The tragedy of the ‘Gig’ economy

Prof Ashwani Mahajan
You see many youths around you, who deliver the goods coming via e-commerce apps and websites. Similarly, millions of drivers all over the world provide app based taxi services. E-commerce and technology-driven businesses have become a major part of the economy these days. This section of the economy is known as the ‘gig economy’ and the people working there are called ‘gig’ workers. Recently, the delivery workers of an e-commerce company named ‘Blinkit’ went on a one-day strike, which was also given a lot of importance by the media. The case was that a company called ‘Blinkit’, which claims to supply consumers with their grocery requirements in 10 minutes to half an hour, had reduced the payment to its delivery agents by half. Significantly, before this change, the company used to pay Rs 25 to the delivery agent for each delivery. Till about a year ago, the delivery agents were given Rs 50 per delivery. Delivery workers’ complaint is that fuel costs have skyrocketed during this period, but their wages have shrunk to a quarter.
The reality is that today youth in big and small cities are forced to work as delivery agents in the absence of any decent employment. In the initial phase, these workers also used to earn sufficiently, but due to low payouts, now their economic condition has become very pathetic. The reality is that in the absence of alternative employment, it has become almost a compulsion for the youth to work as delivery agents.
On the other hand, companies like ‘Ola’ and ‘Uber’ providing app based taxi services have also started charging highly exploitative commission from taxi drivers. Due to this, the drivers of ‘Ola’ and ‘Uber’ have also resorted to agitational means like strike many times. But the exploitative commission policy of ‘Ola’ and ‘Uber’ continues unabated. Despite the strike by Bilinkit’s delivery agents, no solution is in sight.
Gig workers like drivers of ‘Ola’, ‘Uber’, delivery agents of ‘Blinkit’, ‘Zomato’, ‘Swiggy’ etc. or any other type of workers registered with any other app based service provider, whose employment depends on the mercy of these app companies, businesses or whose livelihood depends on the delivery of goods or ordering of services based on messages received from these apps, are today suffering from the exploitation by these companies.
Nowadays the word gig is very much in vogue. Till two-three decades ago, the word gig was not much in use. It has become necessary to understand the meaning of the word ‘gig’ and the terms such as ‘gig economy’ and ‘gig worker’ etc. and its effects on the society.
Few decades back, there were only two types of workers. One, the salaried employees and the other, the casual workers. Salaried workers are generally employed on a permanent basis with a fixed salary and other facilities. A certain procedure has to be followed for the removal of these workers from the employment. On the other hand, casual labor means daily wage workers. These laborers are paid wages on a daily basis and have to go in search of employment every day.
In the organized sector, earlier most workers were generally employed on a permanent or regular basis and their employment was also fairly secure. In the unorganized sector like agriculture, construction and sometimes in manufacturing, the practice of daily wage laborers is seen. Generally, educated and trained workers were mostly salaried workers and most of the daily wage laborers used to be uneducated and untrained workers. But these days even organised sector employers have found an easy way to employ gig workers or sometimes on contract or on fixed term; where workers lack job security and social security. Further there is absence of regulations like working hours and working conditions, as these workers in order to earn sufficiently have to work for longer hours and under precarious conditions.
This new class of labour, namely, gig labour is the outcome of emerging gig economy, based on new technology. This new category has emerged in the form of online platform, cloud working, freelancing, e-commerce, supply chain, etc. That is, it can be said that new technology and new business models are the creators of this new labor class.
In this fast moving world everyone is struggling for his/her existence. In today’s chaotic conditions, a new crisis has come on the existence of gig workers. These workers who are serving based on work/order provided by the apps, are clearly working under the instructions of the apps owned by e commerce companies, but in government definitions, they are not considered as workers, rather they are called ‘freelancers’. These workers are also deprived of minimum wages, working hours regulations, overtime and leave, as prescribed for workers.
Some people try to argue that this gig economy has created new job opportunities. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has also defined this category of workers who are working through apps and e-commerce platforms as delivery workers and drivers etc. Although there have been agitations by these gig workers for better work conditions and wages for some time, but there is no improvement in their condition. According to a 2017 study by Ernst & Young, 24 percent of the world’s gig workers are in India. The labor law, recently passed by the Indian Parliament as a new code of social security, is the first attempt to bring these workers under the ambit of labor laws.
The biggest obstacle in the social security of such gig workers across the world is how to identify these workers. There has been some work in the US and Europe on this and The European Union has adopted a directive on ‘Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions’. But the issue is not only these gig workers getting work from these apps. In today’s era, contract labour, outsourced labour, temporary labour, fixed term employees, etc. are all more or less facing the crisis due to exploitation and adverse working conditions. The need today is to have a national employment policy, in which emerging technologies, new business models and new forms of exploitation of workers are stopped and every worker, whether permanent or temporary or gig worker, can lead a respectable life.
Due to labor displacing new technologies, old jobs are being destroyed and very limited new jobs are being created. In order to survive in the absence of work, the workers are forced to work even in the most adverse circumstances and despite all kinds of exploitations. But in a civilized society, this plight of the workers cannot be accepted in any way.
All such gig, temporary, contract workers will have to be properly defined and identified, while ensuring minimum wages, maximum working hours and various types of social security for them. If this does not happen, this system will be called nothing more than Jungle Raj, whose rule is ‘survival of the fittest’. It is obvious that in this era, policy makers are expected to move towards building a civilized society and not ‘Jungle Raj’. The Government of India is expected to make policies for the social security of the workers of these online platforms i.e. gig workers.
(The author is Professor, PGDAV College, University of Delhi)