Gig job apps on the spot over failure to protect domestic workers

Tuesday February 28 2023
A domestic worker washing clothes

A domestic worker washing clothes. Human rights watchdogs criticised gig work apps for not protecting domestic workers from exploitation. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Women who clean homes in 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, by signing up for gig work on the new apps, are likely to run into risks ranging from underpay to assault, injury, debt, 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 research expert for a gig work in South Africa.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), some 81 percent of the world's domestic workers are employed informally with no access to labour protection. In addition, critics say gig platforms could only perpetuate this.

“Already, at least 365 digital platforms are found in eight African countries alone. These platforms connect some 4.8 million workers to an average 92,000 users each month and draw in venture capital of roughly $20 million,” according to South African think tank Cenfri.

Among the biggest platforms are South Africa’s SweepSouth, Nigeria’s EdenLife and Egypt’s Filkhedma.


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 and so, there is less visibility. 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.

Workers’ rights abuse

The platforms say they create much needed jobs but act only as mediators, not actual employers; a scenario that 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 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 it was mandatory for her to register on a local gig platform.

"When you are desperate for a job, you just take it." said Fiona.

Her platform of choice was SweepSouth – 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 exploitative practices.

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

Globally, domestic workers represent 2.3 percent of the world's workforce (approximately 76 million people) and 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 UN, which says 63 percent of the world's women who live in extreme poverty are found in the 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.

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.

New opportunities

Venture capitalists backed SweepSouth, 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, an operating since 2014, was bought by SweepSouth a year ago as part of a grand plan to fan out across the continent.

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.

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

No benefits

When Nancy woke with flu one winter day last year, on her work day, she was forced to cancel on the Sweep 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.

SweepSouth said the red unhappy face appeared if a cleaner's rating fell below average. It stayed up for 30 days and was not visible to customers.

"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 a back foot.

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

SweepSouth stipulates on its site that SweepStars get between 80 percent and 96 percent of the total booking fee based on their experience, and 65 percent during the first "two to three months’ trial period to recoup costs".

But domestic workers interviewed by Context 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 percent of their daily earnings on data and public transport to get to work.

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

In Nigeria, 22-year-old Dare has worked for both local cleaning app EdenLife and SweepSouth, which launched in Nigeria in July 2022.

SweepSouth paid him 7,000 Naira ($11) 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.

The ILO said regulating domestic work was a challenge largely because it went unseen behind closed doors.

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 Moataz Dinana, Co-founder of Filkhedma, explaining why employees who find work through the platform get no benefits such as maternity or sick leave.

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.

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.

By Kim Harrisberg, Bukola Adebayo and Menna Farouk