I usually use Uber Bikes, a bike-hailing service from Uber to get around short distances in my colony area… may be a maximum of 5 kilometers or so. Apart from Uber, I am aware of at least two other apps that provide such services Ola and Rapido, and have these on my phone too. If Uber isn’t available or the bike assigned is too far away. On the last occasion, I had to book a bike through Ola. When the rider arrived a few minutes later, he had 3 smartphones open and dangling from his neck. When I casually asked him about the need for 3 smartphones and all at the same time, he replied that he was active on all 3 platforms and responded to whichever ride he got first on whatever platform. He said that depending on one platform was not enough, there was no guaranteeing the number of rides that he would get from anyone platform.
Unorganised workers have always been part of the Indian ecosystem forming about 90 percent of the workforce. Unorganised workers are mostly invisible even if working in our homes as domestic help, car cleaners, cooks, and all. sometimes these workers are in occupations that are seasonal and have limited social protections through labour laws. They are often attached to a contractor or a small business owner and often somewhere up the supply chain would be linked to a bigger industry or corporation. Gig workers are a subset of this vast number of unorganised workers. But this subset is growing and are now trying to figure out what kind of workers they are legally . Gig workers are a product of apps and digitisation and smartphones while our laws were made a long time ago. The new labour code announced by the government(not yet notified) takes note of their existence but that is about it.
Gig workers exist and operate outside of the traditional employer-employee relationship including freelancers, workers who are employed on a contractual basis with their employers, project-based work, and short-term work. Most commonly, platform-based work where workers earn money by providing specific services, including food delivery services or e-commerce platforms such as use gig workers. A 2017 Ernst and Young study on the “Future of Jobs in India” even found that 24% of the world’s gig workers come from India. The gig economy allows different people across cities, age groups, and skillsets to pick up work without being tied down to one single project. Those just entering the workforce find it easier to find gig work than conventional jobs that need some amount of work experience.
India’s gig economy is set to triple over the next 3-4 years to 24 million jobs in the non-firm sector from the existing 8 million. The number of Flexi or gig jobs could soar to 90 million in 8-10 years, with total transactions valued at more than $250 billion, contributing an incremental 1.25% to India’s gross domestic product (GDP). The Covid induced lockdown saw a steady increase in the number of gig workers in India. People who had lost jobs were finding gig opportunities closer home. The gig economy has the potential to help people in the unorganised sector learn new skills and help them build a better quality of life for themselves. India’s new labour codes have also taken note of India’s gig economy and promise to provide social security benefits to contract workers. The Union budget for FY22 has also proposed to create a database of gig workers for better tracking and for devising policies for their welfare.
The gig workers claim that they are unorganised workers under the Unorganised Workers’ Social Welfare Security Act, 2008, and are therefore entitled to social security. It has been contended that the State’s failure to register them under the Act is violative of their fundamental rights. All the bigger companies who use gig workers as a matter of routine have ensured that their reliance on various people who work for them are classified as independent contractors and not employees because an employee is entitled to a much larger gamut of benefits and the obligation of the employer is also pretty wide.
Gig workers and freelancers are of course not a homogenous lot. So one wonders how a viable database of gig workers can be hosted and stay updated. There are delivery workers like those who work for food delivery companies or for taxi companies. For them to be real freelancers and have multiple employers is not simple, given that they are own time-sensitive roles and working for multiple platforms is not a real option. People like my bike driver with 3 smartphones on tap are rare. But there are a lot of people who drift in and out of the gig world. People may enter the gig economy when in-between jobs, taking up assignments that can be done and delivered online and exit when they land a job. Or gig work maybe a moonlighting option for some. Many gig workers could be largely dormant taking up a project which catches their fancy. College students have been known to be part of the gig economy during vacation, after exams, and of late when classes are held online.
So we see that there is a hierarchy of gig workers. There are those content writers, web designers, digital illustrators, counsellors, life coaches, and teachers who can extract maximum mileage from the gig ecosystem and aren’t complaining. Content writers can sign on multiple clients. A content writer can switch from writing for a travel blog to the merits of going on a Keto diet after a coffee break. Life coaches can take on multiple coachees in the course of a day as can online counsellors and teachers or tutors. The successful ones can make a lot more than a salaried person would and would actually prefer to be unorganised. Unencumbered by the demands of an employer or boss, staff handbooks, fixed working hours, they can take on assignments as they please, finish them on time, earn their income, pay their taxes, and retain the flexibility to take on more projects at will.
In India, the gig workers who have gone to court against their living conditions are those blue-collar workers, who are essentially working for just one platform. , app or company. Many of them whose work requires mobility and transportation or both have taken loans from the platform or aggregator they service to buy cars and bikes muddying the employer-employee distinction further. To get better legal clarity, The Indian Federation Of App Based Transport Workers (IFAT), which is a registered union and federation of Trade Union representing App-based based transport and delivery workers. They have argued that “gig workers” and “platform workers” are covered by the definition of “workman” within the meaning of all the social security legislations since they are in an employment relationship with the aggregators.
The matter is therefore sub judice but as has been pointed out, there are many participants in the gig economy and the petition is only on behalf of transportation and delivery workers and possibly other blue collar workers. There are many other kinds, and there are numerous Indians who are serving clients and executing projects procured through sites like freelancer.com and fiverr.com and their Indian counterparts. Clearly, as the gig economy continues to evolve and grow, the last word on the legal identity of the gig worker is yet to be pronounced.
Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.