The proliferation of digital technologies in recent years has transformed the world of work. The COVID-19 pandemic catalysed the uptake of these digital technologies in Sri Lanka, with 31% of 1.6 million people that came online during the years 2020 and 2021, having done so due to pandemic related reasons. In this context, and given the widespread job losses that were a result of the pandemic, some individuals turned to the informal sector, particularly platform-mediated gig work, in order to earn a living.
CSF conducted a study on the rise of platform-mediated gig work in Sri Lanka, through a primary survey of gig workers in ride-hailing, delivery, household services and online freelancing to understand the nature of gig work in Sri Lanka, particularly after the pandemic.
One of the key findings as regards the demographics of the gig workers surveyed, was that a majority of the gig workers interviewed were male. While there were no females in the delivery and household services segments in our survey, only a handful of females were engaged in ride-hailing services. Although comparatively more females were engaged in online freelancing, overall female participation in gig work was low.
Historically, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation has always been lower than that of its male labour force participation rate. In the first quarter of 2022, female labour force participation rate stood at 33.6% as against its male labour force participation rate at 71.8%. Low female labour force participation may be attributed to various factors including (but not limited to) education, marital/social support and status, ethno-religious identity or simply a preference to stay at home. A 2017 report by the World Bank found that (i) the disproportionate responsibility for household work falling on women, (ii) women not acquiring skills demanded by the labour market and (iii) gender discrimination in the workplace as significant challenges that affect female labour force participation. Low levels of female participation in the labour force is also the result of social norms that restrict female mobility outside the home, and expectations that women will be the main providers of care within the home.
Greater gender parity in labour force participation has the potential to improve overall economic growth and development. The IMF estimates that GDP could increase by an average of 35% provided the gender gap in labour force participation rates are reduced. The gig economy presents an opportunity for higher female participation in the labour force due to its relative flexibility and low barriers to entry.
The survey of gig workers conducted by CSF revealed that almost all gig workers in ride hailing/ride sharing were men. A report by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in 2020 revealed that women remain widely underrepresented as transport service providers or riders. Some of the biggest challenges women face in this regard, as highlighted in the report include a lack of financial inclusion, safety and security risks and social norms surrounding women’s work as drivers. The study further identified that despite female drivers being rated highly for their driving skills, strong stereotypes and social norms continue to act as barriers for female participation as transport providers/riders. For instance, one fifth of all drivers in the IFC study stated that it is not a ‘suitable’ occupation for women. These restrictive social norms act as barriers to female participation in the labour force, and affect the country’s potential for higher economic growth and development.
Our survey of gig workers also revealed that while there were no women in delivery and household services, comparatively more women were engaged in the gig economy as online freelancers. Another survey of gig workers in Sri Lanka and India by LIRNEasia, revealed that women use online freelancing to supplement their income, gain financial independence and navigate restrictions and family obligations placed on them. There seems to be wider acceptance of freelancing as an occupation for women, given the ability to balance freelance work with familial responsibilities, the bulk of which typically falls on women. While there still remain some barriers to entry for women who wish to engage in online freelancing, particularly in terms of accessibility and awareness, online freelancing is a potential avenue for improving female labour force participation in Sri Lanka.
While gender was not the primary focus of our gig worker survey, it was interesting to find that relatively less women were engaged in gig economy activity (i.e., similar to what is seen in the traditional workforce) despite the relative flexibility of gig work, equal pay opportunities (in most cases) and low barriers to entry. In this context, platform companies have a role to play in facilitating the participation of more women in their workforce. If gig work is to attract more female participation in the future, platforms and other stakeholders in the gig economy must address issues specifically affecting women, and also initiate discourse on broader structural and cultural changes, including on the perception that women are the only primary caregivers or home-makers, especially in developing countries like Sri Lanka.
Nimaya Dahanayake is a Researcher at CSF. This blogs draws from research done for an ILO sub-regional project that is ongoing.
Image courtesy IFC, 2020 – https://ifc-org.medium.com/the-race-is-on-for-women-ride-hailing-customers-in-sri-lanka-d67f4ed7d587