COVID-19 and Employment: Why the Definition of Gig Workers Matters More Than You Think

Understanding how one single definition can spell doom for many in India today.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit India, the gig economy was widely seen as a large scale hiring tool, a comforting way of coping with the country’s high employment, with even the NIT Aayog using Uber and Ola’s job creation spree as a key source of employment generation.

Since the lockdown, platform and gig app companies were hit initially – but have managed to come out on the other side much better than other sectors. There has not only been a growth in the number of services that platforms are willing to offer, but these platforms continue to hire as a response to such shifts in practices.

Beyond this, there are a few trends that point towards existing formal employment becoming more freelance or ‘gig-like’ in nature.

Services that were once reliant on brick and mortar establishments have now grown to include gig-like employment through apps, such as blood sample collections via apps such as ThyroApp, packers and movers services via apps such as the Porter app, etc.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), over the last few months, the pandemic has taken an immense toll on salaried jobs while the informal economy has managed to get back on its feet. With the platformisation of more and more services in the country, there exists a real need for the definition of gig workers to be taken seriously as the number of jobs continue to dwindle in the formal economy in India. 

Also read: Why a Job-Focused Social-Security Plan Is Desperately Needed

Currently, there exists only a single piece of legislation that attempts to define gig workers and it is the Code on Social Security Bill 2019 (CSS).

As per its definition, a gig worker under clause 2(35) means “a person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationships”. Such a definition focusses on the ambiguity of worker identity and does more to disenfranchise the worker rather than to provide a sense of clarity on who a gig worker is.

This, paired with the lack of definition in the other codes leads to further confusion with regards to what gig workers can avail in terms of protections and minimum wages, etc. 

Swiggy delivery partners on a strike in Chennai. Photo: Twitter/@Senthil80076789

This definition of gig work enforces an informalisation of workers in the gig economy under the CSS, but the bill also further confuses individuals by having a second definition for platform work and platform workers.

Again platform work under clause 2(55) is defined as “a form of employment in which organisations or individuals use an online platform to access other organisations or individuals to solve specific problems or to provide specific services in exchange for payment” and a platform worker under clause 2(56) is defined as one engaged in or undertaking platform work.

At least in this definition there exists the term employment, nevertheless does this mean that workers who use online platforms for exchange of services are platform workers or those that work specifically for the platforms in connecting the service providers are platform workers again leads to large scale ambiguity allowing the platforms to decide who is a platform worker and who is a gig worker. 

In addition to this we know that platforms’ business models solely move towards a monopoly with competing platforms attempting to out-hire each other and control the market. This means that the growth of these platforms is not merely relegated to urban centres as we may think now, more platforms are entering tier 2 and 3 cities in the country and continue to hire there en masse.

Also read: India’s Unemployment Rate Rose to 7.2% in February: CMIE

If this is the case, then without careful deliberation more livelihoods will become ambiguous with the entry of gig work in smaller towns which could eventually go all the way till rural India. 

Similarly, with the ambiguity of the definition of gig work we also observe that it needn’t just be for individuals who work under platforms (though as mentioned above more work will be introduced via platforms as per the current trends) but for any type of work that doesn’t have normal employer-employee relations, which has also been highlighted by the standing committee report on the CSS.

Which means, a large range of work that is considered freelance, temporary work, temporary agency work and part-time work would also fall under the gambit of such a definition, increasing the precarity of an already difficult job market, especially with the fall in formal salaried employment. 

A worker operates a lathe as he makes spare parts of car gearboxes at a workshop in Kolkata, India, July 4, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File

Therefore, the scope of the definition of gig worker is far larger than one might initially interpret, and is therefore an integral piece of the legislation that must be focussed on in detail. It requires much more nuance and criticism than is currently provided.

And though the government is currently looking to ensure that workers in this sector can be given insurance through the code, there continues to be a lack of understanding of the long-term implications that can exist if such an ambiguous definition continues as is.

Also read: COVID-19 Impact: 41 Lakh Youth Lost Jobs in India, Says ILO-ADB Report

More and more individuals will be absorbed into the gig economy if there aren’t mass scale changes by the government into creating large-scale employment programmes. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that workers in the gig economy are offered basic protections and a sound definition highlighting them as workers with a fair employee-employer relationship. 

Bhavani Seetharaman is an independent researcher studying the future of work in India. She has previously worked for Microsoft Research India, the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies and the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.