How inequalities are moving into the digital world of work

Whether on their jackets, their bicycles, helmets or oversized bags – bicycle couriers are just as much a part of the cityscape of big cities as the names of the companies they work for. It’s different with Helpling, for example. The platform places cleaning staff in households, who then clean the apartment or do other household chores. Unlike the delivery services, the cleaning staff do not stand out in the streets. They have no company bikes and no flashy bags with the company logo and are therefore almost invisible.

Helpling is just one of the companies that sensed the market of the future in the “gig economy”. Work there is no longer based on a long-term employment relationship, but is shifting to platforms on the Internet, through which individual orders are awarded on a fee basis. Such platforms are Airbnb, the household platform caring.de or the design portal 99designs. Platform work can look very different. Sometimes it is work in the household or with seniors, sometimes mediated sleeping or living places. But many of the platforms have one thing in common: They promise quick money and flexible working hours.

This could also be an opportunity for women. But gender inequalities are also a problem in the gig economy: A lack of social security, sexualized violence and unequal pay have migrated to platform work.

“Female” work in the gig economy

In a society in which mostly women are still raising children, caring for older relatives or doing other unpaid care work – specifically, it is 87 minutes more every day than men – flexibility in gainful employment is very important. This is what the researchers Helene von Schwichow and Katrin Fritsch ask in one Study on the experiences of women in the platform economy: “Since women in Germany continue to do the majority of care work and are therefore more often exposed to additional burdens than men, or their living conditions are more difficult with a ‘nine-to-five job’ in can be reconciled with an employment relationship, platform work is particularly attractive for women,” they tell netzpolitik.org.

At the time of their study in 2020, the proportion of women among platform workers was 38 to 52 percent – ​​and the researchers say the trend is rising. This is also confirmed by a study recently published by European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) was published. Germany was not examined, but comparable EU countries such as France or the Netherlands were. According to the report, flexibility is a motivating factor for 43 percent of women to get into platform work – compared to only 35 percent of men. The combination of work with household or educational activities is also more important for women.

These patterns can be found on the platforms. Helpling, for example, advertises for new cleaners with statements such as “Determine your working hours yourself” – according to one Company survey 82 percent of them find working time flexibility important. Betreut.de promises its customers “competent and flexible everyday helpers”. In their study, however, von Schwichow and Fritsch warn that flexibility is perceived as positive by female workers, but it can quickly turn into insecurity.

Orders via platforms can often be canceled at short notice and the workers lose their income as a result. “In addition, there is a lack of social security, which is becoming a problem, especially with regard to pensions, since more and more women in Germany are affected by poverty in old age,” say the two authors. In the event of illness, platform workers do not lose earnings.

Often worse pay

Sexualized violence and discrimination are also a problem in platform work Opinion of an expert commission for the Federal Government’s Third Gender Equality Report, platforms even attested an “increased risk of sexual and other assaults”. Women are disproportionately confronted with this. Platform work is often done alone, whether in front of the computer or at home with strangers.

The researchers von Schwichow and Fritsch found that experiences of discrimination can be very different. The two conducted twelve interviews for their study. Several women reported abusive behavior or insults, especially in the household area. For example, one of them was first received by a customer in their underwear and the next time only with a towel. However, the evaluation systems of the platforms often offer scope for discrimination, according to the authors. Customers can rate the workers, for example, but the reverse is not always possible.

There is also evidence that women are paid less than men even in the gig economy. Lisa Bor conducts research specifically on the working conditions of cleaning staff. In 2018, for example, she found that cleaning staff after deductions less than minimum wage earned. In addition to the actual “gig”, working hours have to be spent, for example, to maintain one’s own platform profile or to coordinate with customers.

“In the interviews, many workers also told me that they had to call the Helpling hotline to clarify something, for example if a customer was not there or there were misunderstandings. All of that doesn’t count as working time and puts additional pressure on income,” says the researcher. Half an hour of unpaid work turns 16 euros gross per hour into just 13.30 euros. According to Bor, there is also health, social and liability insurance that workers have to pay for as self-employed.

“Everyone can earn money quickly here”

Another example is the taxi alternative Uber. In 2018, researchers found that women who drive for Uber, on average seven percent less earned as men. On the one hand, this is due to preferences of place and time, for example, women drive less often in areas with a bad reputation. On the other hand, despite the higher risk of accidents, men had an advantage due to an average higher driving speed. As a result, women were able to accept fewer offers – and ultimately received less money.

In the meantime, contracts with partner companies are also possible on the household platform Helpling company statement pay an “above-average salary for the industry”. Nevertheless, the “flexible” working variant is still available as an option on Helpling. The company has not yet commented on how Helpling ensures that workers earn the minimum wage.

According to the Fairwork Project’s annual report, most platforms pay the statutory minimum wage. Nevertheless, hidden costs of the platforms continue to be unloaded on workers, for example the organization of work, according to the study by von Schwichow and Fritsch. “The promise of the platforms is: ‘Everyone can earn money here, regardless of characteristics such as origin, education or gender.’ However, the promise is not kept because existing injustices, such as poverty among women in old age, continue and intensify in platform work,” say von Schwichow and Fritsch. Researcher Lisa Bor is also skeptical about the platforms’ rosy promises: “They adapt and react quickly to criticism, but without solving the underlying problems.”

The data basis is not enough for politicians

So far, women on platforms have received little attention from politicians. The SPD, Greens and FDP have agreed in the coalition agreement that they want to create fair working conditions on platforms. To this end, the traffic light wants to “review existing law” and improve “data bases”. However, the coalition partners do not explicitly mention gender-specific disadvantages in this sector.

The European Institute for Equality, EIGE, is calling for the legal status to be clarified and social security and trade union rights for platform workers to be strengthened. In addition, more data on the gender pay gap and sexualised violence would have to be collected. The independent Advisory Council makes similar demands for the Third Gender Equality Report. It is important to “educate platform workers about their rights”.

Die one Finding a measure that improves work on platforms is not easy. However, Lisa Bor says: “I think a start would be to not see technology and platforms as neutral. Only with the insight that the design of the platform also shapes the working conditions can there be changes.”

The EU Commission is now addressing the legal status. She has launched a policy that will determine the status of platform workers in the future. According to this, five criteria decide whether someone is employed or works independently. According to the European Trade Union Confederation ETUC, the Helpling platform would be affected by this directive and would have to hire its workers. That would mean, for example, that the workers would have social insurance. But even if you are self-employed, care should be taken to ensure that all costs incurred are covered, says Lisa Bor. These include internet contracts, means of transport and insurance.

Especially with regard to the income disadvantages that women have on platforms, one demand is heard again and again: More data is needed. This is made clear not only in the coalition agreement, but also in the statement on the equality report. Here it says that the federal government “takes note of the fact that there is currently insufficient knowledge of differences in pay on platforms and is examining possible starting points to improve the data situation”.

Although the scientists are not enthusiastic about the current data situation either, the expert opinion on the Equal Opportunities Report counts numerous Examples of wage inequality on. Lisa Bor is also critical of waiting any longer: “The data basis has been there for a long time. It’s time to seriously regulate the platforms and intervene in this market.”

So far, more visible platforms such as Gorillas or Lieferando have received more attention than Helpling, for example. With Drivers of gorillas Labor Minister Heil even met in person. Platform work that takes place in the nursing or cleaning sector is less visible. And that’s where work especially many women. Only recently did he also comment German Women’s Council on the working conditions for women and called on the federal government to take action. Because whether inequalities will also spread in the digital world of work has so far mainly been left to the platforms.

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