Labour

It Can't Be Business As Usual for the State, 'Employers' in the Case of Gig Workers

Gig workers in India have reached a tipping point, as they are taking to the streets demanding better pay and working conditions. The government and managements can remain aloof to their existence but to their own peril.

Recent media reports indicate that Amazon India’s ‘delivery partners’ (read: workers or employees) are planning to call for a 24-hour strike across Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Pune and Delhi-NCR region.

This is in order to protest against “the e-commerce company’s decision to lower delivery fees”. Protesting workers are also demanding insurance cover for all contract workers. It was also reported on March 15 that the delivery personnel in Pune had organised a protest after Amazon India reportedly lowered the delivery fees.

According to the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), a trade union body representing gig workers, “…on 15 March, Amazon India had issued a policy saying that delivery personnel will now earn Rs 10 on delivering small packages and Rs 15 for deliveries made through tempos”.

Also read: Swiggy Delivery Executives Strike in Chennai and Hyderabad Over Reduction in Payment

Prior to the changes in the policy on March 15, the staff would make Rs 35 on deliveries. Prior to the lockdown last year, the staff was able to make around Rs 20,000 a month, but that has come down to Rs 10,000. IFAT’s demands include payment of Rs 70 to Rs 80 for every parcel delivered through vans and Rs 20 for smaller parcels. There are other issues involved too. IFAT quoted a delivery personnel as saying: “….If we do not deliver the parcel on time, we have to work overtime and deliver the parcel”.

Photo: Reuters

Gig and platform workers

Workers like these ‘delivery partners’ of Amazon are referred to as gig workers or platform workers. There is also no data available with the Centre on how many gig workers are currently operating in India, some independent estimates put the number near 130 million workers.

According to journalist Niranjan Hiranandani, in the present scenario, India stands to lose around 135 million jobs due to the pandemic. Industry bodies have been conducting several studies on the gig economy and just before the outbreak of the pandemic had predicted India’s gig economy to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 17% to touch $455 billion in the next three years.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the gig economy has been growing exponentially in size and importance in recent years and its impact on labour rights has been largely overlooked. It is still difficult to estimate the exact number of workers, as businesses are sometimes reluctant to disclose the data. It is rather complicated to draw an estimate, since workers might be registered with more companies in the same month, week, or day.

However, available estimates range from 0.7% to 34%. The Bureau of Labour Statistics reported in 2017 that 55 million people in the US are “gig workers”. This accounts for approximately 34% of the US workforce, projected to increase to 43% in 2020.

The terms ‘gig workers’ and ‘platform workers’ are, relatively speaking, new terms used in discussions on labour or the economy, though it has been a very prevalent concept in the West. It has also crept into the newly-minted labour codes that replaced 44 labour laws that had been slowly and painstakingly crafted by the tripartite machinery of the government, the employers and labour, through their trade unions and through very difficult and heroic struggles.

Representational image. Photo: Reuters

The new Code on Social Security, 2020 replaces nine legislations that provided social security to the employees like Maternity Benefit Act, Employees’ Provident Fund Act, Employees’ Pension Scheme, Employees’ Compensation Act, among others, and includes for the first time in India, sections of workers called ‘gig’ workers, platform workers and unorganised workers.

The 2020 Code defines the term gig worker as, “a person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationships”. A gig worker refers to someone who takes on hourly or part-time jobs in everything from catering events to software development. The work is usually temporary and completed during a specified time under a nonstandard work arrangement.

Also read: Indian Labour in the Time of COVID Is One of Changing Perspectives and Disappearing Identities

The new Code on Social Security hold that a platform worker refers to “a person engaged in undertaking platform work”. Platform work is defined as ‘a work arrangement outside of a traditional employer-employee relationship in which organisations or individuals use an online platform to access other organisations 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’.

The term platform worker, in general, is said to refer to a worker working for an organisation that provides specific services using an online platform directly to individuals or organisations. For example Uber, Ola, Zomato, etc.

