The new Code on Social Security allows a platform worker to be defined by their vulnerability not their labour, nor the vulnerabilities of platform work.
Swiggy workers have been essential during the pandemic. Even so, they have faced a continuous dip in pay and no rewards for being essential workers.
During the last six months, many platform workers have unionised under the All India Gig Workers Union and have protested day in and day out, deploring Swiggy for reducing their base pay from ₹35 to ₹10 per delivery order.
It has been truly remarkable to see the ‘food delivery’ identity being developed through collective action, just as that of Uber and Ola taxi drivers has been taking shape for a few years now.
Stable terms of earning have been a key demand of delivery-persons and drivers through years of protests.
About gig economy:
A gig economy is a free market system in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements
Examples of gig employees in the workforce could include freelancers, independent contractors, project-based workers and temporary or part-time hires.
An estimated 56% of new employment in India is being generated by the gig economy companies across both the blue-collar and white-collar workforce.
‘Gig’ economy is creating lakhs of jobs, but workers don’t see a future:
- The recent Periodic Labour Force Survey from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation shows unemployment rate at a 45-year high, at 6.1%; the highest levels of joblessness is among urban youth.
- Other reports show that over the past two years domestic consumption has reduced, industrial growth has flatlined, private investments are lower, and market volatility has hit drivers of employment.
- And so, not surprisingly, many, including undergraduates and diploma holders, now look at the gig economy as a stop-gap solution until the market turns.
- Human resources firm TeamLease estimates that 13 lakh Indians joined the gig economy in the last half of 2018-19, registering a 30% growth compared to the first half of the fiscal year.
- Better Place, a digital platform that does background verification and skill development in the informal sector, estimates that of the 21 lakh jobs that will be created in the metros in 2019-20, 14 lakh will be in the gig economy.
- Food and e-commerce delivery will account for 8 lakh positions and drivers will account for nearly 6 lakh positions, says the report, based on 11 lakh profiles in over 1,000 companies.
- Delhi, Bengaluru and other metros are expected to be the biggest drivers of this sector. And two-thirds of this workforce will be under the age of 40.
Three new labour codes: Acknowledged gig workers:
The three new labour codes passed by Parliament recently acknowledge platform and gig workers as new occupational categories in the making, in a bid to keep India’s young workforce secure as it embraces ‘new kinds of work’, like delivery, in the digital economy.
But do the codes let Swiggy workers ask for the pay that they were promised? No.
What a platform worker is allowed to claim as rights, responsibilities and working conditions that can be legally upheld is the key question in these codes, such as for factory workers, who have been an important industrial element in India and around the world.
The specific issues of working in factories, the duration of time needed on a factory floor, and associated issues are recognised as the parameters for defining an ideal worker under most labour laws, and this has not shifted much.
Defining an ‘employee’:
- The Code on Wages, 2019, tries to expand this idea by using ‘wages’ as the primary definition of who an ‘employee’ is.
- The wage relationship is an important relationship in the world of work, especially in the context of a large informal economy.
- Even so, the terms ‘gig worker’, ‘platform worker’ and ‘gig economy’ appear elsewhere in the Code on Social Security.
- Since the laws are prescriptive, what is written within them creates the limits to what rights can be demanded, and how these rights can be demanded.
- Hence, the categories and where they appear become key signs for understanding what kind of identity different workers can have under these new laws. Platform delivery people can claim benefits, but not labour rights.
- This distinction makes them beneficiaries of State programmes. This does not allow them to go to court to demand better and stable pay, or regulate the algorithms that assign the tasks.
- This also means that the government or courts cannot pull up platform companies for their choice of pay, or how long they ask people to work.
- The main role of the laws for a ‘platform worker’ is to make available benefits and safety nets from the government or platform companies.
- Even though platforms are part of the idea of how work will evolve in the future, the current laws do not see them as future industrial workers.
Secure benefits: No guarantees:
- In the Code on Social Security, 2020, platform workers are now eligible for benefits like maternity benefits, life and disability cover, old age protection, provident fund, employment injury benefits, and so on.
- However, eligibility does not mean that the benefits are guaranteed. None of these are secure benefits, which means that from time to time, the Central government can formulate welfare schemes that cover these aspects of personal and work security, but they are not guaranteed.
- Actualising these benefits will depend on the political will at the Central and State government-levels and how unions elicit political support.
- For some states like Karnataka, where a platform-focused social security scheme was in the making last year, this will possibly offer some financial assistance by the Centre.
- However, that is not assured. The language in the Code is open enough to imply that platform companies can be called upon to contribute either solely or with the government to some of these schemes.
- But it does not force the companies to contribute towards benefits or be responsible for workplace issues.
With a population of over 1.3 billion, and a majority of them below the age of 35, relying on the “gig economy” is perhaps the only way to create employment for a large semi-skilled and unskilled workforce.
Therefore, it is important to hand-hold this sector and help it grow. We need policies and processes that give clarity to the way the sector should function.
The ‘platform worker’ identity has the potential to grow in power and scope, but it will be mediated by politicians, election years, rates of under-employment, and large, investment- heavy technology companies that are notorious for not complying with local laws.
But there are no guarantees for better and more stable days for platform workers, even though they are meant to be ‘the future of work’.