Gig workers vulnerable to exploitation

Gig workers present the new face of employment in India, with no fixed working hours and no proper terms of employment to which the employer can be held.

Published : Mar 17, 2022 06:00 IST

A gig worker on her delivery round, in Kolkata, a file photograph.

A gig worker on her delivery round, in Kolkata, a file photograph.

They are everywhere. As “delivery riders”, they zip around on their bikes non-stop after picking up orders from restaurants or retail chains trying to meet daily targets. As cab drivers of transport aggregators, they pick up and drop customers, hoping to earn a decent amount of money at the end of the day after the deductions by the company. Delivery agents, cab drivers, repair technicians or beauticians are the gig workers, the new face of employment in India. Many of them are reasonably educated, but owing to lack of regular opportunities matching their educational skills have joined the gig economy, one that operates in the grey zone. It is grey because employee-employer relationships are grey and “employment” mostly is through a third party, a vendor. The workforce is not exactly a ‘workforce’ in the strict sense of the term. They are also given fancy tags such as “partners”, but they do not have an equal partnership in the profits of the company.

Ranjan Mahato, in his mid thirties, is a “delivery boy” for a leading online supermarket that offers limitless, contact-less delivery for grocery and staples. For the upper middle class in gated apartments, this service came as a boon during the COVID-19 lockdown. While the local retail and Mom and Pop (family-owned) shops suffered, the online supermarkets thrived, and that too on the shoulders of cheap labour that was in abundance during that period.

When the lockdown was clamped in 2020, Ranjan Mahato (not his real name), father of two daughters, lost his job as a house-keeping executive in a multiplex theatre in Delhi. The company sacked most of the staff, including Mahato, as cinemas were mostly shut for two years. Out of work, this migrant from Hajipur district in Bihar had nowhere else to go. Says Mahato: “I heard this supermarket chain was looking for people. So I went there.” He told Frontline that his previous job required a limited number of hours and paid better. “At my new place of work, there is no restriction on working hours. One can do as many shifts as the body permits. The more targets we reach, the more is the likelihood of making Rs.500 to Rs.700 a day, that too if I clock in more than 12 hours of work. If I take a Sunday off, I lose a day’s wages,” he said. No holidays, no sick leave, no Provident Fund contributions, and no pension. The “riders” were not on the rolls of the company. Hired through a vendor, they joined at will and could leave at any time. But they seldom left as most of them were in it for financial compulsions and lack of any other skilled opportunity. If there is any example of “de-skilling” of a young workforce, this is it. Mahato said that riders would be paid Rs.30 for making up to 13 deliveries a day; Rs.40 for 14 to 20 deliveries and Rs.45 for above 20 deliveries per day. He clocked in at 6 a.m. every day without fail so that he could make as many deliveries as he could in a day. He barely got to spend time with his family. Still, he said, it was better than having no work. The government offered the same reasoning.

Gig workers like Mahato are not encouraged to protest. A leading “home services” platform in the Delhi-National Capital Region sought a permanent prohibitory court injunction against dharnas, demonstrations, rallies, peace marches, and shouting of slogans in order to prevent workers from protesting on its premises. The court granted the injunction. The professionals engaged with this particular platform offer expert services ranging from salon, home spas to repairing of appliances. They are called “partners”, but the terms and conditions hardly reflect a partnership in any sense of the term. Some of the “partners” Frontline spoke to said that they put in their labour, but the company’s owners were at liberty to change the terms and conditions at will, putting the worker or the subservient partner at a disadvantage.

Also read: Tunnel-visioned relief from government

Gig work, unions say, had always existed. The most basic definition of a gig worker is one who offers her labour for income-earning activities to on-demand companies. These are activities that fall outside the traditional employer-employee relationships. In some cases, there may be formal contracts. According to the website, payroll taxes are not deducted from these non-standard forms of employment.

According to private surveys, quoted in the same website, about one fourth of the workers participate in the gig economy. In India alone, it is estimated by industry sources that around 15 million people are engaged in freelance activities that broadly define the gig economy. It is a type of freelance work sans the security. But when there is a surplus labour force, the ability to sell one’s labour and get the right value for it as well are compromised. There is a hierarchy among gig workers. There are the high-end ones who offer online consultancy services in Information Technology, Design, Human Resources or Education; they enjoy favourable terms and conditions. But most gig jobs fall in the lower-income job categories like cab services, online deliveries and care services.

Many gig workers, in all income ranges, lost income during the pandemic. In January 2020, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry stated that the gig economy in India was firmly on its way to becoming a key part of India Inc’s strategy. The argument was that it suited companies to employ a temporary workforce. The note urged the government to act as a facilitator for its growth. According to India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), a trust established by the Department of Commerce, an estimate showed that by 2025, there would be 350 million gig workers, thus presenting “a huge opportunity for job seekers to adapt to the changing work dynamics”.

