By Ayesha Zainudeen & Anha Adhlee (LIRNEasia)
South Asia has some of the lowest female labor force participation (LFP) rates in the world, second only to the Middle East. Employment flexibility, also known as workplace flexibility, flexi-work, among other terms, has long been argued as an enabler of women’s increased and sustained participation in the labor market. The technological advancements of the recent decades have given rise to more opportunities for flexible work. Many have argued that these opportunities are especially pertinent for women, enabling flexibility in terms of time, location, and the conditions of work, allowing for greater LFP and thereby socio-economic empowerment. The global COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity to understand if and how flexible work options have enabled women’s economic empowerment or not. This article looks at what flexibility means to women who are engaged in flexible, digitally-enabled work in Sri Lanka. It is based on qualitative interviews with over 50 women engaged in a variety of digitally-enabled work opportunities, as well as interviews with 11 platform companies offering earning opportunities in Sri Lanka.
Different strokes for different folks
While it is clear that flexibility is a key motivator for many women to take up online work, it means different things to different women. Women at the intersections of differing age groups, and degrees of care responsibilities, work category, all experience flexibility differently.
For some, it means being able to keep doing ‘something’ after having kids, for others it means being able to work toward an income target for three months and then take a break for a month, or perhaps the opportunity to explore a creative passion while doing a regular nine-to-five job. The underlying sentiment is that it provides the ability to choose: when, where, how, how much, or with whom to work and what type of work to take on; usually in such a way that it fits around other daily commitments. Those that we spoke to were engaged in a variety of platform-enabled work, ranging from driving on ride-hailing platforms, to teaching online, to providing remote transcription services, to selling home bakes or hand-made creations through social media.
For many women with care responsibilities, such as small children or even ageing parents, flexible work allows them to slot work in between care work and optimize on their time. But perhaps an especially important pull factor for women with young children, is the ability to be physically present; as one online freelancing mother indicated: “…the fact that I am there and around I guess that I still like that much more than not being there physically … as opposed to leaving them from nine to five, for hours long on end, I still think I feel this is better than going away from them.”
For those without care responsibilities across age groups, the pull factor is more to do with the choice of where, when and how much to work; and in some cases (transportation workers as well as online freelancers alike) for greater earning potential. This being said, the motivation of being able to work from home is something valued by women (and/or their families) across age groups and life-stages, owing to social norms and mobility factors faced by women.
How much work and where an individual works is flexible, but that flexibility ceases once a project is taken on. As one home baker who takes orders mainly over WhatsApp points out, although she has the option to accept or decline an order, “…if we get an order, time is not exactly flexible, no, we need to deliver at that time, on that date.”
In the instance of a freelance writer, once she decides to take on a project, she must work to deliver it within the project timeframe. If not, she risks losing future work because she was not able to deliver on time. Or at least this is the case on large freelancer platforms. Here comes the importance of platforms mediating and building trust between the clients as well as the workers so as to wade through issues that may arise. The case of some of the smaller, less automated platforms that we spoke to highlighted instances where perhaps a freelancer might be faced with unexpected disruptions at home and as a result might not be able to complete the job on time. Flexibility in response to such needs and unpredictable situations on the part of the platform can be a way to that the freelancer and the platform can come to an agreement where the freelancer can still get paid for the work completed, while the platform assigns another freelancer to complete the job. In this manner, smaller, less automated platforms such as PodiJobs.lk and ReMatics (both offering online freelancing work) can easily accommodate issues that arise due to the worker’s care responsibilities, in a way that perhaps larger, more automated and algorithm-driven platforms can not.
In both these cases, the repeat-nature of the relationship with the customer on smaller platforms, and therefore the need to maintain that relationship limits flexibility to take on or reject work, and negotiate terms. In the case of larger more automated platforms, customer feedback and ratings would play a similar role.
In more commoditized products and services, like taxi rides, the worker perhaps might have more flexibility to reject orders/jobs, pick the time slots to remain ‘online’ and available for work. As one ride-hailing platform driver puts it: “I cook the food and keep it ready, we can come home early, personal work can be done, if we are sick a day off can be taken. Once the app is switched off no hire comes to us. So, if it is only switched on do, we get hires.”
Flexibility has a dark side too
The pandemic afforded many a chance to take up flexible work and earning opportunities – especially those who might have lost a job or were unable to go to work during lockdowns. But it also exposed some of the fault lines in flexible work.
The absence of structure and schedule that come with conventional employment shifts this burden onto the worker. Some may be more capable of structuring their work, setting boundaries and having some kind of self-regulation, while others may not; among the latter, this can have negative consequences as one online freelancing-mom indicates: “I would be with the kids all day and I would work late in the night and again because of that flexibility I kind of forgot that am I doing more than I should be or taking on more than I should be and working… when you take a nine-to-five job, at five [o’clock] the job is done… but when you are doing something like this [online freelancing] that bell doesn’t go off… I used to do work like even at 12 in the night, one in the morning, two in the morning and that actually led to a bit of a health crisis and as a result I had to take a lot of things off my plate.” Similar sentiments were heard from younger women, sans care responsibilities: “You know you are your own boss but at the same time you tend to slave yourself a bit because you want to finish the project as fast as you can, and you want to meet the deadlines.”
