Barely two months into India’s nationwide lockdown that came into effect on Mach 24, 2020, app-based home services platform, Urban Company (UC), announced a 102 percent surge in operating revenue for 2020. The six-year-old start-up, backed by Ratan Tata and several international investors, declared plans to diversify revenue streams in the coming months, including a foray into the lucrative domain of online learning through extracurricular activities for children. On the impact of the lockdown, the co-founder, in a media interview, said that the company had suffered a “small dent” of 10 percent in annual growth.
UC earns its revenues primarily through a commission model, in which service providers pay the company a fixed fraction of the payment received upon accepting a booking. In 2020, the beauty and wellness vertical alone accounted for around 55 percent of the yearly revenue. The revenue performance of this vertical, launched in 2016, has allowed the company to claim the highest share of the on-demand, at-home beauty services market, where its competitors include Housejoy and QuikrServices, which entered this space at roughly the same time.
While UC remained resilient and indeed adapted swiftly to the constraints imposed by the Covid pandemic, the stories of the women who offer beauty services on its platform stood in sharp contrast. For the women beauty workers of the home services platform, the pandemic translated into tales of utter despair that threatened to upend their lives. When I spoke to Dakshita* in May, she had been working with UC for at least two years. Her last booking, at the time, had been on March 22, even before the nationwide lockdown was announced. Since then, she had been home with no clarity on where her future income would come from.
Nandita*, who had just completed a year on the platform in May, received a call from the company informing her that bookings will only resume post the lockdown. Without any clarity on when the lockdown would be lifted, she had no idea about what that meant for her immediate future. What also remained unclear was the kind of safety arrangements the platform would make for workers like her once they could take up work again.
Both Dakshita and Nandita hail from Assam and had moved to Bangalore for work. UC was their primary source of income.
From Bad to Worse: The Pre- and Post-Covid World for Beauty Gig Workers
For Nandita and Dakshita, the decline in earnings and the narrowing of professional prospects had begun well before the pandemic. The business model of platforms like UC is to lure in workers with the promise of flexibility (duly appreciated by some) but soon leave them with declining income, heightened social security burden and market risks, and increasing costs.
When I first joined, I was told to take on a minimum of three clients a day, each within a five km radius. Later, they changed it to a nine km radius. Then, as more women came on the platform, the number of clients for each service provider reduced to two, and sometimes even zero, as more beauticians offered services in the same area.
In the first five – six months, things were good. Later, incomes suffered. We had to work very hard and the company would cut Rs. 200-300 or so on a payment of Rs. 1200 per client. We were only left with enough for auto fares from one appointment to the next.
UC boasts of an average monthly earning of Rs. 50,000 for its beauty workers, claiming that this is double or triple what they could hope to earn in physical parlors. In our conversations, both Dakshita and Nandita reported earning Rs. 30,000-40,000 at the most, in a good month. Both voiced concerns about the high rates of commission fee charged.
While the Covid crisis resulted in an immediate and debilitating hit on incomes, relief and protections from the platform came at their own pace. The precarity of women gig workers’ ‘contractual employment’ couldn’t survive the delay. Many non-banking financial companies continued to demand loan repayments in contravention of Reserve Bank of India’s Covid-related guidelines, government relief shut out platform workers, and brick-and-mortar parlors were no longer a real alternative. For women gig workers, these livelihood problems were compounded by the constant and silent injunction to return home to their families.
Neither Nandita nor Dakshita received any clear communication from UC on its Covid-related initiatives. Even when they had heard of the company’s health insurance scheme, prior experience kept them skeptical. In the past (pre-Covid), one of Nandita’s co-workers received no help from the platform when she was suffering from dengue. This was not an isolated incident. Such disappointments over the course of their engagement with the company left them both without hope. Going by the attitudes of their managers in the past, neither believed that the new health insurance scheme held any promise for them.
Workers had been asked to bear the costs of safety equipment on their own, which, coupled with the exacting commission fees, created a big dent in their already deteriorating income. Dakshita pointed to the cost of traveling to the client using only ride-hailing services like Ola and Uber, which, again, piled on the costs incurred by workers.
In April, UC published a blog with details on its Project Kavach (armour), an eight-point protocol to ensure the safety of workers on its platform, including providing personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, masks, and goggles. In the experience of the women I spoke to in May, very little of this eight-point agenda materialized for workers. Nandita shared that workers had been asked to bear the costs of safety equipment on their own, which, coupled with the exacting commission fees, created a big dent in their already deteriorating income. Dakshita pointed to the cost of traveling to the client using only ride-hailing services like Ola and Uber, which, again, piled on the costs incurred by workers. While UC had also announced income protection and soft loans, the women I spoke to were unaware of these measures. Dakshita pointed out that a loan would have been extremely helpful at a moment of crisis.
