As women workers at India's Urban Company, an app-based firm providing beauty and home care services, prepared for a nationwide protest against its new rules and account deactivations, they exchanged hundreds of messages on WhatsApp on every small detail of the days-long action.

Thousands of Urban Company's female employees, backed by the All India Gig Workers' Union, took to the streets in July in about half a dozen Indian cities to protest unfair response and rating requirements that led to their accounts being blocked.

It was the first nationwide labour action by female gig workers in India, where the rapidly expanding platform economy is dominated by men, and women have not been a part of trade unions because of the largely informal nature of their work.

That is changing now, as more women join unions and collectives focused on the rights of platform workers, taking the lead at protests, and in negotiations with companies and states for better benefits and more control of their data.

"Women gig workers were seeing other platform workers protest, and were motivated," said Rakshita Swamy at Soochna Evam Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan, a workers' collective that helped draft a gig worker's law in Rajasthan state recently.

"They are also intimately connected to their mobile phones and are able to connect and organise more easily than women in rural areas," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With persistently low numbers of women in formal employment, slow job creation and a disproportionate share of women in informal employment in India, digital platforms have been positioned as ideal for women, with promises of greater flexibility, dignity, autonomy and higher earnings.

But as the platform economy has grown, so have concerns around low wages, the lack of protections, limited flexibility and the opaque nature of algorithmic management that can result in random job assignments and ratings, and account deactivation.

Women are particularly vulnerable: recent research by rights group ActionAid showed that algorithms were found to discriminate against women "unable to respond as quickly or work as many hours as men because of unpaid care responsibilities".

Single mothers

India is one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for the so-called gig economy, with nearly eight million workers in 2020-21, and forecast to expand to 24 million workers by 2029-30, according to government think-tank NITI Aayog.

Women make up a very small part of the industry, and are largely concentrated in beauty services, domestic work, healthcare and education.

Food delivery platform Zomato has indicated that women make up about one per cent of its workforce, while at Urban Company women make up over a third of its more than 45,000 contractors.

Manju Goel worked at an Amazon warehouse in the northern Indian town of Manesar for several months last year, alongside dozens of women who had to stand for long stretches, lift heavy packages, and had few breaks with limited access to restrooms.

Using WhatsApp and through brief interactions, Goel got about 60 workers to sign up with Amazon workers' union to ask for better conditions, and joining worldwide protests on Black Friday.

"They were afraid to join the union because they were afraid of losing their job. But there was no other way for us to make our demands heard," said Goel, 45, a single mother of three.

"We saw the women protesting against Urban Company and we were inspired. Like me, many women there were also single mothers - if we don't speak up, who will speak for us?"

A spokesperson for Amazon said the claims about dissatisfaction "are not true" and that the company ensures "healthy working conditions" for all workers, including women.

The company respects "freedom of association and our associates' right to join, form, or not to join a labour union ... without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment", the spokesperson said.

Unfair to workers

Organising in the home care and beauty sectors is particularly challenging because workers have lower visibility and fewer chances to connect compared to their peers in ride-hailing and delivery services.

Urban Company workers' protests in October 2021 protests came after months of discussions over WhatsApp groups over the high commissions, the rating system and a lack of grievance mechanisms.

"When we realised everyone had the same issues, we quietly began meeting in small groups in the park," said beautician Seema Singh, 36, who worked in the company for four years before her ID was blocked.

About 200 women protested outside the company's office in Gurugram, near Delhi. They held a second protest that December.

Urban Company conceded to some of their demands, even as it filed legal cases against four of the women organisers including Singh, another first for the gig economy in the country.

"Seeing the protests in July, it felt really good that so many women are pushing back," said Singh.

"It shows that the women are more aware and understand how unfair the platform is. But it also shows nothing has changed since we protested."

Urban Company did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year, the firm was ranked highest among a dozen gig companies in India in a survey by the Oxford Internet Institute's Fairwork on metrics such as pay, conditions and management.

In response to the protests in July, the company said it had "asked a few partners who were not meeting standards ... to part ways", and that it continues to "maintain an open-door policy and encourage dialogue with our partners."

But Sheema Parveen, a beautician who worked at Urban Company in Hyderabad for two years, and whose ID was blocked in May, was unable to appeal to anyone at the company through the app - the only option she had.

"So many lives have been ruined by this platform - I heard of at least two women in this state who killed themselves after their IDs were blocked," she said.

Widening the gap

India's Rajasthan state in July approved a bill to impose a surcharge on online transactions via platforms like Amazon, Zomato and Urban Company to fund welfare benefits for gig workers, the first such scheme in the country.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states have also made moves to provide benefits, register gig workers and hear grievances.

But most platform companies worldwide assume that the typical worker is an "independent, efficient, mobile, digitally engaged man without family responsibilities or other considerations," Fairwork said in a report this year.

For the women gig workers in India who are organising, "they've now found their space in the political discourse. But it still takes years for advocacy to turn into a law," said Swamy.

"Meanwhile, they're taking a risk just showing up in a protest. The same device that they use to connect and organise is also used for surveillance and to boot them off the platform."