High cost to women as African apps spread gospel of gig work


A graphic illustration of different faces, with blurred out eyes and covered mouths, in front of quotation marks. From Johannesburg to Cairo, domestic workers are joining gig platforms for work but face low pay and few safety nets. — Thomson Reuters Foundation

JOHANNESBURG, LAGOS, CAIRO: Women who mop, sweep and clean homes across Africa are riding a new wave of digital platforms that promise flexible work and fresh opportunity – but critics say the fast-growing apps only expose the gig workers to age-old abuse and exploitation.

They say the women – many of them vulnerable migrants – run a gamut of risks by signing up for gig work on the new apps, from underpay to assault, injury to debt, reputational damage as well as scant benefits and zero trade union representation.

“The narrative of the gig economy is that domestic workers have flexibility, but in reality they have less autonomy, they feel subordinated to both the platform and the clients,” said Kelle Howson, a researcher who is an expert on gig work in South Africa.

Exact figures on domestic gig work in Africa are hard to pin down – in part due to the digitisation of an often informal, unprotected sector.

Some 81% of the world's domestic workers are employed informally with no access to labour protection, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). And critics say gig platforms could only perpetuate this.

Some half a dozen platforms have sprung up in the last decade across the continent, connecting tens of thousands of unemployed women to clients and drawing in venture capital of roughly US$20mil.

The sector’s rapid growth and its risky nature are raising red flags for human rights watchdogs, who point to mounting worker unrest in Latin America and Asia against a business model they say is unfair.

“Domestic work happens behind closed doors so there is less visibility and, partly as a result of this, domestic workers are more vulnerable to exploitation,” said Howson, who works with Fairwork, a gig research project at Britain's Oxford Internet Institute.

The platforms say they create much needed jobs, but act only as mediators, not actual employers, a scenario that can expose domestic workers to psychological pressure, financial exploitation and physical risk. And can let bad employers or arms-length platforms evade responsibility when things go wrong.

Take Fiona, a 36-year-old domestic worker who mopped floors, scrubbed toilets and wiped countertops in tens of South African homes for almost six months and did it all, essentially, for free. This was because her travel and mobile phone data costs surpassed what little she earned in the 400-hour probation period she said was mandatory for her to register on a local gig platform.

“When you are desperate for a job, you just take it,” said Fiona, who survived the probation period by borrowing from friends to top up her initial earnings of about US$130 a month. Her platform of choice was Sweep South – the country’s biggest app for gig work – which was launched in 2014 by local entrepreneurs.

Gig workers on sites such as Sweep South say they fear being kicked off the apps if they dare to speak out against practices that are intrinsic to the platforms and which they say can be exploitative.

Inadequate safety protocols, penalties for sick days, low pay, and denial of lunch and bathroom breaks are just some of the concerns shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation by more than a dozen app-based cleaners, former employees and customers.

Interviewed in three countries across the continent, all asked to use pseudonyms for fear of being barred from their apps after speaking out.

“We worry that these apps are undoing all the progress we fought so hard for,” said Gloria Kente, a former domestic worker turned organiser in the South African Domestic and Service Allied Workers Union.

“Just because it is digital, it doesn’t mean the battle for our rights has changed,” said Kente, 59, who has spent the last decade fighting for worker rights.

Backbone of the economy

Globally, domestic workers represent 2.3% of the world’s workforce – some 76 million people – and the majority of them work informally, without proper contracts or benefits. More than three in four are women. And the women of sub-Saharan Africa are especially vulnerable, according to U.N. Women, which says 63% of the world’s women who live in extreme poverty are found in that region.

Supporters of the sector say the platforms open doors for people who would not otherwise find paid work, and that the workers like the new regime of flexible, on-demand jobs.

Among the biggest platforms are South Africa’s Sweep South, Nigeria’s Eden Life and Egypt’s Filkhedma, promising a lifeline to desperate job seekers in regions with few other openings.

Critics say that migrants are among the most vulnerable.

From Sudanese women mopping Egyptian floors to Zimbabweans washing the clothes of South Africans, many on the app are far from home, without family and cannot find any other work.

“I thank them for creating these jobs,” said Naledi, a 33-year-old Zimbabwean cleaner in South Africa, home to an estimated one million domestic workers. “But we are afraid to complain in case we lose the work.”

Venture capitalists backed Sweep South, which now has 30,000 registered workers and was expanding into new markets, before cost concerns put an expansion into Kenya and Nigeria on hold. Egypt's Filkhedma – born in 2014 – was bought by Sweep South a year ago as part of a grand plan to fan out across the continent. It now has 300 registered domestic workers.

About one third of domestic workers are already hired through agencies or platforms, according to the informal worker charity Wiego, a figure that gig economy experts say is likely to grow as both unemployment and tech access expands across the continent.

Already, at least 365 digital platforms are found in eight African countries alone, connecting some 4.8 million workers to an average 92,000 users each month, according to South African think tank Cenfri.

‘Red devil’

The complaints levelled at the apps mostly centre on their imbalance of power.

Sick leave is a case in point.

When Nancy woke with flu one winter day last year – a day she was meant to clean a client's house – she was forced to cancel on the Sweep South South Africa app, only to spot what some workers call the “red devil emoji” next to her name.

The emoji stayed for 30 days, long after her flu had left.

