in. A smaller minority of marketplace platform companies negotiate conditions of work that are easier to regulate, such as enforcing minimum wage standards. These marketplace platforms are able to function as strong intermediaries that offer grievance redressal systems to workers—especially for cases of harassment and non-payment of wages—and negotiate wages, hours, and tasks on behalf of workers or offer tips on location-based expectations for wages.
We found that marketplace platforms are designed to match workers and employers ‘efficiently’. Further, we found that the agency to exercise choice through platforms was differentially distributed to workers based on three characteristics of workers: (i) digital access and literacy and therefore a relatively better understanding of the functionality of the platform, (ii) physical mobility and the resources to bear indirect costs that were outsourced to them, and (iii) preference for flexibility without being dependent on the platform for primary income. Women workers tend to be disadvantaged on all three counts, possibly limiting their agency and capacities to reap the benefits of the platform economy.
On-demand platform companies determine conditions of work, including wages and tasks to be performed with the goal of standardising the customer experience. They claim to offer flexibility by allowing workers to accept or decline tasks, which also allows the positioning of platform companies as intermediaries rather than employers. Rather than empowering workers to negotiate decent conditions of work, on-demand platform companies do not address workers’ concerns, including harassment, and extraction of additional unpaid labour.
Pavan (showing the mobile application): See for yourself, how much I have earned this week. It’s as good as nothing! I have been coming here (to the office), travelling for hours, for the last 3 days for mandatory training even though I have been doing this for 3 years now. They threatened that my account will be deactivated if I don’t come. They don’t even compensate us for our time, or even provide us food when we have to be here all day.
—Pavan, worker with an on-demand platform providing cleaning services, New Delhi
In addition, constant feedback collection and worker surveillance weakens negotiation power as workers are forced to please customers at any cost to retain their work with the platform company. The only instance we found of a platform company that also collects feedback on employers from workers is Quikr, which incorporates a call-in feedback mechanism that allows workers to raise their concerns with the same team that deals with customer complaints. However, this feature does not affect the ability of the customer to use the platform in the same way that workers’ publicly visible monthly ratings affect their ability to receive work—the consequences of negative feedback are much harsher for workers.
The design of the third type of platform—digital placement agencies—is such that it is well placed to form and enforce decent conditions of work in contracts for workers. Digital placement agencies negotiate workers’ contracts, which allows them to set conditions for exploitative or decent work. They do not regulate or surveil workers in their day-to-day tasks but offer a platform to address grievances if they arise. We find instances where platform companies are willing to negotiate better wages on behalf of workers, ensure timely payment of wages, and intervene in case unpaid labour is being extracted. Such willingness, however, does not imply that workers are able to access job security or basic benefits, thereby reinforcing precarious work conditions.
Across different platform models, we find that the existence of an approachable intermediary increases agency among workers, as they are able to negotiate with employers on issues such as non-payment of wages, extraction of unpaid labour, and harassment and violence with the recognition that there is an intermediary that can be approached if employers are exploitative. That being said, we recognise that agency does not operate in a binary of presence and absence and is not a marker of the absence of coercion. On the contrary, we find that aspects of platformisation that enhance agency and contribute to workers’ exploitation exist simultaneously. Accordingly, workers narrated experiences where certain aspects of platform design led to gainful work outcomes; at the same time, expansive surveillance and management practices led to disempowerment.
Logics of Platformisation
The construction of domestic work platforms as a technological artefact becomes severely limiting as it enables the imagination of‘solving’social problems. Indeed, most domestic work platforms posture as ‘social ventures’. The platform economy reconfigures and continues some historical forms of exploitation, while others are challenged. What remains clear is that platforms in the domestic work sector adopt the logics of this sector, more than the converse.
In making sense of platformisation, we reject its conceptualisation as a project with universally agreed upon objective goals. Understanding it begs the question: platformisation of what? What we are witnessing in the global south is the corporatised platformisation of informal economies—driving, logistics, or care work—in urban spaces.
Akash: They call us partners, but that is just a misnomer. Eventually, they do what they want to do and we have no option but to obey. Is that what a partner is?
