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Self-employed? 'Dead-end' for India's 15 million gig workers amidst lockdown

By Shashi Kant Tripathi*
In the fight against the novel coronavirus, there has been much hullabaloo over the mayhem caused to the economy -- both to the formal and informal sector. But one section of workers is ignored in this analysis. Before the lockdowns were imposed, cars with yellow number plates and motorcycles with huge food boxes were a common site in the streets of metro cities that now lie empty and abandoned. In economic parlance, the people involved with such activities are called gig workers.
Traditionally, types of work can be divided in the organised and the unorganised sector. Organised/ formal sector incorporates both public undertakings and private firms. Unorganised/ informal sector is primarily handled by private companies that offer little or no social and economic security.
As far as gig economy is concerned, there is no social or economic security even in the eyes of the law. The nature of gig economy is different from traditional or informal work in terms of salaries, contract, working hours and interaction to main employers. In that sense, the definition of gig economy is not well developed.
Gig workers are non-traditional, non-standardised workers who can be generally seen working in an app based job that is managed on a digital platform. The salary of these workers are usually dependent on their daily performances and their working hours, that are usually flexible and are determined by the workers themselves on the basis on their own capacity.
Capitalism is forever evolving and changing in terms of the relationship between labour and capital. After the technological revolution, work has been mediated by digital mode. In traditional forms of informal employment, capitalists exploit the labour of the workers. Here in the gig economy, capitalists exploit both the labour and whatever small part of wealth (taxi, bikes etc.) they own to extract profits.
Some examples can be seen as those people working for food delivering apps like Zomato or Swiggy and transport related apps like Uber and Ola and sites like Amazon and Flipkart, etc. Most workers here own the vehicles that they use for the job. In this vein, the gig workers are in so-called “self-employed” status. Most times, the apps factor in proximity with consumers and algorithms determine the job of the workers.
In cases of Ola and Uber, almost all cars are owned by the drivers themselves, while the companies provide them only with a platform to connect to customers. The companies get their commission per ride with no cost accrued on maintenance of the vehicles while the drivers desperately try to complete their daily goals and to break even with the cost of fuel and upkeep.
The multinational companies that employ these workers take no responsibility because there is no legislation to hold them accountable
Issues like breakdown and damage to the vehicles, accidents, consumer wrath are problems faced solely by the drivers. Same is also true for delivery by food joints and restaurants. Such working condition renders the workers more vulnerable.
The uncertainties for gig workers are always on a rise since the labour pool is continuously rising, the competition is consistently increasing and the decision making rests with the owner companies. Although algorithms and proximity are cited as the determining factors for the job, more often than not, it works against the workers.
According to Teamlease, till 2018, total estimated gig workers in India were 15 million. This shows a huge growth from 2016, when they were 8.5 million, which shows a doubling in their numbers in a matter of two years. These workers are primarily located in metro cities like, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Chennai. Several reports estimated that, in coming future, more workers will be part of the gig economy.
Jamie Woodcock in his book “The Gig Economy: A Critical Introduction” (2020), aptly stated: 
“The gig economy is not just a synonym for algorithmic wizardry, large datasets and cutting edge technologies. Whenever we think (or indeed research or write) about work, it is important to remember that work necessarily involves workers. This means actual people with complex lives, working in relationships with each others."
While there is attention to the losses suffered by companies, restaurants and online delivery platforms, the transport related gig workers are jobless without any social security. The multinational companies that employ these workers take no responsibility because there is no legislation to hold them accountable. The latest Code on Wages, 2019 (which replaced four labour related laws) ignored the changing nature of work and employment in the urban areas. Studies show that the gig workers are facing the “falling piece-rate for deliveries.”
While most of the gig workers were already vulnerable, this lockdown is a dead end for gig workers if their issues are not taken up immediately. All the major cities that thrive on the services of the gig workers are still in lockdown. There is an urgent need of a body of laws and rights that applies to this group in particular. And this should first start from recognition of their existence and their work.
When almost all gig workers are unemployed, this is the best time to regulate the companies that employ these workers. In Dickensian language, it is the best of time and it is the season of light to gig workers to form a union and demand from the government that app based multinational companies must be regulated as per the labour law where there will be minimum wages, social and economic securities. Also, the government should amend the Code on Wages and broaden the definition of the worker.
For immediate relief, the government must write off their loans of gig workers and intervene to ensure the minimum income of the workers. If the government fails to control the gig companies, the condition of the workers will become more vulnerable. This lockdown is a tocsin for the gig workers to avoid a future post lockdown catastrophe.
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*Research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University

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