There is an often-quoted old English saying whose origins are unclear: ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’: whenever the situation becomes dire, someone will emerge who will turn the tide.
In the waning hours of 2022, many of us will recall with gratitude one development that came as a life saver for us from the very first lockdown in 2020, right up to recent weeks: the nameless, often faceless delivery person who in multiple avatars brought goods and services to our doorstep, whatever the time or the inclement weather.
We know them as the Swiggy or Zomato guy who brought us hot food from a restaurant of our choice.
We know them as bigbasket or JioMart persons who delivered any item of toiletry or grocery within minutes of a sudden emergency
We know them as delivery execs from Amazon and Flipkart who brought everything from television sets to laptop computers or mobile phones to our doors, saving us costly trips to showrooms and malls.
And we know them most recently as the person from Dunzo or Porter who brought anything from anywhere from across town — even an urgent document or medicine from a pharmacy.
Often, we never even saw their faces: After Covid, contactless delivery kicked in and they left items on our doorstep, giving us no opportunity to even say a ‘thank you’!
We know them just by the agency they served; the app we used to whistle up their service. But the business world calls them ‘gig workers’ — persons who engage in income-earning activities outside of a traditional employer-employee relationship, as well as in the informal sector.
When gig workers use platforms — ie, websites or apps like Ola, Uber, Dunzo, Zomato, Swiggy or Urban Company — to connect with customers, they are called platform workers.
By mid-2022, the gig phenomenon was so prevalent across India that NITI Aayog undertook a detailed study: “India’s Booming Gig and Platform Economy: Perspectives and Recommendations on the Future of Work”. The report found that “the rise of the gig economy in India is changing the face of its workforce.”
“The rapidly burgeoning gig workforce is ushering in a new economic revolution globally. India — with its demographic dividend of half-a-billion labour force and the world’s youngest population, rapid urbanisation, widespread adoption of smartphones and associated technology — is the new frontier of this revolution.”
The report estimates that 7.7 million workers were engaged in the gig economy in 2020-21. Within this broad spectrum, “Platform workers are one of the most visible groups of professionals in urban India today. Through the app, they could receive a work order which might involve ferrying passengers around in taxi-cabs, auto-rickshaws, bike-taxis and their electric vehicle variants, deliver food and groceries, or provide cleaning or wellness services at home.”
Government Steps In
Recognising early, the emergence of a new class within the labour ecosystem, the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment launched the e-SHRAM portal in August 2021 — a first-ever national database of unorganised workers, including construction workers, gig and platform workers, migrant workers.
The centralised database, seeded with Aadhaar, gave the registered workers access to an accident insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh under the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY). The premium for the first year was borne by the ministry.
It proved popular: By March 2022, more than 27 crore informal workers registered on the portal — most of them (52 per cent) were from the agricultural sector with another 10 per cent domestic and household workers.
What these numbers did not reveal was the actual condition under which informal — mostly platform — workers in India performed their duties.
That lacuna was addressed earlier this week when Fairwork, an Oxford University (UK)-based international action research project that evaluates working conditions in the platform economy in more than 30 countries, released findings of an India-specific study: “Labour Standards in the Platform Economy: Fairwork India Ratings'' .
Rating Platform Companies
The India study was helmed by its principal investigators, Professors Balaji Parthasarathy and Janaki Srinivasan at the Centre for IT and Public Policy (CITAPP) of the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Bengaluru.
It investigated 12 digital labour platforms to evaluate their working conditions, against five principles (fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation) through a combination of desk research and worker interviews conducted in Bengaluru, Delhi, and Kochi, and from evidence provided by the platforms. The scoring process was an independent assessment of platforms with no affiliation to workers, platforms or the government.
The key findings make for sobering reading:
— Even with workers and worker groups repeatedly emphasising the importance of a stable income for platform workers, platforms have been reluctant to publicly commit to, and operationalise, a minimum wage policy. (They have been) unwilling to recognise or negotiate with any collective body representing workers.
— Only bigbasket, Flipkart, and Urban Company operationalised policies to ensure that all workers on their platforms earned at least the hourly local minimum wage after factoring in work-related costs.
— Only bigbasket, Flipkart, Swiggy, Urban Company and Zomato simplified their insurance claims processes and set up operational emergency helplines.
— Only bigbasket, Swiggy and Urban Company implemented a loss of pay policy that provides workers with a financial safety net during medical illnesses.
— Flipkart, bigbasket, Swiggy, Urban Company and Zomato had a grievance redressal process with the option to connect with a human representative.
Fairwork rated the 12 platforms scoring them on the five criteria for fair work.
The Fairwork study is critical of the NITI Aayog report and points out some flaws: “Any claim that workers enjoy increased earning potential on platforms is neither supported by evidence, nor does the report contain an estimate of the share of platforms’ earnings paid to workers…. Minimising the role of platforms in enabling worker benefits, the report instead links worker benefits to work opportunities arising from an expanding platform economy.”
Fairwork sees the NITI Aayog report as well intentioned but replete with mixed opportunities and pulls no punches to say so: “It is a pity that a report from the government’s think tank, about a sector whose share of non-agricultural employment is likely to grow rapidly, is short on data and a broader vision, and its recommendations rely on possibilities and prognostication.”
For a neutral observer, both reports add valuable insights into the biggest churning in jobs and opportunities that India has seen for decades.
This may seem like ‘glass half full’ and ‘glass half empty’ perspectives. But there is no denying the unique opportunity that the gig economy presents.
Or the legitimate concerns of civil society for the wellbeing of the millions of young people who carved out this new sector with their sheer zeal and enterprise and made life for the rest of us a bit easier during a time of national and global crisis.
FAIRWORK. “Labour Standards in the Platform Economy: Fairwork India Ratings” December 2023. Read here.
Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.
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