—Akash, worker with an on-demand platform providing cleaning services, New Delhi
Platformisation is conflated with formalisation, and it is within this vector, that of shifting to formality from informality, that platforms operate. Within the logic of formalisation that platform companies promote, the paternalism of privileged class and caste is parsed technologically in the form of the platform. Formalisation is understood in a limited sense, where technological channels of hiring are created to enable an intensive commodification of domestic and care work. The benefits that are stated to accrue to job seekers are dependent on participation in this commodification process. These benefits do not take the form of protections that are supposed to be the central function of formalisation processes. Instead, the so-called benefits are intended to transform domestic workers to participate within the logics of the market without adequate protections. Workers participating in labour markets through platforms, for example, are often required to have bank accounts, the ownership of which appears as the enabling role that platforms play in formalisation. Such logic is wrongheaded, however, because this notion of financial inclusion stops at financialisation of vulnerable populations without calling for systemic changes that would enable the accruing of any gains to these vulnerable populations, such as access to credit.
At the same time, platformisation of informal economies is different from that of the formal sector. Van Doorn highlights several usefril questions to be used in the research of platformed labour.11 Some of the questions posed are: (a) What is the nature of work performed? (b) What is the social situation and legal status of the worker? (c) What is the worker’s relationship to/investment in the work? These questions become pertinent, as these are the axes on which the contours of the platformisation in occupations takes place. The platformisation of domestic and care work, then, takes a very different form than it has for, say, driving or delivery work. The scholarly analyses of platformed labour emerging from the ‘Uberisation’ framing is of limited use in understanding the platformisation of domestic and care work.
Moving away from the conception of gig work—of the male experience of driving and engaging with a socio-technical intermediary—is necessary. Platforms are deeply embedded in the history of sectors that they seek to ‘disrupt’. The multiplicity of models and the many failures of platforms to ‘crack’ the sector are possibly indicative of how the strategies of control and care by platforms are designed. This dynamic is best indicated by the typology' of domestic work platforms. The on-demand model, which is premised on the fungibility of work being platformised, is a far cry from the way in which paid domestic and care work is historically and currently organised in India. A central characteristic of work arrangements in India is the familiarity that is required to be built between paid domestic and care workers with their employers. Consequently, such work arrangements exist for months, if not years.
The piece rating of tasks through on-demand platforms could have important ramifications for domestic and care workers in India, as it stands to reshape the cultural boundaries within which they have historically operated. Platforms also, in their attempts to account for these cultural contours, have begun to offer longer term arrangement bearing resemblance to the archetype of paid domestic work in India as the presence of digital placement agencies indicate. In doing so, platform models in India replicate the existing social order that mediates domestic and care work arrangements. However, they too intervene only at limited points in the provisioning of domestic and care work, thereby raising pressing questions regarding the sustainability of improved working conditions through digital mediation.
Informal sector workers have historically been sidelined in the trade union movement, which has focused on the exploitation of wage labour. Moreover, within the formal/informal demarcation carved out in the workforce, greater focus has been placed on the small formal sector.
There is widespread purchase of the view that globalisation, with freely mobile capital as its central tenet, has led to the weakening of labour movements globally. This view has not gone unopposed, with the fragmentation of the global system of production touted as making capital more vulnerable than before. Concomitantly, the expansion of the informal sector is characterised by a break away from capitalist production relations that are rooted in the alienation of labour from capital. This has led to self-employment, as opposed to wage employment, emerging as the prevalent form of labour relations.
Prabhu: They are not giving us anything [to start with], we have to invest our own money. I invested Rs. 3000 to start. When I started out, the pay was good, but after they onboarded more workers the orders got distributed. Per day, I only got 2 to 3 orders. I want to earn Rs. 30 to 40 thousand a month. In my old job I used to earn Rs. 28,000 per month. When I started here, they said you can earn Rs. 50,000 monthly. But now it’s reduced a lot. I even had to invest my own money to buy products, which they cut from my pay. I thought it would be better to work independently than with the company because of all this, since I’m investing this amount anyway.
—Prabhu, worker with an on-demand company providing cleaning services in Bengaluru
Acknowledging these changes, a growing body of scholarship, globally and in India, underlines the requirement for a new imagination of trade union activism. New approaches would need to grapple with structural changes that the trade union movement is going through and arrive at how labour activism efforts need to be reimagined to factor in the salience of informal sector workers. It can be argued that self-employment, characteristic of the platform economy as well, similarly provides new locations and forms of labour activism to emerge—not from those who are traditionally exploited (that is, at sites of extraction of surplus such as factories), but from those who are economically dispossessed without becoming proletarianised.
Interviewer: Have you heard about trade unions?
