In Pakistan, the emergence of platforms is seen as a positive sign of economic progress despite the turbulent economy. However, these platforms rely on an abundant workforce in the informal sector with few qualifications and little to no regulation. This business model has expanded into various sectors and recruits workers at rates below the minimum wage coupled with insecure working conditions. Platforms’ recruitment strategies entail either contracting workers part-time or acting as an intermediary between workers and their clientele, which adds to the insecure nature of platform work. The gig has been around for quite some time with precarious working conditions in informal sectors; however, the ways in which technology and digital platforms have reformed it are new, with a larger scale and increased speed of on-demand provision of services.
The existing labor dynamics of the gig economy before the intervention of technology and platforms have been largely overlooked in academic discourse, and it is important to consider the long-established social dynamics of social class and gender in the labor market which platforms often fail to consider in their service design and delivery.
Heading for a Gender Gap – An Insightful Study:
Specialized and on-demand services in the domestic work sector in Pakistan’s urban areas are increasingly being provided by platforms. In Pakistan, migrant women from lower-income social classes traditionally perform the majority of domestic work occupations; however, platforms are increasingly recruiting men for on-demand domestic services, despite being aware of the gendered dimensions of this informal economic sector. In a study funded by the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF) in Pakistan, I conducted interviews with four popular on-demand domestic work platforms that operate in Pakistan’s urban areas (Karachi and Islamabad). I call the platforms MaidMeisters, HomeHelpers, DomesticDreams, CleanCrowd; these are pseudonyms to protect the platforms’ brand image and adhere to their request to maintain confidentiality.
I frame my research through Herod (2003)’s theory about women’s labour market choices, wherein he contends that women's labour market choices are not only determined by economic factors, but also by their social, cultural, and physical contexts. This helps me analyze and understand the socio-spatial embeddedness of female domestic workers in Pakistan by examining their precarity and economic insecurity in the context of the technological transition occurring in the domestic labour sector. To highlight this, I also consider accounts provided by platforms about the challenges they face when recruiting female domestic workers.
I ask, how do platforms (re-)organize work in the online on-demand domestic work economy – do they follow the same gender lines of the traditional sector? Do platforms account for the long-standing labour market dynamics of the sector they enter and operate in?
My research aims to answer these questions by evaluating the extent to which platforms deliver on their promises of ‘flexibility’, ‘women’s economic empowerment’, and the ‘autonomous-&-free worker narrative.’ I find that work on platforms is structured along gender lines and with presumptions about workers’ accessibilities. The ease of urban mobility and control over the worker are two variables that platforms consider when recruiting gig workers for the sake of maximizing profits, efficient customer service, and a consistent brand image. In the socio-cultural context of Pakistan, those workers are typically men.
Platform owners, whom I interviewed, emphasized the advantages of platform work for female domestic workers, who often face precarious conditions in the traditional domestic work sector. These benefits include fixed and task-based payment rates, professional and personal training, and safety precautions such as the use of proper gear and mandatory gloves. Platform owners also believe that training in basic English words of courtesy, wearing clean uniforms, and maintaining a tidy appearance justifies the higher rates charged to customers, leading to adequate pay and repeat job opportunities for workers. However, availing these benefits implies being recruited by platforms in the first place, which is where female domestic workers lag as most platforms do not prefer recruiting them.
Gigged Down: Challenges in Hiring Female Domestic Workers in Pakistan
Among the issues identified by the platforms for recruiting female domestic workers was women’s lack of access and freedom to use mobile phones. This, as all platforms acknowledged, is a product of the cultural dynamics of Pakistan. The founder of MaidMeisters shared,
"I remember one woman we hired for domestic work who had to be contacted through her husband. She wasn't allowed to use a mobile phone at home, so whenever a gig came up, we had to go through him. He would even stand guard outside customers' houses while she worked. If he couldn't be there, he would make her keep him on call and keep the phone with her. She told me that her husband had a deep distrust of work that came through mobile phone calls and texts and saw going to houses to do these jobs as 'dirty/sex work'. It was a real eye-opener for me to see how restrictive some cultural norms can be."
This narrative illustrates that men’s physical control of women in terms of their mobility and technological access obstructs access to the economic opportunities that arise from the platformization of domestic work. Any supposed benefits that the platforms promise do not appear to be received by the female labour force that has always been the dominant workforce in the domestic work sector. The founder of MaidMeister continued,
"I remember when the platform hired the husband in an attempt to resolve the issue with the female worker, who was a plumber. But even then, she still faced the same problems. He continued to restrict her access to the phone whenever he could. In the end, the platform had no option but to let both of them go."
