Think the gig economy provides a platform for ‘women’s empowerment’? Take a look at Ukraine and think again

Think the gig economy provides a platform for ‘women's empowerment'? Take a look at Ukraine and think again

A Glovo delivery driver navigates traffic in the centre of Kyiv, Ukraine on 29 September 2020.


Ukraine currently occupies fourth place in the world and first place in Europe when it comes to the number of people working on digital labour platforms, according to pre-pandemic data. App-based work via companies like Uber, Glovo, Rocket and Uklon, or online freelance platforms such as Kabanchik, Freelance and Freelancehunt, as well as outsourced jobs in the IT industry are booming in Ukraine.

This ‘success’ in the global rankings of digital platform and app-based work has been many years in the making. The high informality inherent in Ukraine’s labour market (about 30 per cent of the national labour force, or at least 3.27 million workers are informal) enables the normalisation of precarity – and for the occurrence of workers’ rights violations, many of which disproportionately affect women.

As full-time formal sector jobs and industries declined through the 1990s and into the 2000s, few employment alternatives emerged in Ukraine. The economic crisis of 2014-2015, precipitated by the war with Russia, augmented the issue due to the austerity measures implemented by Ukraine’s government between 2014-2017. Left with no alternatives and limited state support, Ukrainian workers have either been migrating en masse in search of opportunities abroad, or taking the jobs – whichever jobs are available – at home.

In the absence of formal jobs, resources, or adequate care infrastructure, women in Ukraine are significantly more likely than men to work informally.

According to data from the Ukrainian workers’ rights NGO and legal clinic Labor Initiatives, employers frequently discriminate against women during the formal hiring process, either based on the ‘risk’ of pregnancy, family status, or women’s caregiving obligations and needs. With that, women aged 18 to 45 – women who are highly capable of productive work and career growth – are even more likely to be informally employed in Ukraine.

This leaves Ukrainian women grappling with informality as a barrier to economic independence and income security. Informal jobs lead to gender-based discrimination in the workplace, with women at greater risk from harassment and violence due to the lack of basic labour protections and leverage against their employers, and at risk of domestic violence due to economic insecurity. Women working informally cannot join or form trade unions and actualise their right to freedom of association. This combination of factors leaves women systemically invisible. It also means that women are increasingly pushed to join the gig economy, for lack of any better options.

The gendered gig economy in Ukraine: what we do and don’t know

Gender analysis of the platform economy in Ukraine is sparse, much like any analysis at all. Platform companies are renowned for labeling their workers as ‘self-employed’ to mask labour relations and evade tax responsibilities, which translates to a lack of gender-disaggregated data on work via apps or online platforms.

Given the available information, the gender segregation of Ukraine’s labour market has partly replicated itself in the on-location platform economy, where most delivery riders and app-based drivers are men, while women are more likely to work for online platforms related to care work or the creative industries.

With ageism and gender discrimination rampant throughout the broader labour market, the gig economy often presents a viable option for women, with its declarative flexibility and low threshold to entry. Upon a closer look, the said benefits prove illusory, as women are offered the ‘freedom’ to be exploited regardless of age, race, faith, or gender identity.

According to a research project on women’s invisible labour, women in Ukraine’s platform economy and other informalised sectors are underpaid and overworked in their jobs, while having to juggle the expectation of performing care work at home.

For example, Anna, a former freelancer who shared her story during a panel on the rights of digital workers organised by the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine in October 2021, says that she resorted to working for an online platform to earn a living while taking care of her newborn child. Her skills in graphic design and writing landed her task offers ranging from booklet design to text editing, mediated by several platforms. However, as Anna reveals, cobbling together a decent income through freelance work is highly insecure, with the additional risk of wage theft.

“You constantly take on more tasks, even when you realize that you are exhausted. And my laptop was worn out too – I had to purchase a new one every couple of years, spending my own money to upgrade equipment,” says Anna. “I often had clients who would receive a completed order and disappear without paying. Freelancers, and especially women, deserve clear platform policies on pay guarantees and a right to disconnect.”

The on-location platform workers similarly struggle to patch together enough job orders to make a decent living. Olha (not her real name), a part-time delivery rider for Glovo, reports making about 400 hryvnias (US$15) for four hours’ work, having covered 20 kilometres by bicycle. “Our combined earnings – pay-per-order and bonuses - have dropped 40 per cent during the pandemic,” she says.

Although this has been a global phenomenon due to the surge in the number of workers joining platform companies, in Ukraine, anecdotal evidence suggests that the drop in wages experienced here is due to the classic gig economy model of companies luring in new workers with high initial wages as they establish their company in a new territory, before slashing wages as they command a greater share of the market.

“This [reduction in pay] happened suddenly, when the first lockdown was introduced,” says Olha. “And if I can’t catch an order, I just work my butt off pedalling around the city for no pay.”

As these accounts demonstrate, gig companies normalise the high pace endured by its workers. Gig workers also have to pay for their own equipment, stand by for orders with their waiting time unpaid, and have minimal bargaining power against the algorithms. The ‘double burden’ of balancing employment and unpaid (and often unappreciated) home responsibilities endured by women, turns into a triple burden in the gig economy, with paid work funding both the women’s care responsibilities and their work- and equipment-related expenses.

Unfeminist futures in the gig economy

There are still many unknowns about the scope and ramifications of the gig economy for women workers in Ukraine and globally, but one thing is certain: the gig economy is not going to disappear anytime soon. More and more sectors are aggregating their workforce through digital platforms. Some experts are optimistic about this new development, suggesting that women will thrive thanks to the platform economy’s relatively low barriers to entry and the opportunities it provides to work independently and flexibly.

However, women’s lack of access to employment-based protections and benefits overshadows this optimism. And it is still assumed that women will continue to perform the majority of unpaid care work and will need flexible ‘gigs’ and ‘side hustles’ to make a living, with no meaningful state or private investments in care work or care infrastructures.

The future of women working for platforms does not brim with promises of stability or economic security.

The pension pay gap in Ukraine is already high – with men’s pensions 33 per cent higher than women’s, on average. Given that the platforms neither adhere to local tax commitments when it comes to replenishing pension funds, nor pay their fair share of taxes locally, it is likely that the pension pay gap will widen. Women’s pay rate in the gig economy is insufficient to allow them to save up enough funds for the near future, never mind the long-term.

Combatting discrimination in the gig economy goes hand in hand with eliminating other systemic inequities, such as the gender pay gap and the vertical segregation of the labour market. Until further progress is made, women will be left with fewer options, mostly on machine and algorithm-managed digital and on-location platforms. Algorithms, however, deprive all workers, but women workers in particular, of agency, ownership over their own work and time, and of the means to influence how apps and platform policies are built.

The digital revolution the world is undergoing now is rather a devolution to pre-industrial-era workplace practices, and a rollback in women’s rights. The curse of precariousness and informality that is put on women is intensified and normalised by the platform economy, with patchwork hustle presented as a mode of ‘empowerment’ for women. Under the shroud of glossy user interfaces, digital platforms prey on the economic vulnerabilities of workers, especially in countries like Ukraine, where crisis after crisis has exhausted the workers’ resources and collective power. It is imperative to de-normalise the discourse on platforms as avenues for ‘women’s empowerment’. After centuries of disempowerment, including in the workplace, women deserve better.