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Why India Not Doing Enough For Its Female Gig Workers?

The central and state governments, gig platforms, labour organisations and civil society must come together to collectively address the challenges faced by gig workers, particularly women, say experts

Photo Credit : istock


India's gig economy is rising at a stunning pace, but so are the issues faced by gig workers. This growing segment is empowering many as it brings benefits such as flexibility in terms of working hours and the types of jobs, however, it is daunting for many.

Post-Covid-19, the gig economy's growth has led to an increase in the number of workers in India. An Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) report published in June 2022 forecasted that the domestic gig economy will grow 17 per cent to USD 455 billion by 2024. Another estimate by India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF) predicted India to have 350 million gig jobs by 2025.

For decades, India has been known for having a large pool of informal gig workers like contract workers on construction sites etc. But what makes things difficult for them is the country's traditional labour laws which do not cover this booming segment and hence vulnerable individuals are forced to work under exploitative conditions to sustain themselves. 

India currently has 7.7 million gig workers, and according to the Niti Aayog report, this number is expected to rise to 23.5 million by 2029-30. Furthermore, approximately 47 per cent of gig work is in medium-skilled jobs, about 31 per cent in low-skilled jobs, and only 22 per cent is in high-skilled jobs.

According to a report by Awign, a tech-led on-demand work fulfilment platform, there has been a 105 per cent increase in demand for high-skill talent across roles on a contractual basis in the last 12 months. 

More specifically, the report highlights that 85 per cent of the overall demand coming from enterprises has been for gig talent in tech roles. While startups have led the paradigm shift from full-time to gig workforce, the rising demand for high-skill contractual talent has been observed across non-tech roles as well, particularly in creative roles. 

"Establishing a legal framework that recognises gig workers' rights as independent contractors, such as worker cooperatives or collective bargaining agreements, can also help create a more equitable gig economy that benefits both workers and businesses. As a country, India has now started to identify these problems and proactively work towards building a conducive environment but there’s a lot more to be tapped," said Shilpa Jain, CEO and Founder, Begig. 

In this rising sector, India's women are the ones who are paying the price. Even though several food delivery and e-commerce firms have pledged to hike workforce diversity, experts say that several industry players still have reservations such as 'Will women be able to deliver?’ while onboarding female delivery workers.

Gig workers in India face obstacles when it comes to unionising due to their classification as independent contractors and the decentralised nature of gig work. For female workers sexual harassment is a major issue which they struggle to fight, as they fear a low rating by low rating, which will affect their ability to get more work in future.  

"India's gig workers face challenges in unionising due to their nature as independent contractors, lack of legal employment connections, and the fragmented gig economy. The legal framework is evolving and workers struggle to assert their rights and unionise effectively," said Jain. 

The Decline In Female Labour Force Participation 

India's labour force participation rate (LFPR) has been increasing, reaching 30.0 per cent in 2020 and 32.8 per cent in 2022. This positive trend indicates that more women are actively engaging in gig-based work. However, women's participation in the gig economy is still lower compared to many emerging economies.

The low female participation is majorly due to factors such as deep-rooted societal norms, cultural biases and unequal access to education and opportunities. In India, traditional gender roles, expectations and social pressures often limit women's choices and discourage them from pursuing careers outside the household. 

Additionally, challenges related to work-life balance, lack of safe and reliable transportation and inadequate support systems like childcare facilities further impede women's participation.

"The low female labour force participation rate in India necessitates comprehensive interventions to address the underlying causes and create an equitable and empowering environment for women to thrive professionally," said Nehal Gupta, Director, AMU Leasing. 

To address this issue, Gupta emphasised the importance of challenging societal norms, promoting gender equality, and creating an enabling environment for women to participate in the workforce. This involves implementing policies that provide equal educational opportunities, promoting vocational training, offering flexible work options, enhancing access to affordable childcare, and strengthening support mechanisms for working mothers.

Similarly, Jain advocated for a multi-faceted approach to address the low female participation in the gig economy. This includes challenging societal norms, promoting education, vocational training, and affordable childcare and transportation. Policies promoting equal pay and combating workplace discrimination are crucial for achieving women's equality. Additionally, implementing flexible work arrangements, and entrepreneurship programs, and addressing cultural attitudes can contribute to creating a more inclusive economy.

Gig Economy and Workers’ Rights and Social Security

Regarding the gig economy, while it has provided opportunities for income generation, there are concerns about workers' rights and social security. Several believe that  India's gig economy is growing at the cost of workers’ rights as the absence of social security benefits, such as healthcare and retirement benefits, adds to their challenges. 

"India's gig economy growth should not come at the expense of workers' rights and social security. It is essential to establish a comprehensive regulatory framework that balances the flexibility of gig work with the protection and welfare of workers. This includes ensuring fair wages, social security benefits, and safe working conditions for gig workers," asserted Gupta.

Begig's Jain, however, believes that India's gig economy is not necessarily growing at the cost of workers' rights and social security. While there are certainly challenges and areas that need improvement, the gig economy has provided new opportunities for flexible work arrangements and income generation, especially for those who may have limited options in traditional employment, she added. 

A Voice From Rural India

For women and men aged 25 to 60 (when education is complete) in India’s rural and urban regions from 1987 to 2017, both the levels and trends differ. In both rural and urban areas, the male employment rate has consistently been higher compared to that of females. 

In this age group, male employment rates have experienced a slight decline from 96 per cent to 94 per cent in rural areas and from 94 per cent to 91 per cent in urban areas in India. 

The female employment rates in urban India have also fallen marginally from 26 per cent to 24 per cent. However, the most significant decline in the female employment rate comes from rural India, where it has fallen from 54 per cent in 1987 to 31 per cent in 2017.

In rural India, the decline has only occurred in agriculture. Where it fell from 46 per cent in 1987 to 33 per cent in 2011 and further decreased to 23 per cent in 2017. It has also declined slightly from 3.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent in manufacturing. The exception is construction and services, where it has risen by almost 1-1.5 per cent. Male participation has also fallen in agriculture from 77 per cent in 1987 to 64 per cent in 2011, indicating that the reduction has been far greater for women than for men.

"In India the relationship between female education and female employment is U-shaped. This means that as women increase their education from illiterate to primary or secondary, their employment rate falls. But when they further increase it to at least completed schooling or graduation, it again shoots up. Thus, this relationship is not linear. With increased higher education in the tertiary sector, there is some hope that the falling female LFP can be arrested," Kanika Mahajan, Assistant Professor of Economics, Ashoka University. 

Interestingly, Mahajan cited existing research and her own work which shows that women are more likely to work in larger firms since these firms are more likely to provide amenities such as maternity and paid leave, which are likely to be valued more by women. 

She added that these firms are also more likely to demand both female and male skills. Thus, quality jobs are essential to increase female employment in India. 

"Data shows that the proportion of workers with a regular salary of the total number of workers has fallen from 23.8 per cent to 21.1 per cent between 2018-19 and 2020-21 (PLFS). This has been a steady decline and not due to the pandemic. At the same time service sector jobs as a proportion of total employment has been stagnant in India with construction providing the most increase," Mahajan added. 

While women prefer service sector jobs those in the construction sector generally see lower female employment. Moreover, flexible jobs that allow women (and men) to balance care work and work in the labour market need to be promoted, Mahajan suggested. 

To move forward, companies that rely heavily on gig workers should take responsibility for providing benefits to them. Policymakers must work to create a safety net for gig workers, such as unemployment insurance and job training programs.