Coined in the US in 2009, the term “gig economy”, which refers to various forms of temporary employment, has, over the years, utterly changed the way we think about work.
An auto driver whom I once hired told me that after being thrown out of temporary job in a private Bank, he bought an auto, although with considerable efforts but there was no looking back. He works for digital platforms Ola as well as Uber depending on demand and financial implications for half a day. Thereafter, he takes his two daughters to tuition classes and gives his vehicle to another driver and charges a fixed amount from him.
A housing society’s part-time electrician, after completing his shift, makes some extra rupees working for delivery platform Zomato. A boy who delivers flowers in the morning doubles up as delivery boy for medicines.
With permanent employment shrinking, more people seem to be looking for alternative sources of income. Across the globe if the gig economy has become increasingly popular in recent years it’s due to its flexibility and the wide variety of opportunities available. Many have been turning to these jobs as an opportunity to supplement income or even pursue full-time gigs if they desire.
In India, a gig worker, defined under Section 2(35) of the Code on Social Security, 2020, means a person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationship.
Similarly, a platform worker, defined under Section 2 (61) of the Code on Social Security, 2020 is anyone engaged in or undertaking platform work (that is work activity under Section 2(60) arrangement outside of a traditional; Section 2(60) defines the ‘platform work’ to mean a work arrangement outside of a traditional employer-employee relationship in which organizations or individuals use an online platform to access other organizations or individuals to solve specific problems or to provide specific services or any such other activities which may be notified by the Central Government, in exchange for payment.
Over the years, it is appreciative that several digital platforms have emerged, offering citizens with wide choices of various doorstep services ranging from delivery of food, groceries, medicines and taxi, auto, etc. According to a NITI Aayog report released in June 2022, during 2020-21, an estimated 77 lakh workers were engaged in the gig economy, which constitutes 2.6 percent of the non-agricultural workforce or 1.5 percent of the total workforce in the country.
The gig workforce, largely comprising delivery and sales personnel, is expected to expand to about 99 lakh in 2022-23 and 2.35 crore by 2029-30 (6.7 percent of the non-agricultural workforce or 4.1 percent of the total workforce). Presently, about 47 percent of the gig work is in medium skilled jobs, about 22 percent in high skilled and about 31 percent in low skilled jobs. The trend shows concentration of workers in medium skills is gradually declining and that of the low skilled and high skilled is increasing.
But what’s the actual situation on the ground in terms of working conditions of the gig workforce in India?
Well, recently, the “Fairwork project”, (a collaborative initiative between the London-based Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and the Berlin Social Science Center, Germany) evaluated the work conditions of 12 Indian digital platforms (Amazon Flex, Bigbasket, Dunzo, Flipkart, Ola, PharmEasy, Porter, Swiggy, Uber, Urban Company, Zepto and Zomato) against five principles: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation. Every platform was awarded a score out of 10 against each of the above said five principles which was broken down into two points: a first point and a second point that can only be awarded if the first point has been fulfilled. Urban Company scored the most, seven out of 10, followed by Bigbasket (6/10), Flipkart (5/10), Swiggy (5/10), Zomato (4/10), Zepto (2/10), and Porter (1/10). Notably, cab aggregators like Ola and Uber, grocery app Dunzo, pharmacy platforms like PharmEasy and Amazon Flex scored zero out of 10 points.
As the gig economy continues to grow, reportedly there have been several high-profile cases involving some mighty digital platforms in the US and other European countries who are said to be grappling with how to regulate platforms. In Belgium, a recent reform package which has been put into practice is to allow workers a four-day workweek and more.
While full-time employees will be able to work flexible schedules on demand, workers in the gig economy are also set to receive stronger legal protections under the new rules. In the US, Pizza Hut delivery drivers are classified as employees whereas in Canada misclassification of Pizza Hut delivery drivers as independent contractors has led to court cases. Similarly, after Uber was hit with a number of lawsuits in the United States over the years, there has been a proposed settlement of USD8.4 million to be paid to misclassified drivers.
With rising urbanization, widespread access to internet, digital technologies and smartphones, the gig economy has the potential for job creation. But something seems to be wrong somewhere and there are issues with some digital platforms. To ensure that the ordered product reaches the customer, some ecommerce companies have initiated open box delivery thus enabling customers to verify and inspect products before accepting delivery.
But how safe is it to purchase items through digital platforms in India? In December 2022, a delivery man was booked in Mumbai for allegedly molesting a 25-year-old woman after forcibly entering her flat no sooner than he delivered her a food parcel. Finding the victim alone, it is said that the delivery man started to make a video of the woman while she was making an online payment. Similarly in Pune recently an online food delivery man was arrested for allegedly touching a teenaged girl inappropriately on the pretext of saying “thank you”. There is an imperative need for ecommerce companies to have a proper verification of antecedents of gig workers deployed by them to prevent any lapses at the customer’s place.
Not long ago, a survey used ethics, leadership, company culture, brand perception and public messaging through social media for measuring empathy. The cause for concern is that some companies showed, in relative terms, the lowest levels of empathy towards their employees. This can have an effect on the behaviour of gig workers towards customers. At the same time the general public ought to treat gig workers with humility and not hurl abuses at them for delayed delivery as much depends on traffic and road conditions.
We often come across complaints of overcharging by cab aggregators or non-delivery of items ordered on ecommerce companies leaving the hapless commuter at the receiving end of shoddy customer service. At a macro level, the Government has put in place a grievance redressal system wherein every digital platform has to have a grievance officer. To ensure effectiveness of the redressal system, it is also necessary to make it mandatory for digital platforms to file a monthly report on the grievances received, settled and pending.