According to the IBEF, young millennials were found showing a preference for gig contracts as opposed to conventional employment. The hectic lifestyles of people working in the private sector had created a negative perception about full-time employment, it noted. To reduce operational costs, multinationals were found opting for flexi-hiring for niche projects. This trend, the IBEF noted, was going to contribute to the gig culture in a big way. Companies were increasingly looking for gig workers in HR operations, customer support, transactions/operations processing, marketing and sales, software development, and graphic design in addition to delivery services. They were not only hiring at the entry level but also for management positions. There were homegrown freelancing platforms that provided access to highly skilled freelancers.

Also read: Profit over labour

According to a 2020 survey by Flourish Ventures, and quoted by the IBEF, 90 per cent of Indian gig workers suffered income losses during the pandemic. While they earned more than Rs.25,000 a month before the pandemic, by August 2020, nine in 10 were earning Rs.15,000 a month, more than 33.3 per cent were making Rs.150 a day or even less. According to the same survey, India stood to lose 135 million jobs because of the pandemic, pushing the jobless towards the gig economy. In August 2020, gig workers organised a series of protests in several parts of the country.

Self-employed freelancers

Says Rikta Krishnaswamy, a national co-ordinator of the All India Gig Workers’ Union: “Gig work is nothing new. We’ve had home-based work, piece rate work. It is the same thing, but the level of expropriation is massive with the digital intelligence platforms. The gig economy is underreported and not critically looked at. We have to stop looking at these gig companies as new service platforms. They are data intelligence companies. What they are doing today, they might not do 10 years from now. There is no meaning in individual data; it is the aggregated data, based on which they can create services like deliveries in five minutes by connecting self-employed freelancers to consumers.

“They say we are just a marketplace. The real value that these companies create in billions of dollars is through data intelligence that comes from tracking so many different things. They are looking forward to being the new oligopolies. In 2007-08, we had the oil companies. Today we have these five or six big tech companies. There is no production happening. They don’t even own the cars on the streets. The big car companies will in some time become service providers to these big tech companies. There won’t create cars, but create ‘intelligent drivers’. What is happening is that a huge force of de-skilled workers is being created. The reason why they are able to do what they do is because they are not taxed, they lobby for de-regulation and compete with public transportation as that is the only way they can keep growing. The de-regulated environment helps them grow. In India, there is no proper definition of the gig worker. Anyone who falls outside the traditional employer-employee contract is a gig worker. So one can work for 10 hours, 12 hours and so on.”

Wage theft

She said there were enough cases across the world where some courts and institutions said gig workers should be given employee status. But that was not enough. “The data intelligence these companies have is so massive. If I have the data intelligence, I can ensure that beyond seven hours, the driver doesn’t get any work. Mere employment status doesn’t help. The strategy is to flood the market with incentives for both consumers and the workers. But when they start cutting down arbitrarily, the pinch is felt by the worker. So from Rs.35 per delivery within a radius of a kilometre, the rate is brought down to Rs.20. In some platforms, they take a commission. So if I am doing a Rs.400 pedicure for a customer, the 8 per cent commission would be hiked to 20 per cent. The worker is squeezed.

Also read: End of wage disparities?

“In India, one of our immediate demands is employment status. We don’t want to think of best corporate practices from a policy point of view. We know it is not going to work out. Gig work is not some new industry. It has been for around 10 years, but the labour courts don’t want to regulate anything to do with employment. The amount of exploitation and expropriation has gone up. It went up exponentially during COVID. The payouts were cut across industries. Some of them are looking at newer markets using digital intelligence based on the aggregated data from consumers. For instance, farm-to-home deliveries. Their systems get more and more sophisticated. They optimise the routes in order to make multiple deliveries, putting more pressure on the worker. Now for a short average delivery, they get Rs.20 on an average. When the route optimisation algorithm tells them to do two deliveries, they get Rs.25 and not Rs.40. This is wage theft. The worker is unable to raise an industrial dispute with the labour courts as there is no definition of a gig worker. In any case, ‘worker’ and ‘employee’ are used interchangeably in the new labour codes. When there are spontaneous protests, the IDs of workers are disabled if they are seen on the site of the protest.

“And who do gig workers collectively bargain with? We make it a point to raise our issues with the Labour Commissioners. When Labour Commissioners call the area managers to talk to them, the company representatives point blank say they don’t talk to third parties. That’s the impunity with which they operate. That is because of heavy de-regulation and inaction by the government. Recently, NITI Aayog celebrated the fact that there were around 5 million Uber riders in the last four years. It is a nice figure but they don’t have any idea of how many of them have committed suicide, how many of them have lost their work.”

Organising gig workers

Rikta Krishnaswamy, a design researcher, left her lucrative job and now is committed full time to organising gig workers. The union now has units in many States. She said that after COVID, businesses boomed for all these platforms but wages were halved. She said: “The delivery riders are not stupid. They saw that these platforms were doing heavy business. The small Mom and Pop stores took a hit. If you speak to some of these Swiggy riders, you will find many are graduates and even post-graduates who are heavily undervaluing their skills. The fruits, if any, of the digital transformation have not reached the worker.

