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Insights into Editorial: A secure future for platform workers

labour_codes

Context:

The Code on Social Security Bill, 2020, for the first time in Indian law, attempted to define ‘platform work’ outside of the traditional employment category.

Parliament has passed 3 labour code bills aimed at labour welfare reforms covering more than 50 crores organized and unorganized workers in the country.

This opens up the doors for social security to those in the self-employment sector. These three Bills are:

  1. Social Security Code, 2020.
  2. Code on Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions Code, 2020
  3. Industrial Relations Code, 2020

Positives by passage of these Labour Codes:

  1. The three Codes simplify labour laws by subsuming 25 central labour laws that have been on the table for at least 17 years.
  2. It will provide a big boost to industry & employment and will reduce multiplicity of definition and multiplicity of authority for businesses.
  3. The codes also simplify archaic laws dealing with industrial disputes and revamp the adjudication process, which will pave the way for early resolution of disputes.
  4. The codes provide for a single licensing mechanism. It will give fillip to industries by ushering in substantive reform in the licensing mechanism.

Currently, industries have to apply for their licence under different laws.

The Code on Social Security Bill, 2020: To define ‘platform work’:

It says: “Platform work means 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.”

While the long overdue move to recognise platform work has been made, the Code has drawn criticism from platform workers’ associations for failing to delineate it from gig work and unorganised work.

Role of Platform Workers during Pandemic COVID-19:

The role of platform workers amidst the pandemic has presented a strong case to attribute a more robust responsibility to platform aggregator companies and the State.

As argued by Experts, platform workers were responsible for delivery of essential services during the pandemic at great personal risk to themselves.

They have also been responsible for keeping platform companies afloat despite the pandemic-induced financial crisis.

This has cemented their role as public infrastructures who also sustain demand-driven aggregators.

The dependence of companies on platform workers merits a jointly assumed responsibility by public and private institutions to deliver welfare measures.

Criticism from platform worker’s associations to the Bill:

A categorical clarification could ensure that social security measures are provided to workers without compromising the touted qualities of platform work: flexibility and a sense of ownership.

An ongoing global conversation on platform workers’ rights has been around the misclassification of platform workers as ‘independent contractors’; adjudications and emerging amendments to labour laws in Ontario and California have shown a move towards granting employee status to platform workers, thus guaranteeing minimum wage and welfare benefits.

This is the view propagated by international agencies in the EU, including the European Trade Union.

Flexibility of the platform workers and contrasting reality:

The ostensible preference for employment status stems from the fact that while platform work promises workers flexibility and ownership over delivery of work, they are still largely dictated by mechanisms of control wired by the algorithm.

This affects pricing per unit of work, allocation of work, and hours. Additionally, entry into on-demand platform work like ride sharing and food delivery are dependent on existing access to vehicular assets.

The average Indian worker on a ride-sharing platform has limited access to such capital.

Thus, to enter the platform economy, workers rely on intensive loan schemes, often facilitated by platform aggregator companies.

This results in dependence on platform companies, driven by financial obligations, thus rendering flexibility and ownership moot in the short- to middle-term investment cycle.

Contrasting reality:

However, contrasting evidence suggests that for specific categories of workers with basic access to capital, the flexibility of the platform is a significant attraction.

Smallholder agrarian labour migrants with access to vehicular assets and capital hailing from peri-urban areas rely on the low barrier of entry and flexibility of platform work to accumulate wealth that they invest back into farm work.

The Code states the provision of basic welfare measures as a joint responsibility of the Central government, platform aggregators, and workers.

However, it does not state which stakeholder is responsible for delivering what quantum of welfare.

Avoidable overlaps and ambiguities:

  1. Although unorganised workers, gig workers and platform workers have been separately defined under the new code, unorganised workers are the whole set, and gig and platform workers are
  2. The definition of unorganised workers is exhaustive enough to include gig and platform workers.
    1. For example, an app-based taxi driver can be considered as both a gig and platform worker.
    2. He/she also qualifies as an unorganised sector worker. As this report points out, “there is no employee-employer relationship”.
  3. Appointment letters are not issued, social security benefits are absent, work hours are not regulated by the employer, and it is quite probable that the app-based taxi driver may choose to also simultaneously work for a competitor taxi aggregator.
  4. Therefore, “the nature of the work involved may lie outside the purview of a traditional ‘employer-employee relationship’, making him/her a ‘gig worker’”.
  5. But because of the nature of the work, the driver is able to pursue this job only through an online platform.
  6. Hence, this would meet the definition of a ‘platform worker’ as well, making him/her an ‘unorganised worker’, as he/she may be self-employed.
  7. With such overlap across definitions, it is unclear how schemes specific to these categories of workers will apply.
  8. In section 109 of the bill, social security for unorganised sector’s workers has been provided. In section 114, social security for gig and platform workers has been provided. This is an unnecessary duplication.

Conclusion:

To mitigate operational breakdowns in providing welfare services, a tripartite effort by the State, companies, and workers to identify where workers fall on the spectrum of flexibility and dependence on platform companies is critical.

A way forward for platform workers is through a socio-legal acknowledgement of the heterogeneity of work in the gig economy, and the ascription of joint accountability to the State and platform companies for the delivery of social services.