Today around 15 million Indians are engaged in gig jobs. Moreover, this rate is growing every year. As per the estimates, gig workers significantly increased from 80 lakh in 2016 to 1.5 crores in 2018. It is reported that this number will be tripled by the end of 2021. The increasing number raises concerns over the working conditions, social security, job security and other related matters. However, the story of gig workers in India is not black and white. An examination of their work during the pandemic divides the viewpoint. One side believes that these people are blessed to have a source of earning even during the pandemic. Others believe that whatever the work is, there should be social security.
Introduction: Key Factors
The gig economy is a prevalent concept in modern times. The term 'gig' stands for a one-time arrangement between the service provider and the user (through a mediator), which may or may not guarantee a long term engagement. Gig work signifies any work which is 'on demand' and is for a 'fixed time'. Companies such as Ola, Uber, Zomato, Swiggy, et cetera that provide such services are called "aggregators," platform providers, app owners, tech-corporate, et cetera.
The network is based on short term contractual work assigned by these companies to the service providers. These workers are often termed as service providers or contract-based workers and therefore do not come under the scope of "workers." These gig workers can be seen as delivery persons associated with food delivery platforms such as Swiggy or Zomato, car drivers at Ola or Uber, delivery staff in e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Flipkart, hospitality facilitators at Airbnb and Oyo Rooms and also at online marketplaces such as Policybazaar.
The other key factor in the gig economy is customers who avail these on-demand services.
Working for Digital Platforms: Positive Side
Gig work has many advantages for aggregators, such as minimal recruitment costs after initial expenses. Since there is no employer-employee relationship, the company is free from providing and working to improve the condition of these workers. It also facilitates zero-hour contracts and leaves companies free from long term obligations. Customers are provided with timely services at a competitive price, branded services, premium quality services, flexibility as per their schedule, et cetera.
The workers/service providers engaged in this are provided with tasks to perform and earn with its completion. The openness of these platforms provides flexible entry and exit in work. It also facilitates working at flexible timings according to the availability of the worker. It provides platforms to supplement sources of income. Women especially benefited through apps like Urban Company which ensured an income of Rs. 1500/per day with no investment and flexible working hours. However, demerits far outweigh the merits.
Working for Digital Platforms: Negative Side
The major drawback is that gig workers are not treated as employees, and therefore, platforms hold no responsibility for maintaining proper working conditions, social security, fixed timings, paid leaves, health insurance, retirement benefits, et cetera. Hence, these workers need to work extra hard to achieve such incentives.
As per a BCG report, the rate of purchasing commercial auto-rickshaws, taxis, and cars increased significantly because more and more people were shifting into gig jobs due to the higher incentives offered. However, since the pandemic induced lockdowns that led to the shutdown of these firms' services for some time, these workers suffered from increasing debt and no work. At the time of the pandemic, most of these firms fired numerous employees to stay afloat. In India, where the workers were ]dependent upon these firms, found themselves in a deplorable situation. The report also clarifies that most gig jobs fall under the category of low-income jobs and, hence, are often compared to the informal sector jobs.
Pasha, a food delivery worker at Zomato, says that the basic pay given by these companies is too little to afford a meal. He says that everyone is working to achieve the targets set by companies to receive incentives as these incentives ensure standard pay. He also adds that for achieving these incentives, they have to work harder.
The company does not directly pressurise to work for incentives or timely work, but informally, those who deliver fast are chosen for more deliveries. Instances have shown that these delivery persons violate the traffic rules and risk their lives to meet the timelines. Often they have to work even when they are not healthy because the companies do not provide paid leave. Significant health effects have been seen on these workers due to disturbances in meal routines, sleep schedules, and long working hours. At the same time, they were at risk in the pandemic with no safety tools provided by companies and spending out of their pockets for safety gear. They also faced hate speech for "infecting people through the delivery" of services. Since the customers or companies will know about the health issues or COVID positivity test, they will give lower ratings to the worker with chances of firing. Workers often hide their health problems and hesitate to get treatments because if the company and customers learn about it, they may receive lower ratings and risk losing their job.
The condition of gig workers is miserable. They do not get adequate respect, security, benefits, or income. The companies should recognise the workers as their employees and provide them with proper incentives, and the government must also work to ensure the rights of gig workers. Although the government has published this in the official gazette, it must be implemented on the ground. There should be the establishment of grievance redressal mechanisms at the company to hear the plea of employees and proper authorities at the state and national level to ensure the proper functioning of an established rule. There is a long way to go. These temporary workers are now given the status of employees at Uber through a UK court order supporting the workers.
Gig workers have approached the Supreme Court seeking social security benefits from platform providers such as Zomato, Swiggy, Ola, and Uber in India. However, they are not granted this right as the SC refuses to register them under the definition of "workman"—required within the meaning of all social security legislations.
"The failure of the State to register them as "unorganised workers" or to provide their social security under the existing law is a violation of their rights under Article 21 of the Constitution of India namely: the right to work, the right to livelihood, right to decent and fair conditions of work. It is also a denial of the right to equality before the law and equal protection of laws since they are similarly situated with all other workers under the applicable social security laws including the Act of 2008, thereby violating Article 14 of the Constitution of India" the petition states.