​Even the odd jobs: On the Karnataka gig workers bill

Gig workers need a comprehensive national law recognising their employee status

Updated - July 11, 2024 10:39 am IST

Published - July 11, 2024 12:10 am IST

For India’s gig workers, who are increasing in numbers but are perched precariously on the edge of the unregulated labour pool, the Karnataka Platform-based Gig Workers (Social Security and Welfare) Bill, 2024, offers a welcome reprieve, but still stops short of providing them with the security of being employees. When app-based gig work was introduced a decade ago, courtesy ride-sharing and food delivery apps, the absence of the word ‘employee’ was actually seen as a positive; it supposedly offered a chance for ‘partners’ to retain their autonomy and earn good money without being locked into a contract with rigid timings. That illusion soon dissolved as incomes crashed and working hours lengthened, and the lack of a formal ‘employee’ status left workers at the mercy of the aggregator and all-powerful algorithms, in the absence of safety nets or governmental regulation. Despite this, the gig economy is growing. According to a NITI Aayog report, India had 77 lakh gig workers at the beginning of the decade, and by 2029-30, they are projected to account for 4.1% of income, and 6.7% of the non-agricultural workforce.

A rights-based legislation, the draft Bill aims to prevent arbitrary dismissals, provide human grievance redress mechanisms, and to bring more transparency into the opaque tangle of automated monitoring and algorithm-based payments. It is a step up from the Union government’s Code on Social Security, 2020. Karnataka’s law also offers social security through a welfare board and fund, with contributions from the government and the aggregator, either through a cut from every transaction on the app, or as a percentage of the platform’s turnover in the State. Noting that many of the firms that own these platforms report minimal profits, workers’ unions have rightly demanded that the welfare fee is charged as a cess on each transaction. Sceptics note the moribund nature of other unorganised sector welfare boards, but one advantage of mandatory registration with such a board is that it will make gig workers visible in the eyes of the law. Karnataka’s Congress government aims to enact the Bill in the monsoon session of the Assembly, and it must quickly formulate rules and establish the welfare board to ensure that the law is in force before the end of the year. A similar legislation in Rajasthan, enacted by the predecessor Congress government, has been effectively put into cold storage by the BJP government. At the national level, comprehensive legislation is needed not just to set minimum wages, reasonable working hours and conditions and robust social security but also to provide gig workers with the coveted status of ‘employees’.

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