“I was so ashamed, and worried it would impact me getting work,” said Nancy, who felt nervous to challenge a rating that tracks her reliability and her average customer rating in case it fell still further.

Sweep South said the red unhappy face – the firm stressed this was not a devil icon – appears if a cleaner’s rating falls below average. It stays up for 30 days – absent any “SweepStar” appeal – and is not visible to customers, Sweep South added.

“The constant tacit threat of deactivation ... reduces those workers’ power and agency,” said Howson of Fairwork. “They don’t know if they might wake up tomorrow and have lost their livelihoods.”

Allegations of wrongdoing can also put a worker on the back foot. A former Sweep South senior employee said that when domestic workers were accused of stealing, external arbitrations were held by an ex-police detective.

The source said the detective would sometimes base his verdict solely on reading a worker's body language in a video interview.

“The customer was always right,” he said, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal. Sweep South said that while accusations of theft are very rare, guilt was determined “based on a balance of probabilities and extensive interviews of both the client, any witnesses, and the SweepStar” herself.

The SweepStar is permanently deactivated from the platform if she is found guilty. If deemed innocent, the SweepStar will be reactivated and the client may face deactivation or could be reported to the relevant authorities.

Sweep South did not give figures on how many clients or cleaners had been barred from the app.

Fair commission

The biggest bugbear for most gig workers is fair pay – or the lack of it.

Sweep South stipulates on its site that SweepStars get between 80% and 96% of the total booking fee based on their experience, and 65% during the first “two to three months trial period to recoup costs”. But domestic workers interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said even after the 400-hour trial period, their payments fluctuated from area to area, making budgeting near impossible.

Cleaners from all three apps said they could spend up to 65% of their daily earnings on data and public transport to get to work. Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the world’s highest data costs.

Sweep South said its earnings model took into account a host of factors from supply and demand, location, the cleaner’s performance rating, and the date and length of any job.

In Nigeria, 22-year-old Dare has worked for both local cleaning app Eden Life and Sweep South, which launched in Nigeria in July 2022.

Eden Life was founded in 2019 with 70+ domestic workers. SweepSouth paid him 7,000 naira (RM68 or US$15) for half a day scraping paint and cement stains off floors, windows and toilets of a newly-built three-bedroom apartment in Lagos.

The worker said he received no extra compensation despite logging a complaint about a job he called far more strenuous than the simple task outlined on the app.

“I had to make a video to let them know what I did was different from what they told me about the job. They said I was complaining too much – I just has to clean it,” the 22-year-old recalled.

Further north of the continent, domestic gig workers voice similar challenges.

Mona El Sayed, a 36-year-old Sudanese cleaner cum English teacher who is based in Cairo, joined Filkhedma in September to feed her three children as the cost of living spiked.

But her share of the earnings, she said, felt unfair after the platform kept a quarter for itself. “The price of one order is 295 Egyptian pounds (US$12), I take 218 Egyptian pounds (US$9) from that figure...it’s pennies,” she said.

Moataz Dinana, co-founder of Filkhedma, said there was a “bonus model” that offers financial rewards to those who have higher ratings every month to supplement their income.

What worker rights?

Regulating domestic work is a challenge largely because it goes unseen, behind closed doors, says the ILO. More than a third of the world’s domestic workers are not entitled to maternity leave.

But the apps are quick to distance themselves from labour rights issues. “We are just a marketplace,” said Dinana of Filkhedma, explaining why employees who find work through the platform get no benefits such as maternity or sick leave.

In Nigeria, 22-year-old Adam is still waiting to hear back from Eden Life after he broke his arm when he fell down a flight of stairs mopping a client’s floor last year. While Eden Life said it does not have a medical plan for its cleaners, it does reimburse them for any treatment if they provide photographic proof of an injury or an invoice from a hospital.

Despite sending a photo of his injured arm to his line manager on WhatsApp, and several attempts to follow up his request, Adam did not hear back and had to pay for the treatment himself.

Eden Life said it hoped to add a feedback section to the site so workers like Adam can make seek redress. However, it gave no timeline for launching the new feature.

Middle man

A former executive at one of the biggest gig worker sites said the platforms relied on their status as middle man in the triangle to shun certain responsibilities for the job-seekers it connected to vacancies.

Take the insurance scheme that operates in South Africa, where an employee can be registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) through the Department of Employment and Labour.

Should the worker then become unemployed or unable to work, short-term relief is provided to the worker through the department.

A total of 2% of the employee's salary must be paid into the UIF each month – half paid by the employer, and the other half can be deducted from the worker's wages. But that depends on everyone paying into the insurance pot.

“The client and the platform don’t pay UIF – even if they are hired five days a week by the same person – because workers are not actually considered employees,” said the former Sweep South employee. “The workers just fall between the cracks,” they said.

‘Work with us’

The very nature of the virtual registration to find work on these platforms make it hard for cleaners to share their grievances in-person and push for benefits, said Howson from Fairwork.

In countries such as India, Brazil and Mexico, gig domestic workers are pushing back against online exploitation through protests, and even designing their own worker-led apps.

Kente said the way forward was for platforms to consult the gig workers who power their profits and create a more ethical model for flexible business.

”These apps are growing around the world, but there must be a conversation with us, the unions, who have been working at the forefront of domestic worker rights for so many years,” she said. “My message to these apps is work with us, don’t leave us behind.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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