Inclusion: Can women and other marginalized groups pursue this livelihood? Did participants report that platform livelihoods are available to everyone, or were there identifiable barriers preventing individuals from pursuing them? Some laud low barriers to entry and opportunities for youth. In freelancing and microwork, the fact that markets were global was seen a plus. Some suggested platform livelihoods welcomed the marginalized, particularly women. But this narrative was often offset by a litany of barriers, including having the physical assets to pursue the work, the knowledge and awareness of the work, structural barriers like driving licenses. Entrenched forms of discrimination by country and by gender were often reported.
As is to be expected in the development literature, the element of inclusion and exclusion receives a great deal of attention. The crux here is a focus on whether these livelihoods are available to everyone, or whether there are identifiable barriers preventing individuals from pursuing them.
Several studies offered some optimism, for example lauding the opportunities for youth in ride hailing, logistics, and labor (Kibe 2020), the low barriers to entry to being a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) driver in Kenya (Zollmann and Wanjala 2020), a driver in India (Surie and Koduganti 2016), the relative ease of finding work on a freelancing site vs. without a platform (Wood and Lehdonvirta 2019), or the idea that anyone, regardless of age or gender, could pursue microwork and freelancing (Graham, Hjorth, and Lehdonvirta 2017; Malik et al. 2020). Indeed, there was a clear international element. This undercurrent of accessibility was often framed as a form of globalization and export markets open to all (Crosby and Cahaya 2017; Panteli, Rapti, and Scholarios 2020), even when the service was domestic, but offered to international travelers and clientele (Garcia et al. 2020).
Some went further, focusing specifically on how some platform livelihoods welcomed the marginalized; for example, microtasking was accessible to people with disabilities (Rani and Furrer 2019) or to rural residents (Gray and Suri 2019) and migrants (Anwar and Graham 2019). As Grey and Suri (2019, xxx) put it, “The anonymity and remote access of on-demand platforms also made it easier for those marginalized informal employment—because of where they lived, at perceived disability, or their belonging to a stigmatized minority—to earn an income.”
Opportunities for women were often mentioned in this affirmative lens to inclusion, including on women driving for Gojek in Indonesia (Budiman 2020) and freelancing and microwork opportunities for women in sub-Saharan Africa (Anwar and Graham 2019). For example, McAdam, Crowley, and Harrison (2020) describe digital entrepreneurship (social commerce) in Saudi Arabia, suggesting that “The general sentiment among the respondents was that digital working was considered as a place where women felt comfortable and could flourish. This provision of a safe space appeared particularly relevant for the Saudi Arabian context which forbids the direct interaction with men.”
But this narrative was offset, often in the same studies, by observations of a litany of barriers erected that prevented many from pursuing these platform livelihoods.
The most clear-cut of these barriers is the physical assets to pursue the work. In ride hailing, it’s the bike (Budiman 2020), the car (Kibe 2020), or the kind of car allowed by the service that could leave people renting instead of owning (Geitung 2017). In local services, it can be the cost of the device on which to join and browse the platforms (Hunt et al. 2019); in microwork and freelancing, it can be the cost of the device on which to do the work (N. Gupta et al. 2014; Anwar and Graham 2020; 2019; Wood et al. 2019; Onkokame, Schoentgen, and Gillwald 2018), which, in some cases, better a costly PC than a simple phone (Newlands and Lutz 2020). The software (Gray and Suri 2019), the Wi-Fi (Anwar and Graham 2019; Wood et al. 2019; Onkokame, Schoentgen, and Gillwald 2018), and even the electricity come with costs (Malik, Nicholson, and Heeks 2018). In some contexts, would-be platform workers need a hefty balance in their electronic wallet before they are authorized to begin work (Budiman 2020; Malik, Nicholson, and Heeks 2018). In others, they must find a way to acquire the inventory they wish to sell, a significant barrier to youth entrepreneurship (Zollmann and Wanjala 2020).
Another set of barriers involves knowledge and awareness. Some frame this as digital literacy (Anwar and Graham 2020; Genesis Analytics 2019), for example, in acquiring skills to navigate ride-hailing apps in Bangladesh especially for women (Kumar, Jafarinaimi, and Bin Morshed 2018), or the basic digital literacy to engage in microwork (Khanna et al. 2010). Others move beyond basic literacy into knowhow, experience, or skills (Margaryan 2016; Malik, Nicholson, and Heeks 2018). Perhaps this is why there is an observed (and surprising) concentration of higher-educated people engaged in freelancing and microwork (Berg 2016; Melia 2020; Gray and Suri 2019). In some cases, the knowhow can be quite tacit and hard to acquire, like English skills in Indian microwork (Khanna et al. 2010), the international exposure that gives some a leg up in Cambodian social commerce (Jack, Chen, and Jackson 2017), and in the Chinese E-commerce cross-border personal shopping daigou (Zhao 2020).
Structural barriers like driving licenses for ride hailing in India (Kumar, Jafarinaimi, and Bin Morshed 2018), China (Chen 2018), and Indonesia (Budiman 2020) keep some would-be drivers away, as do a scarcity of referrals among those without good connections to established drivers in Bangladesh (Kumar, Jafarinaimi, and Bin Morshed 2018).
A more pernicious structural barrier is akin to algorithmic redlining. For example, on Amazon Mechanical Turk, payments to workers only flowed to bank accounts in the US and India (Lehdonvirta 2016; Gray and Suri 2019), although it had expanded to 25 countries in 2019. More broadly, in microtasking (Martin et al. 2016) and freelancing (Graham et al. 2017; D’Cruz and Noronha 2016; Muhindi 2019; D’Cruz 2017), buyers can still select by country, which enables individual level discrimination as easy as a drop-down menu (Anwar and Graham 2020). Thus, it remains the case that workers in the Global South earn less than their peers in the Global North. For example, Rani and Furrer (2019) found that Indian workers earned $2.48 per hour, while American workers earned $6.90, and that some premium tasks, such as content creation and editing, were only given to American workers. In response, some freelancers hide their locations through VPNs, or use pictures and aliases of people from the Global North to route around the challenge (Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019; Genesis Analytics 2019).
Unfortunately, many people have told many researchers about instances of gender discrimination in accessing platform livelihoods. Berg (2016) notes that most microworkers are men. Female respondents told Zollmann and Wanjala (2020) about a lack of access to dorms where freelancers could stay. Gupta (2020) described difficulties faced by Indian women in microwork for lack of social capital and restricted agency in patriarchal social structures, discouraging interaction with those beyond immediate family (see also Malik, Nicholson, and Heeks 2018; Aneja and Sridhar 2019; Onkokame, Schoentgen, and Gillwald 2018; Kiarie, Singh, and Obiko 2020). Lack of awareness was a significant barrier to women working online, with 21% vs. 31% awareness of freelancing opportunities among women and men in India and Sri Lanka (Bandaranayake et al. 2020).
In sum, these barriers to participation may be compounding and intersectional in ways that literature is only beginning to document, and it is important to note how they present bigger risks and more prospects for discrimination, manipulation, and withholding among those from poor disadvantaged backgrounds (Anwar and Graham 2020). Also, its important to stress that the challenges women face in platform livelihoods expand beyond this one element of inclusion; hey come up in nearly every element of the experience. For this reason, we also address gender as a holistic, cross-cutting issue later in the review.
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