Gig workers forgo dignity, safety in quest for a living

Even as more people take up platform work, those in the job live with increasingly poor pay and job security, with little protection offered under the law
Last Updated : 29 August 2021, 09:00 IST

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Arshad* worked as an Ola cab driver for nearly three years, before the pandemic left him in dire straits. Before the lockdown, he used to earn a net income of nearly Rs 20,000 every month, after paying down the equated monthly installment on his car.

But with no work over the past two years, the bank foreclosed the auto loan and took away his vehicle.

Desperate for an income, Arshad has been working as a Swiggy "delivery partner" for the past month.

When he joined, Arshad says he had to shell out nearly Rs 1,800 for the food delivery bag and two t-shirts, and an extra Rs 350 for a raincoat (which leaks, Arshad says) — all prominently carrying Swiggy's logo.

Arshad works with a "temp ID", is forced to stay logged in for 10 - 12 hours each day, so that he qualifies for the incentives and makes a decent wage — Rs 6,110 per week, including the expenditure on petrol.

This 30-year-old family man, with a one-year-old daughter at home, is grateful for any income. But there are downsides: "Once, I was made to wait for an hour by a customer. When I raised a ticket, I was told I would be paid for that delivery. I told them 'At this rate, I won't be able to reach my weekly targets.'"

In recent months, several posts on social media have brought the problems faced by these gig and platform workers into sharper focus — reduced pay, precarious working conditions, and the absence of job security.

And things might not change in the near future.

In its IPO prospectus, Zomato says, "Our cost-effectiveness depends on the ability to continue reducing delivery costs on a per order basis" indicating their profitability hinges on further reducing the money they pay delivery workers.

But what is gig work? Broadly speaking, it represents short-term work “outside of the traditional employer-employee relationship” and includes platform workers (those using an online platform to provide services). But its meaning changes depending on who you ask.

Conversations with those on the management side tend to throw up words like “flexibility”, “choice” and “empowerment” but others highlight issues such as “wages”, “job security” and “dignity”.

Platform workers are perhaps the most visible part of our gig economy. Their jobs, especially as delivery workers or cab drivers, provide an "easy entry" for most semi-skilled youth, requiring just an Aadhaar card and a drivers license. But it also comes with its own drawbacks.

Their corny messaging of “Hunger Saviours” and “Ride with Pride” notwithstanding, these companies define their workers as "independent contractors", which means they are exempt from all current labour legislation.

Some estimates suggest there are close to 15 million gig workers working across sectors.

A report by the Boston Consulting Group suggested that low-skill gig workers formed close to 30% of the country's gig workforce, which is currently dominated by the technology sector. But an industry report indicates that by 2024, more than 75% of the services industry will be staffed by gig workers.

Unlike e-commerce giants, whose delivery business is staffed by full-time workers, along with temp staff and independent contractors, the 'big four' platform companies like Swiggy, Zomato, Uber and Ola solely employ independent contractors.

Between them, Swiggy & Zomato — the two biggest food delivery companies in India — employ close to three lakh people.

But given that most of these companies keep the number of platform workers confidential, it is hard to estimate, for instance, just how many cab drivers have lost their livelihoods.

Labour laws

The real crux of the issue is that of labour laws. Some countries in the West have taken steps to reclassify and ensure gig workers are afforded protection under labour laws.

“Ideally, these workers should have received PF and ESI benefits for their work but there is nothing we can do,” says a senior official with Karnataka’s Labour Department, on the condition of anonymity.

Most platform workers work on a day-to-day basis, and can be terminated from their jobs without any notice.

Srinivas G first entered the gig economy in 2013, as a “delivery partner” for Bengaluru-based online food ordering and delivery platform Swiggy.

An SSLC graduate, Srinivas discontinued his studies after his father passed away and took up a series of odd jobs — before working full-time for e-commerce giant Flipkart.

As a full-time worker, Srinivas says he was on track to become a team leader at the Flipkart when he was laid off.

He then joined Swiggy and eventually switched to Zomato.

Srinivas has worked at Zomato for nearly two years until February this year, when his access to the app was disabled for “irregular logins''.

Srinivas claims he was removed because of his association with the United Food Delivery Partners’ Union (UFDPU), where he is currently the Vice-President.

“From Rs 50 per order seven years ago, now we get Rs 15 - 20 on an average. They have given us work, but there is a lot of injustice taking place. That's why I joined the union,” he says.

Srinivas and the UFDPU approached the Labour Department for a resolution, and the matter is now under litigation.

Exempt from laws

In Srinivas’ case, a complaint was registered under the “Industrial Disputes Act, 1947”.

Zomato sought to dismiss the complaint by saying “he is not a ‘workman’ within the meaning of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 or any other labour statute currently in force in India”.

