What’s the current state of India’s gig economy? This article explores the precariousness of gig work and the surveillance practices introduced during the pandemic, and details the newly introduced Social Security Code which covers platform workers.
by Titiksha Vashist & Shyam Krishnakumar
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the rise of the platform economy, impacting both white and blue-collar workers in India. In the wake of the pandemic, workers were left without an income, social security, or safety nets in urban cities. Owing to this, India saw reverse migration from cities to rural villages and towns. Further, the pandemic has introduced and normalized new technological practices that have increased worker surveillance including body temperature surveillance, movement tracking, and deployment of automated facial recognition technology at work. These have added fresh concerns of privacy and agency to the previously existing structural issues.
The State of India’s Gig Economy
The gig economy is a crucial part of India’s ongoing digital transformation with consequences for the future of work and the platform economy. Gigs are temporary or short-term jobs hosted on digital platforms that connect employers and service providers. According to some estimates, India currently has 3 million gig workers. With growing cab aggregator apps like Uber and Ola, food delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato and home-service providers like Urban Company, India’s gig economy is projected to employ 6 million Indians by 2021. According to a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, India’s gig economy will be worth $455 billion by 2022, making it one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy with an expected growth rate of 17% per annum. This estimate might have to be revised upwards in the post-pandemic period given the increased demand for e-commerce and digital services. However, unlike its western counterparts, gig work is not unknown in India. About 81% of India’s workers are engaged in the informal sector which is responsible for almost 50% of India’s GDP. It is common for unskilled and semi-skilled laborers in India to work contractually, for multiple employers over short-spans without any formal protection or security benefits.
White-collar platform gig work
For white-collar workers, the remote work regime of the pandemic reduced employer skepticism regarding the dependability of temporary employees and created new opportunities for freelancers. As the nature of work became remote, service-providers could now offer to work with greater flexibility for companies without tying themselves to one employer. The government and workers both see digital platforms as new avenues of job creation in India. As the economy slowed down during the pandemic and jobs became scarce, an estimated 56% of new employment was generated by gig platforms. According to the Economic Survey released in 2021, India has become one of the biggest flexi-markets owing to the increased dependence on e-commerce platforms. As online retail businesses grew, so did the cut in full-time employees, and increased hiring of freelancers to decrease overheads.
The precarity of blue-collar gig work
On the job no more
Now let us turn our attention to blue-collar gig work. With the onset of the lockdown, food delivery platforms Swiggy and Zomato fired approximately 2000 workers. Cab hailing platforms Ola and Uber let go of over 3000 workers. This accounted for 13%–25% of these platforms’ total workforce. Given these instances, it is difficult to estimate the benefits which digital platforms bring to the workforce in India. While Swiggy provided workers with 2-3 months of salary and promised career support, these benefits were not standard or assured and the job loss hit workers dearly. Owing to these costs at the time of the pandemic, several gig workers migrated back to their villages or townships given the lack of opportunity and security in urban cities. The on-demand nature of gig work makes it highly insecure. A 2020 report on worker conditions by Fair Work India evaluated 11 digital platforms in India across fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, management, and representation. Zomato, Swiggy, and Uber were rated worst on every parameter scoring a 1 on a scale of 10, while Amazon, grocery app BigBasket, home construction and renovation company Housejoy, and Ola scored 2 each.
The platform-driven economy poses key challenges to workers’ rights. Platforms are often designed to take away the bargaining power of workers using asymmetry of information, denial of market access, and partial benefits of technology. Studies show that contracts are often unfair and power imbalances favor the platform. Lack of working with a single organization means workers cannot demand better working conditions, unionize or file lawsuits, owing to their legal status being disadvantageous.
Who paid for that? Operating costs
Platform workers in India are predominantly paid a piece rate (per task), and are typically classified by the platforms as ‘independent contractors’, drivers or delivery ‘partners’. This hides the precariousness of gig work and the power asymmetry under the veneer of ‘entrepreneurship’. One major concern with a per-task pay is that workers do not benefit from labor regulations in India. During the pandemic, digital platforms were able to shift much of the operating cost onto workers. Drivers paid for fuel, auto insurance, and maintenance of vehicles. In the case of food delivery workers, the costs of personal protective gear and sanitary products were shifted onto the customer placing orders, with a lack of clarity on its distribution. In several cases, food delivery workers themselves paid for PPEs and hygiene products without adequate reimbursement.
Worker surveillance technologies and the New Normal
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exacerbated precarity in gig work but also created new concerns regarding technological tools deployed for monitoring, automated contact tracing, and other solutions created to aid state efforts to fight COVID. New forms of worker surveillance such as temperature reading, heart-rate, and oxygen saturation monitoring, and the use of thermal imaging cameras in the workplace are fast-becoming the new normal. These include biometric surveillance that reduces worker agency and consent, particularly reducing the ability to opt-out. Collecting and publicly displaying body temperatures of chefs and delivery persons has become a routine practice for food-delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato.
Government agencies too are increasingly adopting wearable tech to track movement and time-worked (like Punjab’s sanitation workers) for public employees. In some cases, workers were reportedly made to pay to buy mandatory surveillance gear, and pay to maintain the monitoring equipment.
Such a tech-solutionist approach to battling the pandemic leads to a plethora of social and legal concerns including misidentification, collection of sensitive personal health data, violation of privacy and increased surveillance. These issues need more attention given the absence of an enforceable personal data protection law and clear redressal mechanisms in India.
India’s Social Security Code and the need for fresh policy
In 2020, India passed an updated version of the Social Security Code. The Bill mandated both the central and state governments to create a social security fund for unorganized workers, gig workers, and platform workers. Workers will also be protected by minimum wages, and women must be allowed to work in all categories with adequate protection requirements in place.
The bill clarifies that a security scheme for gig and platform workers will be funded through a mix of contributions from the central government, state governments, and aggregators themselves. Nine categories of aggregators have been created under the Bill and the government will soon announce the rate of contribution by each aggregator. This could range between 1-2% of their annual turnover. Finally, such contributions cannot exceed 5% of the amount payable by an aggregator to gig workers.
Moreover, the National Social Security Board will now be responsible for the welfare of gig workers to recommend and monitor schemes. The Board will include five representatives of aggregators, five representatives of gig workers and platform workers, the Director General of the Employees’ State Insurance Company, and five representatives of state governments.
While this is a positive step, the lack of state capacity, poor execution of social security and absence of a minimum wage in the Indian market creates complications. Moreover, capping the percentage of contribution by large multinationals makes the regulator appear to be too soft on these digital platforms. India still has a long way to go to organize and give adequate protection to its workers, especially in face of surveillance technologies, the precariousness of work, and the new normal created by the pandemic. It needs a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to regulate platforms given the rapid growth of the gig economy.
About the authors
Titiksha Vashist is a researcher working on the socio-political implications of technology in India. She writes on how the digital transformation is impacting Indian society and politics, with a focus on policy for technology. She holds a Masters in Political Science and International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Shyam Krishnakumar is a technology policy consultant and researcher whose work engages with emerging technology in the Indian context. Prior to this, he co-founded EduSeva, an ed-tech startup focussed on providing world class-education at the grassroots. Shyam is a Computer Science graduate and holds a Masters in Political Science with a specialisation in International Affairs. He runs the InTech Dispatch, a fortnightly on emerging tech and society in India.