There are an estimated 67 million domestic workers globally, 80% of whom are women. Many of them work in low-paid, insecure and exploitative conditions. Technology-focused companies linking households to domestic workers through ‘on-demand’ platforms are attempting to disrupt the traditional sector, claiming to offer rapidly accessible, cheap domestic services to households, and flexible, well-remunerated economic opportunities to domestic workers. While still in its infancy, this ‘Uberisation of domestic work’ is growing rapidly in developing countries – for example, reports suggest that on-demand domestic work companies in India are expanding by up to 60% month-on-month. Yet there remains a dearth of research on this emerging trend to examine whether or not the above claims are true. This working paper presents a scoping study, and a first step towards addressing that gap. It explores the rise of on-demand domestic work platforms and the experiences of households and domestic workers using them, to identify priorities for future policy, practice and research.
We find that the on-demand economy offers benefits to service purchasers, who cite access to cheap, convenient and reliable domestic services which can help to support work-life balance as key benefits. Some promise to improve conditions in the traditional domestic work sector is also identified. For example, the on- demand economy offers workers some choice over when they work, and platform technology can enable workers to track hours worked and wages earnt. Participants also perceived on-demand work to provide better remuneration than other forms of domestic work – particularly live-in domestic worker wages.
Overall, however, on-demand working arrangements risk undermining progress towards the achievement of domestic work as decent work, particularly in countries with relatively advanced regulatory frameworks. Empirical evidence from South Africa reveals overall low and insecure incomes, discrimination and the erosion of established labour and social protections as a result of the ‘independent contractor’ status of on-demand workers. In addition, on-demand platforms are designed to facilitate service purchaser choice, trust and service quality assurance. This includes systems to rate and review workers, and the ability to select workers based on demographic characteristics such as age or gender. These systems disproportionately benefit purchasers, and appear to reinforce the unequal power relations and discriminatory structures underpinning the traditional domestic work sector. Companies have taken innovative steps to overcome gendered digital and financial divides, which have notably focused on engaging workers using a range of context-relevant high- and low-tech methods. However, further concerted effort is required to ensure poor and marginalised groups are not left behind as the on-demand economy becomes further established as a route to economic opportunity in developing countries.
The infancy of on-demand domestic work in developing countries means that it is not too late to raise standards and ensure a fair deal for domestic workers. This will involve governments ensuring policy, legal and regulatory frameworks are fit for purpose. Companies should also act by proactively designing equality, anti-discrimination and safety into platform models. Engaging domestic workers and their collectives as well as service purchasers in active dialogue to ensure the system works for all concerned will be critical for success.