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“I used to have my own parlour, but then I had my second child and needed to be at home. I started working for this app and it’s really convenient. I don’t earn as much but I can take work whenever I want, and if I have guests at home or my in-laws, I just switch it off. most of my in-laws don’t even know I do this work anymore” Former beauty salon owner

This is a quote from one of our interviewees when I was doing a collaborative study of app-based beauticians and massage therapists in Bengaluru, India (with Dr Joyojeet Pal at Microsoft Research). As an ethnographer of the ‘Future of Work’, I have been studying the lives, priorities, needs and aspirations of gig-worker communities in India for the past three years.

Researching the ‘next billion users’ and gig work

Much current research around the gig economy explores how different aspects of labour are shaped by ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Ola. Since most of these platforms originated outside India, there is now an increased volume of work attempting to understand how local contexts shape experiences of both users and workers of the gig economy, especially in non-Western contexts.

The explosion of on-demand, app-based service platforms now embrace a range of services, including beauty and wellness, as well as domestic work, domains that are traditionally dominated by women. However, there has been relatively little attention paid to how gender shapes the experience of working for a platform, an increasingly crucial area for research as, apart from the overall unemployment crisis, record numbers of women are exiting the workforce. Safety at-work and access to work, especially outside of white-collar jobs are definitely big concerns for women in India. But also, as we learned from women gig-workers in our study, traditional expectations around women’s social and economic roles in the household and the lack of financial independence severely shape women’s decisions to work (where, when, how, or not at all).

Becoming an ‘entrepreneur’ on platforms that offer on-demand beauty and wellness services then, can be seen as a useful alternative career path for women. This is especially the case for those women who have already worked in beauty salons but have resented the conditions that usually dominate these spaces. Based on our research we found that brick and mortar salons could be exploitative, sometimes irregular in their payment of salaries, and workers are often expected to serve one client after another without a break. Despite workers bringing more business to the salon, compensation is not proportionate, and is often time-intensive:

“I used to bring a business of Rs. 1-1.5 lakhs a month but got paid only Rs. 25,000” Former beauty salon worker

While in a slowing economy the attrition of women from work is alarming – the ‘reserve force’ nature of the gig economy platform means that the barrier to re-entry is low — at least four women workers we interviewed left work without notice, but easily returned after more than a month, retrained, and went back to earning on the platform again without any noticeable negative impact. This is radically different from enacting similar behaviours in a brick and mortar salon environment, where a prolonged absence can discredit workers and makes coming back to work more challenging. The element of choice (to take on any number of leads in a day) and the relaxed nature of commitment for both worker and platform makes such work definitely more attractive to women.

“Once you clock into these 5 star hotel salons, it is not easy to leave – work goes on until 10 pm sometimes” Former beauty salon worker

Lessons from app-based women’s work

Among the many lessons that we learned from our informants, two stood out for me. Firstly, in emerging markets (but also anywhere), platform-work is not absolutely exploitative or empowering. In the case of women beauty-workers in Bengaluru, it’s not just about gender. Bengaluru is the most migrated-into city and gig-economy platforms join existing avenues of easy, low-barrier entry into work for those migrating to the city from anywhere

Given that there aren’t defined career progression pathways for blue-collar and service-work (what next?) and salaries level out in a few years, entrepreneurship appeared as the most desirable end goal, both for autonomy and earnings. For migrants, single mothers, women looking to change from laborious work (waxing, threading) to more valued work (hairstyling, makeup), mothers looking to re-enter the workforce, the urgency of platform companies looking to recruit and capture new markets worked in their (workers’) favour even if they did not have strong social networks to find them work.

Secondly, in a society where manual and non-desk based work suffers from constant stigmatisation, working through apps tweaked the typical script of beautician-client interactions. As one masseuse told us, it was very common for security guards in apartment complexes, auto-drivers and random men to solicit sexual favours and make inappropriate remarks in public, while she was going to or leaving work. After signing up with a platform, she would simply invoke the app-name, something people would instantly recognise, almost as if they now perceived her to be a company-employee, which built a different perception than simply being a ‘beauty-parlour girl’.

The future of life vs the future of work

A research principle that I have personally adopted is that we need to understand the future of life in order to understand, predict and design for the future of work.

This extends Information and Communication Technologies Development (ICTD) researcher Kentaro Toyama’s argument that, in order to account for the aspirations of users in developing economies to design technological futures (especially in a country as young as India where half the population is under age 25) we need to move beyond need-based frameworks. This is particularly important as, especially when designing for women and the next billion workers at-large, there is often a tendency to essentialise these users (as “low-autonomy” users or those that need to be “nudged”).

Studying the overarching futures of life is not just an ethically sound thing to do, it is also a reorientation, an effort to participate and co-speculate with our users to see why and how they are living their present to reach futures of any kind.

What I have tried to show through my examples and learnings is also that if we adopt a holistic approach to people (beyond their user-ness) as actors creating sustainable lives within their complex, multi-faceted realities, while remaining aligned with their aspirations, it might not transform platform-work overnight into ideal and decent work but it would certainly infuse an ethic of care within NBU tech design. Such an ethic of care would involve workers/users in small or big ways rather than relying on behavioural change as the path to successful technology.

The THC X Obvious take

As the gig economy evolves, it evokes both respect for the employment and entrepreneurship opportunities it is creating as well as concern for the new behaviours it is shaping. Design will continue to have an outsize influence, as a small number of people designing these platforms, impact the lives of exponentially larger populations.

As you will see in the film in this section, this raises many questions for designers and there are no easy answers. It is perhaps time to start the debate by asking these all-important questions, including ‘What would be the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath for designers?’

Next Billion Stories is a series developed by The Hard Copy in collaboration with strategic design studio, Obvious.