Of course, by the time these announcements were made and the details communicated to the workers (if at all), it was already too late. Both the women we spoke to were contemplating returning home and giving up on seeking livelihoods in the city.
This vastly unequal impact that the pandemic had on platform companies versus the workers who offered their services on these platforms stems, in large part, from the fact that companies are never constrained by a static workforce. Cushioned by India’s surplus labor force, platforms dexterously leverage this crucial advantage to ward off any attempt to negotiate labor protections and choose business-as-usual over the safety of workers. This unequal bargaining power, and the extreme precarity it leaves them with, is a fact not lost on these women. These unequal outcomes, however, spiralled during the pandemic. For Dakshita and Nandita, any hope of economic independence was snuffed out as they struggled to pay the next round of rent, failing which, they prepared to return home.
Why Women Workers Are Unheard in Post-Covid Migration Stories
The beauty and wellness sector in India employs approximately seven million people. A report prepared by KPMG for the National Skill Development Corporation, points out that women constitute over half of this workforce. It also notes the overwhelming presence of migrant women from the North East, West Bengal, Nepal, and Bhutan in a sector where caste-based stigma (in hair cutting, for instance) and the absence of social security and formal training are rampant.
Despite the predominance of migrant women in the beauty sector workforce, media coverage of migrant workers during the lockdown left women out. Dipankar Gupta, in a recent analysis for The Hindu, attributed this invisibility to the smaller percentage of women who actually returned home during the moment of crisis. According to him, reverse-migration during a crisis is propelled by the need to be around family in order to ensure customary rituals can be performed correctly in case of death by distress/disease; women already constitute that family in cities for their husbands and children and therefore find permanency in their urban lives. “This makes their transition more permanent because they now generally have properly anchored urban husbands”, he writes as an explanation for why “it was mostly men walking on highways, or leaving from train stations and bus stands”.
This analysis of women in the economy, seen only through the lens of motherhood and wife-hood, can hardly account for why the discourse on migrant workers remains centered around men. It makes no space for single women who migrated to cities and returned home during the crisis. While it offers an insight into the differential patterns of men and women who migrate, it fails to include the stories of single women who may migrate for reasons beyond just escaping poverty.
Even migration theories have largely focused on the push factors of poverty and unemployment without employing a gender lens; in India, plenty has been said about women migrating for marriage, but not much beyond that. When Nana Oishi analyzed migration data from six Asian countries including India, she found that more women emigrate from economically better off countries while more men emigrate from low-income countries, indicating that economic factors such as unemployment and poverty do not necessarily drive women’s migration. A gender blind understanding of migration fails to capture and account for the full extent of women’s migration patterns in the platform economy. Oishi found that, for instance, in addition to the obvious economic factors, young single women often migrate in pursuit of independence and fulfillment.
This idea was echoed by Dakshita when she shared her dissatisfaction with having to return home to Assam after being left in the lurch by her ‘employer’. While migration itself can destabilize and transform domestic patriarchy, it is equally important to assess whether, in making the transition, migrant women are able to achieve the independence and security they seek.
The dominance of the platform economy is fueled by the availability of low-skilled surplus labor which platforms freely exploit without restrictions or fear of repercussions. The exploitation inherent to a service aggregator platform such as UC is felt by all workers it ‘employs’. But for women workers, the ramifications extend far beyond the economic fallout.
While men enjoy freedoms and control within the domestic, women often escape homes to seek their freedom, which is precisely why the prospect of returning home is more distressing to them.
When Nandita and her colleagues, raised the issue of exorbitant rates of commission with their manager at UC, their concerns were quickly dismissed. The manager callously retorted, “We will find many others (bohot saare ladki log mil jaate hain)”. The fates of Nandita and Dakshita were sealed by the end of March, as the luxury of expending time in a city without income protection expired quickly. The ease with which they could be dropped from the labor market, highlights the vulnerability of their economic participation to begin with. For them, the trajectories to freedom, independence, and economic empowerment broke irreparably. While men enjoy freedoms and control within the domestic, women often escape homes to seek their freedom, which is precisely why the prospect of returning home is more distressing to them.
