Manisha Singh, 29, was happy to join a digital platform to find extra work a few years back in India's southern tech hub Bengaluru. The platform specializes in "home-based services" such cleaning and cosmetics, and promises its members flexible hours and autonomy.
But her happiness was short-lived.
"One fine day, the app on my mobile was blocked," Singh told DW. "I could not access it and was told later by the company that I had canceled a request from a client."
She says this was not her doing.
"There was a glitch but I am still pleading with the company. All I can do now is wait," Singh added.
Priya Seth has a similar story. The 32-year-old took a job in food delivery in New Delhi, hoping that flexible working hours would give her enough time to spend with her two children.
Everything was going well until last month, when the delivery service changed the way they pay their employees. Without warning, Seth's wage was slashed from 25 Indian rupees (€0.28 or $0.32) to 15 rupees for every order, and the company also took away peak-hour incentives.
"The wage was revised without any prior intimation and though we protested, nothing happened. Many of us were forced to joined rival companies," Seth told DW.
Millions work in gig economy
The gig economy allows workers to join global platforms such as Uber or Indian businesses such as Urban Company and Zomato to find flexible work online. Around 7.7 million people work in India's gig economy and the sector is expected to swell to 23.5 million by the end of the decade, according to NITI Aayog, a government public policy think tank.
And this may be only the beginning — a recent report by consulting firm BCG estimates India's gig workforce in the non-farm economy will balloon to 90 million over the long term.
Although there is no large-scale data available, it is estimated that 20 to 30% of the independent contractors, consultants and workers in the gig economy are women.
But for women like Manisha, Priya, and countless others, the gig economy carries a risk of facing prejudice, job insecurity, and arbitrary changes by their employers.
An exhaustive study called "Women workers in the gig economy in India" by Institute of Social Studies Trust examined four work sectors — domestic work, beauty work, cab driving and food delivery in New Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai. The researchers found that women employees often make much less money and face poorer working conditions and less favorable contracts than their male counterparts.
"Owing to their inability to understand the play of the algorithms, most women grappled by the ability to earn more in the incentive-model because of their care responsibilities, gender norms and safety and security concerns," the study said.
It also concluded that trade unions found it difficult to mobilize women. Unions led or formed by female workers were non-existent, even in sectors such as domestic and beauty work.
Activists call for legal changes
Professor Lekha Chakraborty from the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy called for more regulation to help women tackle challenges of the gig economy. She said infrastructural policies should take into account the interests of gig workers.
"Work-life balance needs an emphasis while formulating the accountability mechanisms in the gig economy. Laws should be on board to tackle gender gaps in wages," Chakraborty told DW.
Women's rights activist Kavita Krishnan warns that predatory work conditions are the hallmark of gig work.
"Change must begin with bringing gig workers and other informal workers under coverage of labor laws, including the right to unionize. This will of course require that the current government's labor code policies, which are killing labor laws, be scrapped. Women workers' rights can be protected only if the principle of workers' rights is reaffirmed," Krishnan told DW.
Another issue that many women face in their jobs is sexual harassment. And since India's Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act does not include "independent contractors" or gig workers, a huge swathe of women are now left with no legal protection.
While activists are pushing for new laws, the NITI Aayog think tank is calling for more incentives to boost female participation in the gig economy. In its recent report, the researchers propose tax breaks or startup grants for companies that employ one-third or more women and people with disabilities.
The echoes of these policies are likely to reach beyond India's borders — according to data cited by NITI Aayog, over half of all gig workers in the Asia-Pacific region are working in India. The world's most populous country is also believed to have the world's second-largest gig workforce, behind the US.
Edited by: Darko Janjevic