Ahead of Telangana Elections, Gig Workers' Union Demands a Rajasthan-Like Welfare Law

As unions gain prominence and political parties show willingness to address platform workers' concerns, the era of unregulated platforms appears to be ending. The upcoming Telangana elections could also decide the course of a welfare law for workers.

India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.

The Rajasthan Platform Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare Act) has become a model for gig workers to raise their issues across the country. The Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union (TGPWU), which is part of Indian Federation Of App-Based Transport Workers(I-FAT), has been demanding to start the process for establishing a welfare law in Telangana.

The union has been engaging with the government, protesting and promoting gig workers’ rights across the state, and this election could determine their labour rights. 

The rise of platform capitalism took away labour rights of workers by forcing new terminologies for workers as ‘partners’. This issue has led to a host of issues with platform workers unable to access basic labour rights from the platforms. The nature of work has been changed to force the workers to act according to the needs of the market with black box algorithms. The workers themselves are aware of this change in the nature of work, with how the platform has been seeking more rent from them, and the demands of fair pay. 

The Telangana platform workers’ movement has been central to the platform workers’ rights in India, with its union leader Shaik Salauddin, who has been on the forefront of challenging the platform companies. Shaik’s interaction with Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in 2022 resulted in the Indian National Congress working towards the Rajasthan law. The Congress in Karnataka also introduced a scheme towards the insurance of platform workers. 

A screenshot of a trip where a driver has been just paid Rs 337.15 for a 30 kilometre trip.

These actions are now increasing pressure on political parties in Telangana and other parts of India to take platform workers’ problems seriously. The workers themselves have been protesting innovatively across Telangana, and these practices have been adopted across India. Protest forms like switching off AC due to low fares are continuously being used by cab drivers as a sign of protest.

Specifically, fares to the Hyderabad airport and from the airport are quite low for the drivers; the fare only covers the fuel charges, leading to these protests.

The constant demand from the union has been to make the platform companies give back the data of the trips back to the platform workers. In a recent publication, Shaik Saluddin argued that as partners of these platforms, workers need to be supplied with information as the company would do during an initial public offering. The union has questioned the information asymmetry being created by the companies. It wants the drivers to have their right to information.

The platform workers are also aware of how the algorithms are taking control of their lives and have been demanding changes on who gets a trip allocated. Platforms could be allocating more work to workers who have taken a loan or have enrolled into different programmes by platform companies. This understanding of the rating algorithms is what makes the platform workers to demand 5 star ratings from the customers. 

Beyond the issue of lower fare or being discriminated against by the algorithms, platform workers are questioning their digital exile from the platforms. Their platform worker IDs are blocked for protesting, or receiving complaints from customers.

The Telangana Gig and Platform Workers’ Union deals with an average of 25-30 workers whose IDs are blocked by the platforms. Most of the workers are unaware of the reasons for the blocks, and getting IDs unblocked is a tedious process. 

The alienation of workers is not limited to the platforms, making it hard for them to work in conditions that are not always in their favour. The union wants a grievance redressal platform to address the issues of drivers. In addition, they have been demanding for customer KYC (know your customer), because customers themselves could behave unruly. How society has been treating platform workers without the dignity they deserve is often reflected in terms of the disagreements between the worker and the unruly demands of customers. 

While the platform workers face exploitation in terms of fair pay, they also lack support from the welfare institutions in Telangana.

In 2015, Telangana cancelled ration cards of people owning a car. It also cancelled access to ration for all car-owning drivers too. Access to accident insurance, state welfare and the nature of work conditions are a constant issue of concern for platform workers in the state. 

The 2023 report by Fairwork Project on the working conditions of platform workers presents the current status of workers across India. It scores platform companies across different areas like pay, conditions of work, management, contracts and representation. The report shows how alienation of workers continues to occur in India amplified with algorithms, consumer rating and lack of government regulation. 

Platform companies push back against government regulation while employing union-busting methods such as blocking IDs and giving incentives to workers on the day of a strike announcement. While the unions’ struggle to hold platforms accountable continues, the platforms themselves are also pushing for new forms of alternatives to unions like driver advisory councils

As unions gain prominence and political parties show willingness to address platform workers’ concerns, the era of unregulated platforms appears to be ending. The upcoming Telangana elections could also decide whether a change in the government would lead to a welfare law for workers. The platform workers are optimistic and have clearly said that their vote will go to the political parties that would address their concerns. 

A commercial driver from the union expressed his displeasure with the current development model of Telangana which is ignoring them by saying, “The development of Telangana is different from the development of the people of Telangana. The development of the people of Telangana need not mean they are happy, we are not happy.”

Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and a hacktivist.