“The government is not going to do any skilling but instead is participating in the de-skilling of the labour force. The only thing that has been done is to mention gig workers in the Social Security Code. The language is so vague. There is no mention of who is responsible for providing social security. The government issues guidelines which are not statutory. The Transport Ministry released an aggregators’ guideline for taxi aggregators, recommending that not more than 20 per cent should be taken from the riders. But 30 per cent was charged. Many of these companies don’t file tax deducted at source from the workers.”

Also read: Frayed labour laws in power looms

During the pandemic, they were defined as essential workers. It was a big recognition, but nothing beyond it. Labour departments were clueless about the condition of the workers, she said. “When we met the Assistant Labour Commissioner in Noida complaining about pay out cuts, he told us that the start-up owners were IIT and IIM graduates, so there must be some reason for the cuts. One of our coordinators was himself a IIT graduate. He was seething at the reasoning that was offered. When criminal injunctions were slapped against women workers last December in Gurgaon, the Labour Commissioner did not even know of it.”

The Gig Workers’ Union is affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. There have been protests all over the country. The Indian Federation of App based Transport Workers is another large union affiliated to the International Transport Workers’ Federation. It filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in September last year with the Supreme Court for social security for transport and delivery workers who work for app-based retailers.

There are hierarchies in gig work too. There are fixed-term employment contracts, but there are also zero-hour contracts where the employer is under no obligation to adhere to any minimum number of working hours. Workers with e-commerce companies can still negotiate for their rights under the Shops and Establishments Act, but gig workers with digital platforms are part of a marketplace, free to join and free to leave. “As long as there is a reserve army of surplus labour, e-commerce companies can offer delivery of a microwave at 9 p.m. or offer a pedicure at 6 a.m,” said Rikta Krishnaswamy. The workers are told that the benchmarks are created by the customers.

Sunil Kumar (not his real name) is a technician trained in the repair and servicing of air-conditioners. He is also a union leader in a leading home services platform in Delhi-National Capital Region. He told Frontline that about 500 of them had to call off a protest for fear that the IDs would be blocked by the company. Says Sunil Kumar: “They target the leaders who are at the forefront. We get seasonal work only. So if they block our IDs there is no work. They call us partners by providing us clients. But they introduce new rules. We feel harassed. We’ve lost our original customers and are dependent on these platforms for work. Most of the traditional service centres have closed down and their technicians poached upon by this home services platform. They lure us by offering incentives and then keep changing the original terms and conditions.” He said as the summer months approached, workers were not very keen to take on the company lest they find themselves without work.

Also read: Labour on hit list

Frontline spoke to another union leader with a leading online food ordering and delivery platform. At the time of the conversation, the union leader, who was a graduate in political science from Delhi University, was waiting outside an eatery to pick up an order for which he would get Rs.10 only as delivery charges as the destination was close. He said the need to unionise arose following a bizarre case in Bangalore last year. Following a delay in the delivery of food, the customer refused to pay and quarrelled with the rider. It was not clear what happened, but the both the customer and rider got injured and each accused the other of assault. “This was when we realised that we were totally unprotected and needed to organise ourselves. There are no fixed criteria for deciding delivery rates. Earlier we used to get Rs.40 per order; the company reduced it to Rs.35, then Rs.15. When petrol rates went up, they increased the rate nominally. After COVID, many changes were introduced. Full-time riders used to get a monthly incentive of Rs.3,000. The only condition was that a full shift needed to be completed and company targets met by the end of the shift. There also used to be a minimum wage of Rs.300 or so per day irrespective of the number of orders. This was done away with. Now the company operates 24 hours. The first shift starts at 5.30 a.m. and goes on till 4 p.m. with a 45-minute break. We feel like a lemon that has been squeezed to the maximum. If we protest, our IDs will be blocked,” he said. “We use our bikes, our petrol. People have accidents while on delivery duties. The company would pay for the immediate injury but not for the damage to the vehicle. Earlier we used to get delivery charge per delivery. If there are two deliveries at a distance of three kilometres, we get compensated for one order only, even though each customer has paid full delivery charges for each individual order.” The company motto, he said was: The order is more important than you, your bike or your smartphone. Another union leader, who had led a protest of beauticians, declined to talk for fear of getting identified and losing her job.

Last year, the government passed the Code on Social Security, one of the four labour codes where gig workers were afforded some social security. The Code provides for a National Social Security Board which would have various schemes for gig workers. Under the code, the aggregator/platform owner is expected to contribute 1 to 2 per cent of her annual turnover apart from a five per cent deduction from the amount payable to gig workers as part of their contribution. It has been argued that deductions from gig workers should be voluntary.

As there are various categories of gig work ranging from the highly paid freelance techie to the poorly paid rider of an online food delivery platform, it is clear that not all types of gig work receive a raw deal. Even if social security is provided and the gig workers get a minimum wage guarantee indexed to inflation, the prospect of future generations of de-skilled young people likely to be involved in such work presents a bleak scenario.

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