Gendered practices on digital platforms: beauty platform workers and their customers in India
Digital labour platforms have become a global phenomenon and one of the most relevant transformations in the world of work over the past decade. Yet, although there is a growing body of knowledge on the platform economy, the literature on sectors with a predominantly female workforce remains limited. This includes the experiences of both female platform workers and users.
As in other parts of the world, the beauty and wellness industry in India is growing and seeing a rise in e-commerce and digital labour platforms that connect freelance beauty professionals with clients. India is home to one of the world’s fastest-growing markets and is also home to one of the largest digital labour platforms in the region, Urban Company, which offers beauty services as well as a variety of domestic services. In this context, this report poses the question: What are the experiences of workers and their customers using digital platforms in the beauty sector in India?
The report draws on research, carried out in collaboration between Digital Future Society and the International Institute of Information Technology of Bangalore. It highlights the relationship workers and customers have with the platforms, as well as workers’ incomes and their day-to-day routines. It offers first-hand perspectives and stories, including insights into the workers’ backgrounds and why they decided to start working through digital labour platforms. Questions were also asked about the experience of working on the online platform and explored the use and impact of customer reviews, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, among other issues.
Understanding the varied experiences of those finding work through apps and web platforms is crucial for evidence-based policymaking.
Olivia Blanchard, DFS Think Tank researcher
Interviews took place in Bangalore and the National Capital Region (NCR), home to the country’s largest volumes of gig workers. The NCR includes Delhi, Gurugram, Noida and surrounding areas.
The introduction of the report
Platform worker and customer insight snapshots
Workers reported that they had increased their earnings through working on the platforms. Two of the respondents made this point clear by pointing out domestic purchases they’d recently made, including items such as refrigerators, TV sets and air conditioning units. Some of the workers reported that were able to save money too, but this depended mostly on other domestic circumstances, such as whether or not they were living with a husband who held a steady job. All workers in Bangalore reported themselves to be migrants and added that they had to send money back to their homes or husbands.
Workers also reported positively on the added flexibility and control working through the platforms gave them over their schedules. This is in contrast to salon workers who must remain on the premises all day, even when they don’t have clients. One respondent said she joined the platform because she noticed other platform workers in her neighbourhood always returned home from work earlier than salon workers. Other benefits of this temporal flexibility included having more time for housework and other family responsibilities such as childcare, with one respondent reporting she was able to take time off to support her daughter while she was preparing for exams.
Urban Company workers have to regularly interact with category managers. However, The platform does not encourage or accept worker-governed bodies as a channel for interaction with workers, and limits itself to management-led initiatives. These initiatives include a helpline and WhatsApp groups for workers to voice grievances, regular focus group discussions with small groups of workers hosted either at the company offices or in cafes, and a quarterly job satisfaction survey for workers to give feedback on their experience with the platform and offer input on policies they would like changed.
Yes Madam workers also have WhatsApp groups for formal communication, organised by region. For example, there is a west Delhi group that includes all workers and administrative staff. Managers and trainers communicate via these groups. During the lockdown, the WhatsApp groups were used to disseminate information and training videos. As management are present on the WhatsApp groups, they are not used for collective action.
Worker interviews revealed that they do not have separate WhatsApp groups just communicate with each other.
When asked about their sense of professional identity, workers repeatedly listed the same set of attributes, emphasising professionalism rather than entrepreneurialism. They agreed that wearing clean ironed clothes was of utmost importance, along with light makeup that included lipstick, eyeliner, and hair tied in a neat bun with a net cover. One interviewee compared beauty workers to flight stewardesses and nurses, saying that, if they were not smartly turned out, customers would not allow them near their bodies. Workers mentioned that being well groomed was essential as the face is the first thing that customers notice. Next, it was important to be soft-spoken and attentive to customers’ needs.