Flexibility also comes at the cost of the uncertainty of work (i.e., will she have work the next day?) and the related income instability. While platform-enabled taxi driving, or online freelancing, or other home-based businesses, offer high earning potential, income is not guaranteed. This leaves workers vulnerable at a times of crisis, as evidenced by the current economic crisis that Sri Lanka finds itself in now. Interestingly, many of the women that we spoke to found the COVID crisis more of an opportunity, while the current economic crisis has brought many lines of work to a grinding halt.
Furthermore, the inability of a worker to produce a monthly pay slip as proof of income (i.e., ability to repay), is a barrier to accessing finance. For instance, as respondents indicate, this could be to set up an online business, or build a website. The lack of awareness or readiness of financial institutions to serve digital workers (especially where there is no tangible asset, like a motor vehicle, or equipment), is a challenge to growth, as one respondent indicated:
“But if someone goes to a bank and says, ‘I want to open an online business and make an e-commerce platform like this,’ no bank will give that person a loan. Even if we give a proposal, they will always ask for some kind of collateral. I mean we don’t ask for big loans right for someone to build an e-commerce platform, right?”
On the flipside, this income variability, can be an advantage to some, especially younger, often Gen Z women, who prefer to work intensely for a month and earn, and then take the next month off.
With flexibility comes lack of formal benefits and protections, for instance, odd hours and unpaid sick leave days: “It is not like a full-time job where I go and work somewhere even though I put a sick day I would get paid for that day so, it is bit of a difficult – not a nice ride I would say.” This can put workers in s delicate situation when they cannot afford to miss a day’s earnings, but also when they risk damaging the relationships and trust built up with customers by turning down work or not being available, as a female 21-year-old who runs a wholesale clothing business in Jaffna worries about:
“I got fever during that time and had to quarantine for 14 days… That was a challenge during that time – if I don’t do anything for the 14 days, I will lose my customers… That was very challenging because I was scared that I may lose the customers, but my family was very supportive… My brother was also working but he assisted me so that I don’t lose my customers.”
As evidenced by her experience, family support for women workers in the platform economy is a major enabling factor; in this case, to pitch in on operations, but in many cases support comes in various forms: knowledge and skills transfer, motivation and encouragement, care work support, funding, inter alia. A related pitfall of flexible work mentioned, in this context, was the lack of face-to-face interactions, as is the case with online teachers, can make their jobs difficult, and is also something which makes the job less satisfying in some ways. It was clear from the experiences of many women that we spoke to, that community and relationships are important pillars of support; some had managed to find that through digital means (groups, collaborations, etc.), however. Those that lack access to these forms of support will naturally find it harder to succeed than others, and perhaps might self-select into lower cognitive-burden, less lucrative work than others. Those that are time-poor might be worse off than others in this regard. Indeed this was the experience of one MBA-holding online freelancing mom of two preschoolers, who chooses to take on low-cognitive burden work which can be completed in discreet timeslots, like transcription services than work on par with her skill level.
Changing perceptions; long term implications
At the onset of COVID, all non-essential workers were required to work from home. This introduced previously unheard-of levels of flexibility into many nine-to-five jobs where physical presence during work times was the norm. In this manner, the pandemic has given rise to more flexible work opportunities, but also by changing perceptions toward it on the labor demand as well as supply side making it all the more advantageous to women. One of the online freelancing platforms that we spoke to explains:
“I also think there [are] a lot more women now looking for part time work as opposed to men simply because of the restrictions that come up when they have kids. Simply not like in our mothers’ times. [Firstly] because we can’t just rely on a one-person salary. Second, we don’t have help and you can’t find good help or reliable help. So, our generation has to find ways to work from home.”
On the one hand this has great potential to breach the deep-seated South Asian norms of women remaining at home and out of the workforce, but on the other hand, it can potentially reinforce the (related) mobility constraints that women face (due to care work and social norms). Indeed, the research (along with numerous studies by others) indicated, during the pandemic time women who worked from home were still expected to shoulder the care burden.
The long term effects of increasing numbers of women taking up flexible work need to be considered. Firstly, of concern is women (especially time-poor women) working below their skill level. In the medium-to-long-term, and on a personal level, this could impact women’s career progression (although, whether career progression is something that Gen Zs and Gen Alphas will worry about is something yet to be determined). This in turn can reinforce gender disparities in earnings. At a society level, we perhaps need to worry about what this means for the development of expertise and experience among women, and their presence in highly specialized professions, vis-à-vis men.
Similarly, women who lack the time to invest to upskill or to structure a digital marketing strategy to boost their online business also run the risk of falling behind both men and other women with more time at their disposal, i.e., with comparatively lower care responsibilities.
Last of all, the risk of burnout when the personal impact of the multiple responsibilities relating to paid work and care-work take a toll on their mental and physical health. The long term risk is that women could gradually or eventually pull out of the workforce altogether.
About the research:
These findings are based on qualitative interviews with over 50 women as well as interviews with 11 platform companies in Sri Lanka in 2021. The research was conducted as a part of a larger project entitled, Digital Platforms and Women’s Work in India and Sri Lanka, examining emerging patterns of digital work and women’s engagement with it. The project was funded by the International Development Research Centre (Canada). The LIRNEasia research team consisted of Isuru Samaratunge, Ayesha Zainudeen, Gayashi Jayasinghe, Helani Galpaya, Tharaka Amarasinghe, Ruwanka De Silva and Anha Adlee.
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