CleanCrowd and HomeHelpers elaborated on the difficulty of ensuring credibility of female domestic workers to their clients, because they were mostly unregistered citizens. The manager of HomeHelpers stated,
"I faced a challenge while registering female domestic workers on the platform. All platforms promise reliability, credibility, and trustworthiness to their customers, but many female domestic workers don't have registered Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs). Verifying their background or keeping their CNICs in case of a crime was a hassle. They often used the CNICs of their male family members, saying that they left their own CNIC behind in their village or that the men in their house don't like to share personal information or their picture with anyone."
Moreover, the nature of gig work requires quick and efficient mobility—a social function that women struggle within the public sphere of Pakistan. In the traditional domestic work sector, female domestic workers commute to their clients’ houses by walking for several kilometers and changing multiple buses. All platforms stated that this kind of commute was unsuitable for platform work as it affected the quality of the platform’s service. This was because they would fail to arrive on time with bus schedules being unreliable and would often be sweating with an unpleasant smell around them from walking in the city’s heat which clients would complain to them about. Their movement was also heavily controlled by the male members of their family. When provided with the option of having an assigned driver manage their commute on a bike or in a van for the jobs placed by clients on the platform, female domestic workers expressed their concerns of mistrust pertaining to the male driver.
"At DomesticDreams, we were able to maintain the pick-and-drop service for our domestic workers. This was due to the fact that many of the female domestic workers who work with us are either single parents, widows, or the sole breadwinners in their families, giving them a greater degree of mobility and autonomy," admitted the Senior Human Resource Manager at the platform.”
According to the founder of CleanCrowd, the looming threat of sexual violence and harassment at female domestic workers is another factor that platforms consider when recruiting them. He mentioned,
“We have come to the unfortunate realization that the risk of sexual harassment and violence is higher when sending female domestic workers to households, and this carries a greater likelihood of damaging our brand's reputation. Despite this, we have had to make the difficult decision not to recruit more females than males as the risk does not seem worth taking for our brand."
It is essential to note that wider structural restrictions limit the availability and quality of work for economically marginalized women in Pakistan’s economy which is characterized by widespread unemployment and informality, patriarchy, pervasive discrimination, and a difficult urban context.
Platformization of the gig economy in Pakistan is causing a shift in the existing labour dynamics and the displacement of female workers from a sector they have predominantly been employed in historically, exacerbating inequalities for workers that have always been precarious. The platformization of domestic work has brought to the forefront the gendered nature of work in the informal economy, the labour market conditions, and the limited control of and access to technology for female domestic workers. The traditional cultural dynamics and patriarchal nature of Pakistani society have limited the likelihood of receiving any benefits that the platforms claim to offer for female domestic workers through the platformization of their work. Problems around urban mobility and technological control, the lack of registered national identity cards, and a fear of harassment all pose challenges for female domestic workers to fully participate in the gig economy.
Do platforms have a responsibility to accommodate these workers? Perhaps not, from a strictly business point of view. All platform founders claimed that these issues that women face were not upon them to try to resolve. However, operating and entering an industry with workers who have pre-existing decent work deficits (1) calls for an examination of the extent to which platforms account for the existing labour market conditions before they enter the market. It also highlights how the service delivery, or the recruitment strategies designed by the platforms as part of their business model could be devoid of an understanding of the workers’ labour market choices. As such, the process of platformization appears to have inequalities embedded within it, with presumptions of digital accessibility available to all workers, lack of awareness of the gendered digital divide, and in some cases, no acknowledgement and consideration of the invisibility and patriarchy that the domestic work sector traditionally operates with. These issues highlight the need for regulation and attention to the social dynamics of the gig economy in Pakistan in order to create a more equitable and inclusive platform for all workers.
Aisha Zia Khan is a Master's student (MSc. Development Studies) at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA, Karachi), Pakistan, and a Research Fellow at the Hanns Seidel Foundation, Pakistan. She is currently exploring the digitalization and platformization of work from an intersectional and critical lens in the emerging gig economy of Pakistan.
(1) According to the International Labour Organization, decent work deficits are understood to be the lack of provision of sufficient employment opportunities, inadequate social protection, the denial of rights at work and shortfalls in social dialogue (ILO, 2013).
Herod, Andrew. 2003. ‘Workers, Space, and Labor Geography.’ International Labor and Working-Class History 64 (October), doi:10.1017/S014754790300022X.
International Labor Organization (2013), Decent Work Indicators, Geneva, Switzerland.