In an era displaying staunch resistance against rigid hierarchies and bureaucracy in the workplace, gig work is viewed as a tool of liberation. Now, ensuring the welfare and rights of gig workers is the need of the hour.

A Zomato delivery partner rides a bike on a busy road: If gig economy is the future, India should first ensure rights of workersImage for representation: Picxy.com/avipushp
Voices Opinion Monday, April 18, 2022 - 18:27

In March 2022, the Indian social media space went berserk after online food aggregator Zomato announced that it was planning to introduce a new service, ‘Zomato Instant’, that assured the delivery of food within 10 minutes of a customer placing an order on the app. The online furore that followed pointed out how such companies exploited their delivery executives – ‘gig workers’ – with too much work and too little pay. The conversation also veered into why someone would need their food to be delivered in just 10 minutes and jeopardise the safety of delivery executives, knowing full well the hazards that come with such promises.

As per a report published in 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) defines gig work companies (called digital work/services platforms) as “companies operating digital platforms for individuals to hire out their skills and services to businesses or consumers, with tasks completed either remotely or in person, either directly or through substitutes. Such companies operate across diverse sectors and range from highly qualified professional services to more routine tasks.” Gig workers are people who tie up with an aggregator with or without a formal agreement, and are employed on an arrangement that involves payment based on the number of transactions or time spent on a job. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the number of such platforms (both web-based and location-based) increased from 142 in 2010 to over 777 in 2020. This is an increase of more than 400% in 10 years. A report published by ILO in 2021 pegged the revenues of such platforms in 2020 at at least USD 52 billion.

One of the major arguments used to promote gig work is that it allows the workers to enjoy maximum flexibility around their work. In an era that has displayed staunch resistance against rigid hierarchies and bureaucracy in the workplace, gig work is viewed as a tool of liberation. Platform work also provides equal opportunities to everybody willing to enrol themselves, regardless of their educational qualifications, age and gender. It is also claimed that gig workers are empowered enough to bargain for their pay based on demand and supply.

Though the benefits seem inviting, the ground realities surrounding gig work stand in stark contrast. Time and again, academia and advocacy groups have raised criticisms that these platforms tend to exploit gig workers by hosting them for meagre wages and little to no social security. In fact, these platforms refer to the gig workers they host as ‘partners’ or ‘independent contractors’ and not ‘employees’, which absolves them from abiding by the labour laws prevailing in many countries. This is the most controversial aspect of the gig economy.

Besides not receiving social security benefits an ‘employee’ is entitled to, gig workers are also susceptible to being discriminated against by the algorithm, which locks them out or reduces the opportunities available to them if they receive bad ratings from customers or do not toe the line of the platforms. Some of these companies also resort to illegal surveillance, citing the ‘maintenance of workers’ standards’ among other things. Worse is the way such apps make the executives pay to work for them. From the t-shirts (with the company logo) they wear to the rain gear and the delivery bag they have on their motorbikes, everything is charged to the delivery executive. This calls to question their very business model, given that most of these companies have not managed to earn profits even after years of being in service. Owing to its nature, gig work has also been accused of furthering the already wide income gap within a population, as it facilitates employment only to people with access to the internet and smart devices. Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, in his book The Technology Trap: Capital, Labour, and Power in the Age of Automation, says that this difference, which causes massive income disparities between the rich and the poor, has been majorly attributed to the rate of technological adoption of individual countries.

Given that ‘gig work’ is touted to be the future of work, these arguments push the need to agree on the employment category of gig workers, which will enable an examination of feasibility in providing social security benefits for them. The European Commission (EC) has taken the first step towards recognising gig workers as ‘employees’ in a recent proposal. The proposal, introduced in December 2021, demands that gig workers be considered ‘employees’ if they satisfy at least two of the five criteria: the workers’ pay is determined by the platform, the platform controls the workers’ appearance and sets standards for conduct towards customers, the platform uses electronic means to supervise and evaluate job performance, the workers do not have the freedom to dictate working hours or to switch off from the app, and the platform demands exclusivity from workers.

If this proposal is approved by the EU Parliament, it will affect millions of gig workers in Europe. However, the process could take years since the countries in the EU have two years from the approval in EU Parliament to merge these terms into their domestic laws, in a manner they seem fit. Once things fall in place, gig workers will be entitled to minimum wages, paid leave and other such employment benefits. Similarly, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, in 2021, ruled that Uber drivers should be classified as ‘workers’, which is a middle-ground category between ‘self-employed’ and ‘employees’. ‘Workers’ are entitled to some of the benefits like the ‘employees’, but not all. A frequent argument against classifying gig workers as ‘employees’ is that it takes away the flexibility factor from gig work, which is its main characteristic.

As far as India is concerned, the Unorganised Workers’ Social Welfare Security Act, 2008 has not been implemented in the case of gig workers. In September 2021, a plea was filed by the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers in the Supreme Court of India to mandate the enforcement of the Act among gig workers. The Union government had notified draft rules under the Code on Social Security in November 2020, which proposed to bring gig workers into the ambit of some form of social security scheme like the Provident Fund and Employee State Insurance. The rules, however, are not devoid of controversies around data privacy, and their date of implementation is unclear at present. While it would be unwise to compare India with the European Union in terms of worker rights and internet privacy regulations, it goes without saying that India immediately needs a regulatory body, or in the very least some regulations, to govern the welfare and rights of gig workers.

Megha Kaveri (she/her) is a journalist and a postgraduate student at the Graduate Institute (IHEID), Geneva. She is specialising in issues around migration and global health in her postgraduate programme.

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