The gig economy, including both crowdsourcing and on-demand platforms, claimed to offer an inclusive change for workers, especially women workers. Many reports and studies called attention to the opportunities for women’s economic empowerment and the improvement of workers’ skills and quality of life in the gig economy. For example, a report produced by World Bank Group, International Finance Corporation, highlighted that the ride-hailing industry had the potential to improve the economy, reshape lives, and liberate and empower women workers. However, my childhood encounters as well as my experience as a female gig worker suggest otherwise.

Travelling between Hong Kong and China with my dad on his business trips, I spent a lot of time in China’s nightclubs as a child, learning how a single, migrant mother struggled to make ends meet for her children and family while being sexually exploited. I was bewildered. Shouldn’t a hardworking woman be respected and fairly treated in her work? The emotional confusion became a personal struggle when I started a part-time, photographer job for a crowdsourcing platform in my final year of university. The rise of the gig economy provided a work opportunity for me, an undergraduate female student, to be one of the few female photographers on the platform. The hope of being a female photographer in a male-dominated workplace was smashed by my experiences of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and labour exploitation. I realized that the platform would not offer any protection or help to gig workers, let alone a female worker. Nonetheless, I was curious about the possibility of change within the gig economy. Could women’s oppression, sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and labour exploitation come to an end if the gig economy was alternatively organized and if the unpaid reproductive work was equally shared between men and women? With this question in mind, I began my investigation of Chinese female platform workers’ everyday experiences and struggles in 2020.

A case study: Didi Chuxing in China

I selected Didi Chuxing, the largest ride-hailing platform in China, as a case study to explore how the on-demand platform and unpaid domestic work would affect women gig workers and how they would respond to daily struggles in the platform-mediated workplace. Ride-hailing platforms are male-dominated in China and many studies of the ride-hailing industry exclusively focus on male drivers. Nonetheless, there is still a high number of female drivers – about 2.37 million in total – working for Didi Chuxing in 2021. In my study, I interviewed 30 female platform drivers and observed their daily interactions through WeChat and other social media like TikTok. Most importantly, I learnt about female platform drivers’ everyday work-family conflicts and documented labour resistance and women’s solidarity in China’s gig economy.

Women’s work-family conflicts

The gig economy has articulated the flexibility discourse, emphasizing worker’s autonomy to choose what types of jobs they take, when and where they work, and how long they want to work, which was particularly beneficial for women workers. For example, ride-hailing platforms promoted scheduling flexibility, which allowed women, especially mothers to prioritize family and caregiving and to find a balance between unpaid reproductive work and paid work. However, while more women workers are drawn to on-demand platform work, they are not enjoying scheduling flexibility. In my study, female platform drivers–mostly working-class, migrant mothers–were often caught up in work-family conflict. Many women drivers joined the ride-hailing platforms because they had no other means of production and they wanted to earn a bit more money. These female drivers believed that platform-based work was fairly paid compared with factory work. Moreover, many female platform drivers, especially single-mothers, often struggled between paid work and unpaid reproductive work because they were both the breadwinner and the caregiver of the family.

The social reproduction process, communication technologies, and labour resistance

The labour and gig economy scholarship focuses on how a worker is controlled by platform algorithms and communication technologies. However, I argue that the social reproduction process shapes female platform drivers’ productivity. The conflict between paid work and unpaid reproductive work sheds light on the importance of how the social reproduction process, including the individual subsistence and the child-caring responsibilities, influences workers’ productivity and the extent to which they are exploited by the platform.

Moreover, the communicative space, such as WeChat and TikTok is another arena for social reproduction, where female platform drivers organize cooperative child-care arrangements with other female drivers so that they can drive longer, or work at a particular time. Nonetheless, the communicative space also forges mutual support and creates a community of shared responsibilities in the absence of a shared workplace, thereby creating the potential for women workers to resist platform control, sexual exploitation and harassment, and gender-based violence in the workplace.

This communicative space is highly insecure, and women drivers are particularly vulnerable. Some male drivers, pretending to be female drivers, sneak into the women-only WeChat group and ask other female drivers to share their nude photos in the group chat. However, female platform drivers, who share similar struggles at work, facilitate networks and collective action through this communicative space. For example, some female drivers removed male drivers and Didi’s managers from the female-only WeChat group for Didi drivers, while others took the case of assaults to social media, fighting against gender-based violence in the ride-hailing industry.

A possibility of changing

 Joining the efforts of Marxist feminists, I highlight the fact that women’s oppression and labour exploitation are rooted in a classed and gendered society, where working-class women still need to sell their labour power in exchange for individual and family subsistence, to be responsible for unpaid reproductive work, and to cope with patriarchal and oppressive gender relations in the workplace. I hope that my research will contribute to the search for a better world, where democratic gender relations and fair work relations are possible. I also encourage gender and labour scholars to understand more about women’s lived experiences and problematics in the gig economy and to explore the extent to which platform cooperatives, equal division of unpaid reproductive labour, and democratic gender relations are the point of departure of class-conscious worker solidarity.

Haley Kwan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at The University of Hong Kong.

To read more, see Haley Kwan. “Women’s Solidarity, Communicative Space, the Gig Economy’s Social Reproduction and Labour Process: The Case of Female Platform Drivers in China” in Critical Sociology 2022.

Image source: Woman in the car via Piqsels