The Gig Economy Blues

The precariousness of life for women gig workers—in services like cleaning, driving, gardening, beauty supply, and catering—in Kenya.

Lucy Nyangasi, domestic worker, Kenya. Image credit Kate Holt for the Solidarity Center, 2016 via Flickr CC.

Switching from a formal job in marketing to driving a taxi in Nairobi was difficult for Ivy, but she needed an immediate income to support her family. Ivy is a single mother who had separated from her husband and moved back to Kenya (from Uganda) to care for her ailing mother, as well as a young son and nephew. Ride-hailing apps had just started in early 2017 when she joined one of the ride-hailing app companies, and she soon found herself working from 4am to midnight to earn a liveable wage. Within a few months, Ivy realized that these hours were affecting her family negatively; her son started crying more and demanding that she play with him instead of going to work. This led her to reallocate some of her time from paid work to looking after her children:

I would [go] for weeks without [seeing] my children … I would come [home] very late when they had already gone to sleep so they would not see me at all. So, I changed. … I am the one who takes them to school now, I bond with them, we talk, we enter the car, and we do our prayer session as we are going … to school. I get to pick them [at around 3pm] and drop them home. Then I go back to work and do the evening, from around 5pm to 11pm, [finding] jobs at night.

Ivy is not alone in facing such trade-offs. The Gig Economy is expanding rapidly in countries like Kenya and South Africa to include services such as cleaning, driving, gardening, beauty supply, and catering. Workers obtain “gigs” through mobile apps (or “platforms”) that connect them with service purchasers, providing work opportunities in economies often characterized by high un- and under employment. In a recent Overseas Development Institute report, we interrogate how such gig work affects women’s economic empowerment in Kenya and South Africa, and argue that the flexibility gig platforms offer is not always evident in practice.

Our interviews with women gig workers showed that those with young children often awoke as early as 3am to prepare their children and commute to their gigs. Where they could, women sought childcare from family, neighbors, friends, and paid child minders. Some sent friends or colleagues to pick up their children from school or a childcare center if they were running late. Others took their children to work risking occupational accidents and/or client hostility. A few women reported declining gigs, especially on weekends, in order to spend time with their families.

However, our research also suggests a reliance on high-risk strategies to balance paid and unpaid work. One domestic worker in Kenya, who lived outside the city where housing was more affordable, had to commute for two hours with her six-month old toddler every time she got a gig, while her other three children, all under age seven, would walk on their own to and from school. Another woman had to ask the boda bodas (motorbikes used for public transport in Kenya) near her child’s school to drop her children home after classes if she was held up at a gig. Such experiences risked exposing children to a range of harmful consequences associated with being unaccompanied in Kenya’s informal settlements and at home.

The women we interviewed also attached little value to rest and self-care. They were always ready to take a gig and often described an ideal day as one in which they had earned a liveable wage. They expressed pride in always working and not taking a break. Days off, when taken, were spent on childcare, cleaning, cooking, and going to the market.

Ivy said that taking the weekend off would require her to work longer days in the week in order to earn the income her family required: “I can decide I’m resting on Sunday, but if I decide I’m resting on Sunday, then that means I will have to work more over the week.”

As such, she found little or almost no time to rest, eat lunch, or see friends. She had started carrying a packed lunch in her car to save time and money, and had cut her hair to reduce the time needed at a salon.

Because platform companies may provide gigs at any time of the day or night, resting would mean switching off apps or phones and not responding to gig requests. However, almost all the workers we spoke with would rarely switch off from the platforms as they were not in a position to forgo any potential income.

Instances of gig worker organization are few and far between. In Kenya, Ivy’s fear of losing her only income source prevented her from demonstrating alongside other platform drivers in the city in 2017 and 2018. Despite her belief that platform companies needed to improve working conditions, she was not willing to forgo a day’s livelihood in order to spend a day on the streets in protest. “What was happening like in this last strike, is that people were told, ‘Do not … do not work.’ So, ‘do not work,’ for us as ladies, mothers, what does it mean? Our families do not eat.”

In other words, Ivy’s focus on providing for her family did not give her the luxury to consider better working conditions, or to want to be part of the change process. The trade-offs that gig work pose need addressing through platform design features that strike a balance between flexibility and stability, government policy that seeks to uphold worker rights and protections, and to redistribute care work by encouraging men to take on more responsibility for unpaid care and providing supports to childcare. While worker organization has historically been an important pathway to change, the responsibility must not be left to workers alone, particularly lower-income women workers who are by necessity focused on short term survival.

Further Reading

Like family

An excerpt from a new book published by Wits University Press that explores how domestic workers are depicted in South African historiography and literature.