One of the most recent and heavily discussed labour market developments is ‘Gig’ or platform-based jobs. The so-called ‘gig-economy’ has gained significant popularity in recent years and witnessed an exponential increase in the numbers of platforms and workers, however, it has mostly overshadowed its effect on labour rights. Working modes of the ‘gig-economy’ include ‘crowd work’ and ‘work-on-demand by applications (apps)’, where online or smartphone devices balance the demand and availability of job activities. These modes of work will deliver a relevant job match and require flexible work schedules. They can, however, often pave the way for a significant commodification of jobs (De Stefano 2016). Attributed to increasing competition on the part of employers for flexibility (Mandl, et al. 2015), better labour market productivity (IOE, 2017) and, in certain situations, the need for greater flexibility on the part of workers (De Stefano 2016), gig and platform-based employment is one example of non-standard work encouraged on competition across technology and digital markets. Technological innovation has brought significant changes with positive and negative impacts on the organisation of work, employment relationships and labour relations.
Whilst the concept of ‘gigs’ or sole workers is not recent, the growing usage of technologies has led to this form of work being quickly proliferated. Although still in its infancy, the platform economy provides important income and employment opportunities for a growing number of workers. Such work enables those who would normally be excluded from the labour market on account of disability, care responsibilities illness, or other factors to participate. As this type of work grows, concerns are also emerging about job quality, social protection, and the channels available for freedom of association (Decent Work in the Platform Economy 2018).
Despite its comparatively limited scale, the gig economy has the ability to quickly transform the way employment is organised, change the scope of employment and nature of workers, and reshape industries (Farrell and Grieg, 2016). Through developing digitally distributed labour marketplaces, or labour markets, the gig economy has led to the development of certain types of non-standard jobs. Labour networks leverage technologies to associate employees with customers for one-off assignments, or employment that an on-demand workforce performs either remotely or in person. Though this workforce functions with minimal social and labour security, it is ought to become more important as more jobs will be dependent on networks for their primary source of income (Johnston and Land-Kazlauskas 2019).
Gig Workers under Indian Laws
The major shortcoming for a gig worker, other than uncertainty and unpredictable wage scales, has been the denial of social security such as pensions, health benefits and/or other statutory incentives equivalent to a regular job. In the absence of any codified Indian legislation for gig employees, the individuals working in the gig economy are classified as independent jobs or independent contractors depending on the essence of their involvement. The only available recourse to gig workers prior to the Code on Social Security Bill, 2019, was the contract they have individually entered into with their employers. The contracts only protected them with regard to terms of their employment and did not extend further to social security benefits.
The Code which seeks to universalise social security, defines unorganised worker in the unorganised sector to include gig workers (§2(79), (79)). Defining ‘unorganised workers’ in a way that includes gig workers is the first step in ensuring that they receive coverage of social security. The Code thus empowers the government to come up with schemes to ensure they are protected (§45) on various matters ranging from health and maternity benefits to life and disability cover to old age protection (§114). Though the code recognises gig workers, the protection and responsibility on the government to ensure that they are provided with security benefits is the critical aspect.
Gig Workers under the COVID- 19 Pandemic
Given that new cases of coronavirus are increasing rapidly around the world, gig workers have been at the forefront of this crisis as the whole world is insulated at their homes, while they have been relentlessly working to provide essential supplies to doorsteps. The essence of their jobs therefore is the opposite of social distancing as they communicate explicitly, in public and private areas, with restaurants, stores and consumers, making them highly vulnerable of exposure to the virus.
Governments around the world urged those with symptoms to isolate themselves, while lockout policies were being enforced by an increasing number of countries requiring citizens to remain at home unless designated activities were being carried out. That is better stated than achieved for the gig workers. Not working means not getting the being able to pay expenses for their family and put food on the table. Not operating often meant that companies would block their accounts or they would lose the number of rewards they have earned. Consequently, their overt appearance on our streets and in front of our doors offers forums to raise their demands in the middle of the crisis. Failure to perform means getting further into debt and risking financial hardship for employees who have to compensate rent or lease payments for their perform machinery or cars. Self-isolation is not an economical comfort to the contract staff (Ustek-Spilda, et al. 2020).
While these workers only constitute a small percentage of the total population, they have a wide presence and impact the lives of millions. The possible disruptive impact of platforms on labour markets far outweigh their current value as a source of jobs, and their projected development has led many to believe that such modes of work may lead to the total elimination of traditional employment (Drahokoupil and Fabo 2016). In view of the future development of this field, facilitating an enabling workplace atmosphere and collective bargaining will help ensure that the usage of new technology is not at the cost of stable employment and fair working conditions.
Both, companies and policymakers, need to step up their initiatives and countries need to learn from each other to support gig workers. Addressing structural problems cannot be done through short-term approaches to labour protection. Gig workers should always have access to safe and fair working conditions. We as consumers also have a duty to change our demands. Rather than congratulating platforms that only tell us how they will take care of their employees, we need to ask how exactly they will do this and whether their employees have been adequately informed. Consumers should avoid platforms that do not take their moral responsibilities seriously to their workers.
Apoorva Bantula is currently pursuing her Master’s in Public Policy from NLSIU, Bengaluru. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law (BA.LLB) with specialised Honours in Criminal Law from School of Law, KIIT University.
Apoorva is interested in the intersection of law and policy, human rights, governance, political participation of women among others. She can be reached at email@example.com
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