Who Worries About Gig Workers

Who Worries About Gig Workers

I will present to you my thoughts about Gig workers, we know that the problem is complex, not just complex but also complicated. I hope my views will lead to debate and richer views on this subject. (Address at the seminar at Indian Law Society’s Law College, Pune on Dec 11, 2023)

I will divide my presentation in four parts which are as follows:

  1. I will first discuss, in brief, who is a Gig worker, what problems are before us about the gig workers,
  2. The Reality of Gig and Platform Work
  3. International Scenario on Gig and Platform Workers, and
  4. What needs to be done and why.

Gig Workers and Their Issues

Wikipedia mentions ‘Gig workers are independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers, and temporary workers, Gig workers enter into formal agreements with on-demand companies to provide services to the company’s clients.’

A dictionary definition which I found is this: Gig workers is a person who does temporary or freelance work, especially an independent contractor engaged on an informal or on-demand basis.

And the Code on Social Security defines Gig worker as ‘person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationship.

Rajasthan Government passed Rajasthan Platform Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act, 2023 in July 2023. It provides for certain social security benefits. But it does not inform on how the grievances will be addressed.

A few aspects stand out: First, a gig worker can be an independent contractor or a contract employee, the work could be temporary or freelance, and the Code on Social Security specifically excludes them from traditional employer – employee relationship.

Gig workers is a new category of workers which is created by businesses which use technological advancement. Gig economy will be a major contributor to the growth of economy, and because it has great employment potential, the current numbers of 7.7 million or 77 lakh gig workers will grow three times to 23.5 million or 2.35 crore workers by 2029. This information is given in the Government of India’s policy brief titled ‘India’s Booming Gig and Platform Economy’.

But the issue is: The current labour laws will not be of any help to the gig workers. They are outside it.

As a society, we have a problem on hand. If there is injustice in any form – it could be non-payment of salary or unilaterally reducing income schemes, or unsafe conditions or any action which smacks of unfair treatment – how can we address it if gig workers do not have access to any effective remedy?

Let us park this in our mind, we will revert to this issue at the end of my presentation.

The Reality of Gig and Platform Work 

The Government of India’s policy brief titled ‘India’s Booming Gig and Platform Economy’[1] mentions the trend: 

(Quote) Gig workers – those engaged in livelihoods outside the traditional employer-employee arrangement – can be broadly classified into platform and non-platform-based workers.

Platform workers are those whose work is based on online software apps or digital platforms. Non-platform gig workers are generally casual wage workers and own account workers in the conventional sectors, working part-time or full time. At present about 47% of the gig work is in medium skilled jobs, about 22% in high skilled, and about 31% in low skilled jobs.

Trend shows the concentration of workers in medium skills is gradually declining and that of the low skilled and high skilled is increasing. It may be expected that while the domination of medium skills would continue till 2030, gig work with other skills will emerge. (Unquote)

That is an important inference of the artificial intelligence, ChatGPT and the like are much discussed topics. The worry is how it will impact the jobs and work in general. With the growth of artificial intelligence, researchers say that productivity and innovation will increase but average wage levels will decline. They say the initial impact of robotization will be estimated 30 to 40% loss of jobs. You will see that this will add only to precariat.

Precariat is an interesting word; it is a portmanteau of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat.’ It means the class of people whose employment and income are insecure. A section of gig workers is a part of precariat. The point I am making is that people whose employment and income are insecure or in other words the precariat will increase in future.

In future automation, robotization and artificial intelligence will lead to deskilling of many jobs. We can guess that many people are likely to take up gig work. This is one more reason why we must quickly have an effective system to redress their grievances.

Let us turn our attention to contracts. In some cases, there are contracts and, in some cases, but in the case of women’s jobs, there may not be written contracts. The case of a hapless gig worker begins with this handicap.

The gig work on platform economy is characterized by a system of incentive and penalty. Everything is monetized. A worker is caught in the web of incentives and penalties, and gets pushed and pulled. This causes stress and it also makes work meaningless.

Kalburgi has investigated this issue and published a series of articles in the Marathi magazine Anubhav.

I quote: Though there is no boss here, we have an App which controls us. We get Rs 20 at least per delivery. (He works for Swiggy). We get Rs 5 for every kilometer after first three kilometer. When we do 11 hour shift we earn Rs 425 and get the incentive of Rs 100. But there are many conditions to be fulfilled to earn this income. We have to remain logged in for at least 10 hours in an 11 hour shift. We can’t reject more than one order. This is about the incentive for the day. We also get a weekly incentive. If we earn Rs 2550 we get an incentive of Rs 550, and if we earn Rs 4025 we get an incentive fo Rs 950. But the condition is that we cannot avail a day off on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We work when people are enjoying their weekends. And customer rating must exceed 4.5 otherwise we lose the weekly incentive. If we earn weekly incentives on all weeks of the month, we make Rs 4000 to 5000.