From Affective Labor in Salons to Reproductive Labor at Home
To be sure, it would be remiss to ignore the freedoms that are accorded to migrant, single women by platform companies, including the flexibility of determining their working hours. Dakshita highlighted the benefit of being able to take leave whenever she fell sick. More generally, she could make her own trade-off between the number of hours worked and income earned. This was also an improvement over her previous employment at a massage parlor, where her earnings were lower and job risks higher.
Often seen as spaces of care and relationship building, they rely on the affective labor of parlor didis. Their labor is imbued with expectations of ‘pampering’ and empathetic listening – aspects which are invisibilized and therefore unremunerated.
There are several risks and burdens of working in spas or beauty parlors. Often seen as spaces of care and relationship building, they rely on the affective labor of parlor didis. Their labor is imbued with expectations of ‘pampering’ and empathetic listening – aspects which are invisibilized and therefore unremunerated. In some states in the United States, salon workers undergo training in handling disclosures of domestic violence and abuse, in case such a situation were to arise with a client. In spas and massage parlors, the threat of sexual harassment and assault always looms large. Often, employment in these spaces is defined by a situation of captivity and exploitation. In this regard, the degree of freedom and flexibility offered by ‘gig work’ is noteworthy, even as the pervasive nature of violence against women leaves them vulnerable at all times.
The flexibility of working ‘gigs’, however, comes with its own dangers. Rendered ‘gig-less’ and abandoned by their ‘employer’, Dakshita and Nandita returned home to domesticity. The initial impulse of seeking independence through migration, as studied by Oishi, was left unrealized. Rukmini S., in a recent article on Livemint, mentions her conversation with a 26-year-old erstwhile salon worker who expressed resentment over having to return to domestic responsibilities as men in the household revived expectations of a gendered division of labor.
This is the double betrayal faced by job-seeking young women in a capitalist patriarchal society. The neoliberal economy, hurtling towards precarity and ‘contractual labor’, provides no protections to women that would help them fulfill aspirations of economic freedom. On the other hand, returning home reinstates the age-old issue of assigning roles based on gender.
A Two-Sided Marketplace Where Women Lose at Both Ends
In March 2020, UC expanded its beauty services to other geographies including in the Australian market where it acquired shares in Glamazon, an Australian on-demand beauty service provider. It also has a presence in UAE and Singapore. What makes the at-home beauty services vertical so profitable, so much so that it has contributed the biggest chunk of revenue for UC in the years since its launch?
The lure of this vertical comes from the underlying factors of a young demographic and their willingness to spend on beauty and spa services. While general upkeep and grooming become increasingly normalized, their specific gendered aspects are well and truly alive. Since Betty Friedan’s theorization of The Feminine Mystique, the normative standards of beauty that apply to women have been as widely studied in academia as they have been pervasive in the everyday lives of women. Beauty services are a pathway to achieving these normative ideals. And herein lies the profitability of beauty services. Add to that the comfort of home-based service delivery, and platforms seemed to have found the goldmine. Ironically, it is women’s labor that is exploited in the process of monetizing on this society-wide impulse to make women look a certain way.
The platform, while productizing (‘service as product’) beauty services retains absolute control over this exchange, as the transactions are centralized. The two-sided marketplace, thus, hinges on the two-fold exploitation of women, both as consumers and as laborers.
A two-sided marketplace, by definition, facilitates an exchange between two distinct groups that mutually benefit each other based on the logic of network effects. In the case of UC, women who avail beauty services rely on the labor pool of gig workers, while gig workers, in turn rely on this aggregated demand for wages. The platform, while productizing (‘service as product’) beauty services retains absolute control over this exchange, as the transactions are centralized. The two-sided marketplace, thus, hinges on the two-fold exploitation of women, both as consumers and as laborers.
A 2020 McKinsey report on the global beauty industry, alludes to the sector’s resilience – during the 2008 financial crisis, it suffered a marginal downturn but bounced back within two years. In addition, the report predicts an accelerated rise of e-commerce marketplaces in the industry which is precisely the bandwagon that platforms like UC will ride on. While the labor problem (surplus and exploited) persists in India, women’s feminized labor will continue to power these marketplaces. It, thus, becomes imperative to infuse our analysis with a feminist understanding and expose the exploitation of women workers while holding platforms accountable on the anvil of labor rights.
*Names of interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.
This article is based on research conducted as part of an ongoing project titled, ‘Centering Women in India’s Digitalising Economy’, jointly undertaken by IT for Change (ITfC) and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), and supported by the European Commission.