Unorganised workers are those who work in the unorganised sector and include workers not covered by the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, or other provisions of the code, for example, provident fund. This also includes self-employed workers.

New labour codes and gig workers

According to Rudra Srivastava and Aman Gupta, the formal recognition of gig worker is the need of the hour as the definition provides an umbrella to a large group of temporary workers. One can even be a part-time professor and fit into the gig economy. Some common names include contingent workers, freelancers and independent contractors, etc.

The Code also mandates for compulsory registration of both gig workers as well as platform workers on an online portal to avail benefits under the Code which shall be specified by the Central government. However, this registration is subject to fulfilment of certain conditions in terms of age, the number of days worked and possession of certain documents like Aadhar card, which may be totally unfair and also possibly illegal.

The Code enables the Central government to frame welfare schemes for the workers like life and disability cover, accidental insurance, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, crèche facilities, among others.

The jurisdictions of the state and Central governments seem confusing and seem to be one of the many aspects of the Codes that have not been thought through. The other crucial aspect is the manner of funding of these schemes and the monitoring of these.

Yet, the fact that the existence of unorganised workers as well as of gig and platform workers is acknowledged in Labour Codes may seem a move forward as earlier these sections of workers, like the majority of workers in countries like India were almost invisible. However, there is a huge caveat.

For one, all these changes are being brought in at a time when there has been a pandemic of huge proportion accompanied by an ill-planned, hastily declared lockdown. This is a country where it is well documented that over 90% of its people find their livelihood in the informal economy. The term informal economy refers to a situation of complete insecurity, where one is able to put food on the plate only on the day you have been able to find work.

Secondly, these changes were brought in without any consultation with the people whose lives will be drastically affected by those. In fact, they were bulldozed through a voice vote, when the opposition had staged a walkout from the parliament over ramming through of the farm laws.

File photo of Swiggy delivery partners protesting in Chennai. Photo: Twitter/@Senthil80076789

Thirdly, as one knows from the experience of more than two centuries and the logic of capital itself, managements and employers make utmost attempts to increase their revenues and profits. They spend less on workers to increase their profits.

Whatever advances that one sees in the enactment of the 44 laws that were scrapped in order to get these four codes, each one of them was the result of protracted and bitter struggles by workers and employees. Whether you take the Bonus Act or the Minimum Wages Act or the 8-hour working day, that is under challenge too, each of them bears the unmistakable imprint of these struggles.

Outstanding issues

That is why one needs to look at all the four codes together. The Codes are extremely complicated, with a great deal of internal unresolved contradictions. We will look at just a few aspects of the Codes to the extent they are relevant for the argument at hand.

The Industrial Relations Code, 2020 has several very crucial clauses that make it much harder than earlier for workers and employees to assert their rights. One is the idea of the Fixed Term Contract. This puts paid to any notion of job security and permanent employment, the bedrock of the trade union movement. It is common sense that if your contract is for two years and the extension of it depends on the opinion the supervisor or management has about your behaviour, and you would not dare show him the rule-book. Only a secure job and your stakes in it will prompt the commitment to organise and fight for your rights.

As argued by labour lawyers Jane Cox and Sanjay Singhvi, “It is common knowledge that workers, under threat of unemployment, are forced to enter into contracts for a ‘fixed term’. In 1977, Maharashtra implemented changes requiring all workers with 240 days of continuous service to be made permanent. But now a fixed term contract has statutory recognition.”

This is likely to be a race to the bottom in terms of wages as well as working conditions, including health and safety issues. A series of articles that interviewed women workers in different industries in different cities has quoted a woman worker from Gurugram Welspun unit who lost her employment during the pandemic saying, “We’re willing to work at a lower salary. Getting our job back is important.”

Such situations are likely to proliferate in the coming future and the victims are more likely to be the most marginalised and disadvantaged sections of workers – women, Dalits, the disabled.