Customer rating makes a huge difference to earning.  Zomato classifies delivery partners in four categories: Blue, Bronze, Silver, and Diamond. Blue category delivery partners get 10 orders in a day, Bronze gets 11 orders in a day, Silver gets 12 orders in a day and Diamond gets 15. You have to do everything to get five-star customer rating. (Unquote)

There are disputes about sudden changes to the incentives and penalties. Among women there are disputes about long working hours and about harassment.

Unionizing the workers is difficult which means that redressal of grievances becomes more difficult.

What is the remedy? They are not ‘workmen’ under the Industrial Disputes Act.

International Scenario on Gig and Platform Workers

The Supreme Court in Netherlands has held that Deliveroo riders who take meals to customers are its employees, and not independent contractors.[2]  Interestingly the Supreme Court in UK decided that the riders of Deliveroo were not employees. This decision was given in November 2023.[3]

The Supreme Court in Netherlands will also decide the Uber case – whether the drivers are freelancers or independent contractors or employees as the case is referred to it. The reason for the reference is that ‘it has major social and legal implications.’[4]

The European Commission as well as the French Government set to formulate policies to provide protection to platform workers.

In February 2021, the Supreme Court in USA handed down a landmark judgment which confirmed that Uber drivers are workers and not independent contractors.[5]

In the recent case of Kavita S. Sharma v. Uber India on 26 October 2022, the Thane District Consumer Forum held Uber liable for its drivers. Uber and other platforms have always advanced the view that the workers are merely ‘independent contractors’ and they merely offer technological and algorithm-based solutions to connect the supply and the demand in the market.

This decision separated vicarious liability from employment in gig platforms – in effect making the platforms liable for the acts of their agents without formally holding them as employees with its concomitant social benefit schemes.[6]

What needs to be done and why

We must appreciate that a huge group of people, 77 lakhs, are already working as gig workers and platform workers. And their service conditions are not good, they are exploitative. Against this background let us read the Directive Principles of State Policy, particularly 43rd.

Let me read it out: The State shall endeavor to secure, by suitable legislation or economic organization or in any other way, to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities …. etc.

It is the state’s responsibility to ensure even a living wage and a decent standard of life. We see the movement only in drafting the Code on Social Security which is yet not implemented.

On the other hand, the attitudes are worrisome. I would like to mention the Blinkit case.

“Blinkit reduced the payment per delivery from Rs 25 to Rs 15. The delivery partners struck work. This was in April this year. Blinkit is a grocery delivery app.” Nobody knows how this issue was sorted out.

Another example will also show the ways of the Gig economy.

Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal had posted ads for five positions on his LinkedIn account. The posts were – Chief of Staff to CEO, and other positions. However, one particular post’s description particularly garnered attention. For the position of Chief Of Staff to CEO, Goyal wrote that the candidate should be willing to work ’24*7′ and must forget about ‘work-life balance’.”[7]

What does that tell us about platform workers?

We know that the Government does not act quickly. Collective action is required, but the awareness among the gig workers about these issues is low. The Government is probably not inclined to make a law providing protection, no country has done. The Government will wait till the Supreme Court decides the issue whether gig workers are employees.

Obviously, we are adding to precarious jobs. We need to launch an awareness program, and build pressure on the Government to act. Who knows, with the Lok Sabha elections on the anvil, it may work.

There is another route we may possibly try. What if we establish an arbitration process in co-operation with the employers’ bodies like CII exclusively for sorting out the grievances of the gig and platform workers? The arbitration panel can consist of the employers’ and Gig workers representatives. This may not be the complete solution, but it may have the merit of settling things expeditiously.

If you think arbitration is not the solution, you may have your justification, and I will not dispute it. The point I wish to make is ‘Can we establish a dialogue between the industry and the workers to achieve quick redressal of issues?’ If both the parties accept certain basic rules quick redressal can be a reality.

I end my presentation by asking one question: Do you think our society really wants to solve the problems of gig and platform workers? If yes, many positive things can happen, if no, we will be doing injustice to our fellow country persons.

Pic Courtesy: Mika Baumeister on Unsplash, Rowan Freeman on Unsplash