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Vol. XXXII No. 12, October 1-15, 2022
A June 2022 NITI Aayog report titled India’s Booming Gig and Platform Economy carried a few revealing facts about the sector. 77 lakh workers were engaged in gig employment in 2020-21, a number that is projected to hit 2.35 crores in 2029-30, which would amount to a significant 4.1 per cent of the county’s total livelihood. Further, gig employment is not just relegated to transport but is present in other industries as well, including retail trade and education. While it is unarguable that the format has brought more people into employment, many experts point out that gig workers are not sufficiently protected under existing laws. Take earnings, for instance. Studies claim that most gig workers earn less than 20,000 rupees per month not taking into account any operational costs they bear, such as fuel. A strike was imminent and that was exactly what happened earlier this month in Chennai.
Swiggy delivery agents went on strike on September 20th in protest against a revised pay structure that employees say reduces incentives while obligating longer working hours to maintain incomes. They claimed that not only would they have to complete 180 orders a week to earn Rs. 11,500 but also that salaries do not take rising fuel prices into consideration – an expense that crunches slimming earning margins. Other grievances emerged as well. Agents claimed that they are made to bear financial penalties over matters beyond their control that affected their ratings, such as restaurant prep time or lack of customer response. Six days later, they returned to their jobs though demands were not met. They could not afford to sustain the strike.
While the gig sector has generated jobs, the truth is that labour codes at both the State and Center have failed to give them adequate protection. Some use gig work to generate side income – many a college student or fresher takes to such work to make extra money. However, there are others that depend on such work to run their households. Latha, a resident of Thiruvanmiyur, reports that a young Swiggy delivery executive claimed that it was the ‘senior delivery agents’ that led the protest. Younger workers like him were not consulted, he said. It illuminates an interesting point. How many hours must gig employees work before they are taken under the fold of full-time employment? A legal distinction, it would seem, is necessary. Traditional employment extends myriad benefits to senior workers, such as opportunities for growth, health insurance and other financial considerations. Gig workers are deprived of these safety nets. Even though many work comparable hours, theirs is not a full-time job but more a series of tasks.
The labour codes in their current form also do not protect gig employees working in precarious conditions. Delivery agents, for instance, are constantly logged into their devices and driving on the roads for most of the day – a combination that poses a risk to health and safety. There are instances, too, of agents reporting behavoural misconduct at client locations – there are enough and more verified accounts on social media that describe horrific ordeals. However, workplace and safety norms are ill-defined in this line of work. Exacerbating the matter is the lack of legal support to unionize, stripping gig workers of the power to negotiate better working conditions and commensurate remuneration.
These concerns have been widely acknowledged by legal experts as well as administrative bodies at both the State and Center. However, there has been little impactful action. For instance, the VV Giri National Labour Institute, which falls under the Ministry of Labour and Employment, GOI, runs a training program on the social security issues faced by gig and platform workers, aimed at ‘officers from Central and State Labour Department, employers’ representatives and trade union representatives,’ but the tangible outcome of such a program is unclear. Some states are taking steps to ameliorate conditions. It is reported, for example, that the Kerala government plans to form a welfare fund for online delivery agents across platforms. It is time that the Tamil Nadu state administration follows the lead. Our gig workers deserve job security as well as a legal channel to resolve disputes regarding workplace conditions, wages or termination. Gig work is here to stay. We need dedicated labour laws that address this pool of employees rather than a generic inclusion in existing codes.