It also cites Clause 17 of the employment agreement, which says, “The courts of New Delhi shall have exclusive jurisdiction over all disputes arising from these Delivery Partner T&C and the agreement.”

Most platform workers are exempt from the new labour codes, specifically the ‘Code on Wages, 2019’ which prescribes minimum wages for various jobs.

The new ‘Code on Social Security, 2020’ goes ahead and fixes their status as non-employees by calling gig and platform workers “persons in a work arrangement… outside of traditional employer-employee relationship.”

“Social Security legislation is a clever ploy and I would presume strongly that whatever is provided there is at the instance of aggregators,” says Professor Babu Mathew, who has closely tracked the labour law legislation in India.

“The main purpose of that ploy is to introduce new definition clauses for gig workers and platform workers, which are designed in order to deny them the status of workers,” he says.

The Code on Social Security, for instance, has provisions for social security funds for the welfare of the workers, but no clarity on who will foot the bill. The law lists various possibilities — government contribution, a mix of government and private sector money, Corporate Social Responsibility funds or even a 1 - 2% cess on revenues of these companies.

Professor Arup Mitra of the Institute of Economic Growth says there is no clarity on how or when the government will implement the provisions of the new laws.

The National Social Security Board is supposed to recommend to the Central government for formulating schemes for different sections of the unorganised sector workers but the new board is yet to be formed.

“There are several loopholes as far as the system is concerned,” Professor Mitra says.

'Asset-light companies'

The precariousness of platform workers stems from these 'asset-light' companies, which have more operating assets than capital assets.

"Otherwise, the risk of business cycles are borne by companies. Here, all the risk is pushed down the line," says Professor Mani. "This is true of all forms of supply chains, that the liability is being pushed down to the lowest denominator," he says.

And for business aggregators, the lowest denominator are the platform workers.

Like others, 25-year-old Suresh* too lost his livelihood in the aftermath of Covid-19. “I used to run a tender coconut cart by the road and earned about Rs 500-600 every month. But we closed the shop,” he says.

With no job at hand, Suresh was happy to land the gig job. He claims he makes more than Rs 10,000 each week (before fuel expenses, which come upto 3K), for which he works for at least 12 hours, from eight in the morning to late at night, averaging 20-25 deliveries each day.

Does Suresh want to switch jobs in the future? “I couldn’t complete my Class 10 exams. I see educated people without jobs working alongside me. We have no land in the village. I’m not sure what other job I will be able to find.”

Is there an alternative?

"If there was no platform, what would these people have typically done?" asks Lohith Bhatia, President of the Indian Staffing Federation.

"They would have been part of the informal economy. We must understand, these people are not stepping out of staffing companies or permanent jobs. They are coming out of the shackles of informal employment, where there is no guarantee of getting employment every day."

Bhatia sees the conversion of the informal sector into the gig economy as a good thing, adding "Nothing is stopping this person from walking into a staffing company or any other job."

Others are less optimistic.

"The delivery business peaked during the pandemic. And many of these youngsters enter sectors where the entry and exit is easy. You have a driving license, you can become a driver. With a vehicle, you can become a delivery person. All you need is an Aadhaar card," says Professor Mohan Mani, a visiting faculty at the National Law School of India University.

But the absence of quality jobs, such as those offered by the manufacturing sector, Professor Mani says, means there is increased competition and a pressure to reduce wages. "It is a race to the bottom," he adds.

Image management

So how can things change?

To begin with, the government could implement the existing labour laws.

On August 24, the Central government launched the e-Shram portal, which allows 142 categories of unorganised workers (those without PF coverage and not paying income tax) to register themselves. All they would need is an Aadhaar card.

The Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Yojana, the accidental benefit scheme, will also apply to those registering here.

Bhatia says the recognition of gig workers under Code of Social Security means business aggregators will have to disclose how many workers they use.

On their part, these business aggregators have treated this entire issue as an image-management exercise.

Just in the past two weeks, Zomato released a series of ads that were chewed out on social media.

One of these ads featured Bengaluru-based comedian Danish Sait role-playing as a delivery worker. Sait deleted the video and shared a public apology after a severe backlash on Twitter.

Another advertisement, where Hritik Roshan refers to a delivery worker as ‘Jadoo’ was also criticised for being tone-deaf.

On Twitter, @DeliveryBhoy, the anonymous handle who has been bringing attention to gig workers’ issues said, “All of their Bollywood ads are an extension of the same strategy.... Imagine the amount they’ve spent so far on everything but the right thing.”

*Some names have been changed to protect their identity

(DH reached out to the companies named but there was no reply at the time of going to press. This article will be updated to reflect their responses)

Published 28 August 2021, 20:28 IST

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