Gig workers, from cleaners to cabbies, tackle 'sexist' algorithms
A cleaner works on the disinfection of a subway train as a measure against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Rahel Patrasso
What’s the context?
New platforms aim to protect women who are penalised for balancing unpaid care jobs at home with gig work
- Platforms fail to take account of heavy home commitments
- Deactivation, low ratings a reality for female gig workers
- New female-led algorithms aim to fight discrimination
JOHANNESBURG/RIO DE JANEIRO/NAIROBI - Cleaners, couriers and cabbies from around the world are creating new apps to better balance their gig work with the chores of motherhood and marriage, skirting sexist algorithms that penalise women who put home before work.
From Brazil to South Africa, female gig workers are on a mission to design, build and own their own apps to counter what they see as entrenched sexism on existing job platforms.
"It is important that we create these apps because we are the beneficiaries, we know what we go through as women and as domestic workers," South African domestic worker Selinah Masilela told Context in a phone interview.
Key to the problem - and to its solution - is technology.
Digital researchers and activists say that algorithms on gig work sites often penalise women who are unable to accept jobs as frequently as men, resulting in lower customer ratings and deactivation, with limited scope for discussion with platforms.
Yet globally, women undertake roughly three times more unpaid care work than men, a load that was only exacerbated by COVID-19, according to data from U.N. Women.
A report by rights group ActionAid released earlier this year showed that gig work algorithms discriminated against women who were "unable to respond as quickly or work as many hours as men because of unpaid care responsibilities".
The report, citing a survey of more than 5,000 gig workers in 15 countries, also showed that women tend to work fewer hours than men - contributing to a wage gap - as safety concerns lead many to shun work that falls after dark or in risky locations.
"I would say (these algorithms are) sexist because that is the system we are a part of ... that is very blind to women's needs and unpaid care work, yet unpaid care work is such an important part of our economy," said Natalia Rodriguez, a women's economic rights policy expert with ActionAid.
For the past three years, South Africa social justice researcher Fairuz Mullagee has worked with nearly 50 domestic workers in Cape Town and Johannesburg, including Masilela, to build We Care - a platform that puts algorithmic control in the women's hands.
The women picked the pay levels, hours and the ideal algorithmic programming while also undergoing digital literacy training, said Mullagee, who works from University of the Western Cape's Centre for Transformative Regulation of Work.
The We Care enterprise is owned by its workers and any surplus generated by the app, which is set to launch in November, will go back into the enterprise, Mullagee said.
We Care's algorithm hooks up women and work by geographic location to save them wasting cash and time.
It also ensures all women have equal access to opportunities and do not incur bad ratings simply due to family emergencies.
No magic bullet, maybe - but a good start.
"Tech alone is not going to solve every problem for the sector," said Mullagee.
ActionAid found plenty more apps that work on the same lines as We Care, from Kenya's female-only An Nisa ride-hailing app to nearly a dozen female-led platforms in Brazil.
At their core is fairness and accountability, with the rights of women workers always paramount.
"We wanted to develop an app where the algorithms are transparent," said Mehnaz Sarwar, An Nisa's founder.
"It is not biased in favour of the number of hours a driver has worked, but solely based on the driver's location and which driver is nearest."
The app launched in Kenya last October and now has more than 120 drivers. The company also provides first-aid training, self-defence classes and a car rescue and repair service.
Eunice Machoka, a single mother of three, who is registered on An Nisa as well as more popular apps such as Uber and Bolt, said she preferred An Nisa as her payments were higher.
"The rates are better - sometimes almost double," said 35-year-old Machoka. "But the app is still new, so the number of customers is still much less."
These platforms are part of what Rodriguez calls a "cooperativism explosion" helping to win their workers "fair wages ... freedom from violence and ownership and control over their data".
Fighting for respect
Aline Os was one of just two women in a 100-strong team when she worked for a delivery firm in the Brazilian city of São Paulo.
"It was an extremely misogynistic environment," she recalled. "I got into fights because I demanded respect."
Sexism spurred her to action, however, and in 2017, Os launched Señoritas Courier, a gig-worker cooperative that only employs women and transgender people.
In contrast to bigger platforms in Brazil, it does not focus on meal delivery due to the high speed and low pay entailed, and instead uses a squad of bicycles to deliver non-food items. The cooperative has 20 associates - nine of whom work in delivery.
Jacira Sousa, 55, has been with Señoritas since the pandemic, and now balances gig work with other jobs to keep her income steady.
All this hard work, she feels, will soon pay off.
Señoritas has set up partnerships with researchers to build an algorithm out of the mass of data gathered over its years of service, logging distances travelled, time taken per delivery and the price paid.
Between her many day jobs, Sousa has also learnt how to code and now hopes to shift to the tech side of Señoritas.
"The idea is to empower people to do other things at the collective," said Sousa. "One can't do deliveries forever."
According to Os, the algorithm will be "humane" - matching offer and demand to give every biker a fair share of work and pay. It will also be open-sourced, so other cooperatives can use and adapt it to their own businesses.
"We want an algorithm that leads to decent work," Os said.
ActionAid acknowledges there has been legislative progress to protect gig workers in places such as Singapore, Brazil, Chile and the European Union.
But now it wants bottom-up action, too.
"Women are the ones that have the knowledge to come up with the solutions best tailored for what they need and the changes they want to see in the world," said ActionAid's Rodriguez.
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg in Johannesburg, Fabio Teixeira in Rio de Janeiro and Nita Bhalla in Nairobi; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths)
- Gig work
- Gender equity
- Tech and inequality
- Tech regulation
- Data rights