Also read: Why Gig Workers Should Find a Space in India’s Labour Rights Movement

The third aspect is that the Code takes away a very important right, the only one that puts some power into the hands of the workers vis-à-vis the employers. That is the right to strike. There cannot be a legal strike unless a notice of 14 days prior to the strike is given. The Labour Commissioner is supposed to admit the dispute into conciliation upon receiving the notice of strike and no strike can begin once it is admitted into conciliation, thus in effect prohibiting strikes. And then, if a strike is judged to be illegal, the union registration of the union that led the strike will be cancelled. No such provision exists if a lock-out is ruled illegal!

There are several other draconian, unjust aspects to the Codes that almost sound the deathknell of the trade union movement as we know it now. How one can challenge these Codes and how one can meet the challenges these Codes have posed to the labour movement is something that is still being worked out. The Codes are scheduled to come into force in April 2021.

It has often been argued that these are basically the signs of the times. When the 44 labour laws and many others were enacted, those were the times when the workers in India as well as globally were in an assertive mode, capital was being relatively speaking reined in. Globalisation and financialisation of capital had not reached the levels they now have, whereby with a click of the computer capital deserts a nation-state whose policies do not please it, where technology and productivity have reached such levels that much less labour power is needed than is available all over, where the reserve army of labour, globally, has reached humungous proportion.

It is interesting that it is in such a global political ecosystem there have been attempts to form alternatives.

One of the earlier attempts was in Tennessee in the US in the year 2005 when the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers was formed. There have been many attempts over the years. In the year 2016 was another such formation of Dominos’ drivers, when Dominos quickly raised the wages of its workers in order to stop them from organising.

Out of the many countries that have seen such organising, two countries where workers in such situations have tried to organise and unionise are Japan and South Korea. In Japan, it is the trade union, Tokyo Young Contingent Workers’Union and in South Korea, it is the Youth Community Union that is organising, mainly young, workers working in the gig economy.

Two delivery-men arrange food packets for online customers during the nationwide lockdown imposed to fight the coronavirus pandemic, in Kolkata, Friday, March 27, 2020. Photo: PTI.

There are also attempts to try and build an international force that would bring all these national or local organising together. Yanis Varoufakis, a well-known economist and the ex-finance minister in the Syriza government of Greece talks about the need and urgency for a global organisation like the Progressive International. In order to be able to deal with global giants, there is an absolute need to organise and build global organisations with a progressive vision.

The Progressive International (PI) is a global initiative bringing together progressive left-wing groups, politicians and intellectuals, including Varoufakis, Noam Chomsky and Bernie Sanders, and UNI Global, a trade union federation representing 20 million workers including the UK’s GMB union. PI had called for a one-day global boycott of Amazon on November 27, 2020. This boycott was supposed to include “not even visiting the website” of the company.  At one point the company was making sales of $11,000 every second. This was totally at the expense of the workers working in Amazon, who do so for a pittance in extremely oppressive working conditions.

According to Casper Gelderblom of Progressive International’s campaign lead: “Trillion-dollar corporations like Amazon have too much power and are too large for a single government, trade union or organisation to rein in. That’s why workers, citizens and activists are coming together across borders and issues to take the power back.” This of course is not just about Amazon or any particular corporation alone. It is a question of corporate power and even more a question of the joint power of the gargantuan state machinery fusing its power with corporate power.

The situation today may seem too bleak to feel optimistic about such ventures. However, situations change, sometimes radically and suddenly. One needs to be prepared for such a change and also work towards it.

Several beginnings are being made in several countries and this will surely not be a simple forward march, given the immense powers that people are up against, as is being evidenced in the many struggles of working people in different sectors taking place all over the world. The latest star in the galaxy being the heroic and unprecedented farmers’ struggle in India that has just finished a four-month long sit-in on the various borders of the country’s capital and is giving the powers-that-be a proper run for their money.

Sujata Gothoskar has been researching and organising on the issues of gender, work and organisational processes for over 30 years.