Rajeshwari: I had gone for a union meeting once in my area. They told us a lot of rules, and we had to follow whatever they said. They told us to ask for higher salaries and bonuses. But we can lose employers’ trust through all this. Some workers ask for these things, they want the benefits. But I am happy with the work I do with CrewOnJobs, it is flexible and part-time, I can earn money beyond my monthly salary. I have decided not to go for union meetings.
—Rajeshwari, worker with an on-demand company providing cleaning services in Bengaluru
Such an exercise could commence by approaching domestic workers subjectively through their actions as meaning-making human subjects whose identities (and behaviour) are shaped by objective sets of relations within which they act. Domestic workers are also a part of the valorisation process themselves, as providers of labour-power that structurally aids the continued generation of capital by aiding the reproduction of middle- and upper-class employers who work in capitalist firms. On the other hand, many domestic workers also see themselves quite differently, as self-employed workers negotiating their own terms of work selling their ‘service’ to potential buyers (their ‘patrons’ in the households where they work).
The way in which domestic workers confront their employers then uncovers the slippages in their subjectivities between self-employed workers and wage workers. This duality is an integral framework for the construction of a new language of labour activism in the context of not just domestic workers, but also other informal or ‘gig economy’ spaces. The duality for other workers in the platform economy may be in a different form. The duality, then, need not even be necessarily as fundamentally divergent as in the case of domestic workers, but it is essential to understanding precarity—across the informal sector and in the platform economy.
Acknowledging worker subjectivities then makes interrogating the sufficiency of the employee-independent contractor dualism of legal worker categories. As Dubai highlights, many immigrant and racial-minority taxi drivers eschewed meaning making as employees despite the promised land that the employee categorisation supposedly is.12 It raises pertinent questions around the taken for granted naturalness of this classification, when “the legal binary reflects neoliberal cultural and political trends and ideologies—particularly, the veneration of the working-class entrepreneur.”13 As legal consciousness theorists point out, it is the individuals’ perception of the law and legality that affects how they mobilise it.14 The tension between how workers are understood in law and how workers identify themselves is surfaced in discussions around the treatment of domestic workers and is now amplified in the case of the platform economy.
In this chapter, we find that platforms’ operational logics will play a key role in shaping workers’ determination of their material employment conditions. Our typology' of platforms mediating domestic work includes three types—(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 and 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’. We find that this typology is critical to understand whether a platform acts as a weak or strong intermediary, based on the level of control they exercise over negotiating conditions of work and its performance.
Two central implications of the platform typology in shaping domestic work relationships emerge. First, despite the rhetoric of neutral efficiency that platform companies propagate, there exists vast potential for platforms to intervene, positively or negatively, in the work relationship. In other words, platforms exist in, and shape, the political economy of labour relationships that they claim only to mediate. Different aspects of each platform model determine their impacts, including negotiation of contracts, outsourcing of costs, grievance redressai, and so on. Further, platforms exist with occupational histories proper. Even with an overt acknowledgement of the impact of the informality and exploitation typical to the domestic work sector, platforms often end up reifying these histories.
Our analysis points to the challenges in collectivisation of domestic workers in the gig economy. Historical debates around the meaning making of domestic workers’ collective identities are similar to those becoming popular in the discourse around gig work. These debates relate to the categorisation of the gig work within existing classifications of formal labour—either as employment or as independent contractors. However, our chapter shows domestic workers’ marginal social positions and occupational histories often lead to experiencing domestic work as fluid employee-contractors. Future research must capture the manner in which workers themselves mobilise these concepts to arrive at appropriate policy interventions and collectivisation strategies. Finally, it is critical for collective labour action to further a worker-centred understanding of platform work, such that sites of resistance may be imagined, and with them, effective challenges to understandings of platform work may be mounted in the domestic work sector, and elsewhere.
This chapter is largely an excerpt from a forthcoming report by the authors, to be published by the Centre for Internet and Society, India. The report collects the findings of a year-long study on digital mediation of domestic and care work in India, led by the authors. The study is a part of and supported by the Feminist Internet Research Network, hosted by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), and funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Authorship for this chapter is listed in reverse alphabetical order.
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- 13. Ibid. '
- 14. See Patricia Ewick and Susan S Silbey, “Conformity, Contestation, and Resistance: An Account of Legal Consciousness,” New England Law Review 26 (1991): 731; Austin Sarat, “‘ . . . The Law Is All Over’: Power, Resistance and the Legal Consciousness of the Welfare Poor,” Yale Journal of Law & Humanities 2 (1990): 343.
SEX WORK/GIG WORK