Are gig workers nobody’s employees?

There are about 15 million gig workers across the country. The platforms they work for do not recognise them as employees, and there is no proper regulatory framework

December 15, 2022 11:30 pm | Updated December 16, 2022 11:42 am IST - BENGALURU

Gig workers on their way to deliver food to customer at Jalahalli Cross in Bengaluru on December 14, 2022.

Gig workers on their way to deliver food to customer at Jalahalli Cross in Bengaluru on December 14, 2022. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Sreenivas G., 37, is a veteran in the home delivery industry in the city; one of the first to join Flipkart as a delivery personnel, shift to multiple food delivery platforms, and perhaps the only person to sue a food delivery firm for blocking him from the platform for protesting against slashing incentives in 2021. His story encapsulates best the ordeal of those working in the home delivery sector in Bengaluru.

“I have been working in the sector for at least a decade now. My experience over the years has been that incentives have been squeezed out completely,” said Mr. Sreenivas.

“Instead, today, most of these firms even levy fines on delivery boys, who need to pay ₹1,200 even for the delivery bag and a T-shirt with the company logo. Most companies revise their incentive structures arbitrarily almost twice a year and the general trend has been drying up of earnings. I started in the food delivery industry earning over ₹1,000/day, some days even up to ₹2,000. Now, it is a herculean task to take home ₹400-500 a day, after working more than 12-14 hours a day,” he said.

He became part of the unionising efforts in 2019, and attended a protest against revision of pay structure at a food delivery platform the same year, when the firm lodged multiple police complaints against him and threatened to block him from the platform.

“I wanted the job badly, and resumed work. But again, they slashed our incentives in 2021, when I was part of the protests and they blocked me. I have sued the firm in labour court,” he said.

Fear psychosis

From being a fringe factor earlier, the gig workers’ community is rapidly expanding now and becoming an integral part of the mainstay employment pool of the country. The low-entry barriers make it more attractive for a large number of job seekers.

However, the workers — about 15 million strong across the country, with Bengaluru being the hotspot — are a troubled and exploited lot. The platforms they work for do not recognise them as employees, and in the absence of any regulatory framework, they are at the platforms’ mercy.

The industry has seen incentives dry up and working conditions worsen over the years. Especially during the pandemic, there were protests by gig workers, a few organised and unionised, but many of them flash protests, indicating their frustration.

However, unionising efforts are met with arbitrary action by the employers. “In most cases, those who question arbitrary changes in payment structure are blocked from the platform, which essentially means job loss,” said Vinay Sarathi, President, United Food Delivery Partners Union.

“Delivery agents fear that scenario. Many have apologised and returned to work accepting the new terms and conditions. When a few vocal workers are fired, a fear psychosis is created, which essentially silences others,” he said. “While we have sued a food delivery platform in the case of Sreenivas, we have had success in getting the Labour Department to intervene and get some accounts unblocked, which is rare.”

Delivery partners make their way through flooded streets on Outer Ring Road in Bengaluru during the heavy rains in August 2022.

Delivery partners make their way through flooded streets on Outer Ring Road in Bengaluru during the heavy rains in August 2022. | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

Lack of support

Workers recount several stories of “inhumane” treatment.

“Recently, a food delivery agent met with an accident and one of his toes was severely injured. He called the helpdesk. They only sent a replacement to deliver his order, but did not even come to his help. He went to a hospital listed on his medical insurance, but there was no cashless facility available, and he did not have any money. He went home, and using a pair of scissors he himself had to cut off the nail. Such is the support the delivery agents get from platforms,” said Mr. Sarathi.

Medical insurance to delivery agents has been a result of several protests and strikes, following several of their ilk being killed in accidents on the job and their families being left with no support.

“Platforms usually claim that most of their “delivery partners” or “immediate contractors” are doing this as a side hustle, and they are not dependent on this as their primary source of income. But that is contradicted by findings on the ground. I have come across even MBA graduates working as delivery agents, and they depend on the income from it for supporting their families,” Mr. Sarathi said. 

Shivakumar migrated from Tamil Nadu to the city to find a job and ended up working as a home delivery agent with a city-based start-up for four years. He said his earnings dropped every passing year, even as his work hours went up. “I have a family and children to sustain and I could no longer do it. I quit the space and joined a factory for a meagre salary. Not everyone is as fortunate as me to find a salaried job,” he said. 

Flood of newcomers

The condition of cab drivers is no different. Tanveer Pasha, Ola, Uber Drivers and Owners’ Association said many who quit the space during the pandemic haven’t returned. “Many cabs were confiscated in lieu of loans during the pandemic. Most of them haven’t returned. The number of cab drivers in the city has depleted by more than half over the last two years,” he said.

Even as some quit, the platforms seem unfazed as newcomers throng the industry. For instance, Job portal alone received over 1 crore gig work job applications in 2022 of which 28 lakh applications were from women.

“This is one of the main reasons why the platforms are able to run the show arbitrarily as per their whims and fancies, being able to fire workers who question. The unemployment scenario in the country is so bleak that thousands of youths migrate from villages and even other States to work over 14 hours a day to earn less than ₹500,” said Mr. Sreenivas G.

Demand for reforms 

One of the main demands of unions in the sector and gig workers is to recognise them as employees.

“Most of them are attached to one platform and for all practical purposes are their employees. But they are referred to in fancy new jargon, like “delivery partners” or “immediate contractors”. They are thus not recognised as employees, which they are for all practical purposes. Government needs to intervene and bring in a regulatory framework to ensure the labour rights of the workers are protected,” said Mr. Sarathi. At present, the government has been slow to catch up and there is no regulatory framework for the sector.

Importance of gig workers

Although, the industry is silent over the concerns of gig workers as they are nobody’s employees, acknowledging the importance of the gig community recently was the IT tzar Azim Premji.

“The role of gig workers has been gaining importance as they infuse flexibility and talent availability in the job market. The experiences of companies with gig workers proved these. For an economy to work well and be vibrant, we have to build a culture, and system which sees firms and their employees as partners,’‘ he said while speaking at an event organised by Karnataka Employers’ Association (KEA).

Debjani Ghosh, President, Nasscom said, “The future workforce will indeed be a blended model wherein the gig economy is expected to play an important role not only as a talent management strategy, but also accelerate job creation and boost the country’s economic growth. However, ensuring the quality of gig workers, hurdles in security checks and verification, lack of structured policies, and clarity on regulations or guidelines for gig workers are some of the key concerns,” she said. 

Niti Aayog’s report ‘India’s Booming Gig and Platform Economy’, recognises lack of job security, wage irregularity, and uncertain employment status for workers, as top challenges in the sector. It recommends extending social security provisions such as sick leave, insurance and pension to gig workers and their families.

Sharon Buteau, Executive Director, LEAD at Krea University, said India was on the cusp of implementing a new social security code that bestows first-time recognition to gig workers and promises them deeper social protection. “In the coming years, we foresee this segment to grow exponentially and attain some amount of formalisation,” said Indeed India head Sashi Kumar. 

However, the government has made some noises on regulating the sector, but has done precious little till date.

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