Beyond physical appearance, other attributes such as being punctual, laying out and arranging the set up before beginning work, cleaning the workspace after work was completed, and not hurrying through the service all contributed to being a professional. One worker even said that just like a doctor can give a patient a diagnosis, being a professional beauty worker means that she too should be able to look at a customer’s skin and suggest an appropriate facial treatment.
Owing to the training that platforms offer their workers, customers ascribe a professional identity to the platform workers. As a result, customers are not particular about having a preferred worker providing the services they order. This is despite both apps offering the choice. Customers revealed that consistent punctuality, neatness, cleanliness and an organised way of working, coupled with good ratings and experience, contributed to the professional identity of online workers.
The quality of the actual work performed on their bodies was also mentioned as a determining factor when gauging the professional identity of a worker. The pain experienced through services such as threading recurred in several interviews and customers mentioned that professional workers have the skill needed to minimise pain. Other observations related to performing facial treatments and whether workers were able to apply just the right kind of pressure during massages. Customers also mentioned listening to and following instructions, and putting the customer comfort first, as signs of professionalism. For example, several customers mentioned that a worker’s responsiveness to feedback about wax temperature was a mark of professional identity.
Lastly, customers also referred to their pre- and post-service experience with the app. In the pre-service observations, customers mentioned being impressed by how self-reliant the workers are, having every possible tool required for various tasks including spatulas, mixing bowls, pedicure tubs, clean sheets, paper towels, etc. Customers also mentioned that they were impressed by how the workers required no instructions when setting up for a service and how even cleaning the space post-service required little intervention.
When field research for this study was completed in November 2020, the death toll due to the Covid-19 pandemic was over 170,000 in India. Beauty workers finding work through platforms, or employed by salons, saw their work and income drop overnight, while customers resorted to do-it-yourself treatments at home.
For the workers work began slowing down even before India formally announced the lockdown on 24 March 2020. Customers had already trickled down to nothing and the lockdown meant that the platforms could not officially operate as businesses. Throughout the lockdown period, a couple of workers reported that they continued to freelance for a limited number of customers who had called them on their personal numbers. However, most workers reported having nothing to do during the lockdown and feeling desperate for work.
Incomes were badly hit by the lockdown and workers faced significant loss of earnings. Urban Company offered its workers a loan up to of 5,000 INR and most availed themselves of it. However, all workers reported that their savings were depleted because of the lockdown and that they had to borrow money from family and friends to keep themselves going. Yes Madam did not offer its workers any loans. Also, Urban Company announced a compensation of 1,000 INR a day for 14 days for workers who contracted the virus while working but Yes Madam did not offer any insurance to its workers.
Workers from both platforms, Urban Company and Yes Madam, reported receiving video training sessions throughout the lockdown and as it began to ease. This training included how to wear protective gear properly and how to suitably prepare and sanitise workspaces. Urban Company began charging customers a ‘hygiene fee’ to recoup the costs of providing workers with masks and gloves. Urban Company workers also reported an increase in the time taken to complete services because it took them longer to set up, sanitise the tools, and carry out their services while adhering to the pandemic regulations on hygiene that the platform required them to follow.
Consumer accounts of their beauty and grooming routines during the pandemic ranged from ordering online services because they could control hygiene at home, to deferring beauty services indefinitely and relying on do-it-yourself (DIY) routines. Customers reported resorting to DIY grooming tasks such as cold wax and face and hair masks. However, most found self-waxing and threading messy and some reported being helped by and helping their partners with tasks such as haircuts.
Urban Company required customers who ordered online services to submit a self-declaration about their health status to the platform. But customers reported that their declaration was not verified in any way. Two customers mentioned they would ask the worker about the other places she had visited before coming to their home. One customer even picked up and dropped off the worker to ensure safety. Another customer said she would ensure she took the first slot of the day so she was the first person the worker would visit. All customers said they would be willing to pay an additional 50–100 INR towards hygiene charges.
Customers reported seeing advertisements on social media when the platforms resumed services when the lockdown eased, while those who had the Urban Company app installed on their phones reported receiving notifications and messages about services resuming and discount offers.