Karnataka Labour Minister S. Suresh Kumar announced on October 21 that the State government will work towards framing guidelines for workers of digital platforms like Uber, Ola, Zomato, Swiggy and UrbanClap, to ensure all relevant labour benefits for those working in the ‘gig economy’. Details of implementation are awaited but the Karnataka government is following the tone set by the Centre, which proposed a new draft code on social security this year. Active moves to bring digital labour platforms within the purview of new or existing employment and labour regulations in India have been sorely missing. The Karnataka government’s move to add benefits is welcome and can provide a degree of public welfare assistance to a significant and growing workforce in India.
Mr. Kumar said, “The government has the responsibility of ensuring social stability... while not creating hurdles for the businesses”. This move could possibly sidestep a question that remains open — i.e., whether Uber drivers, for example, are full-time employees of Uber or freelancers. It appears that this will be resolved in the courts or neglected entirely. The Ministry’s bid to provide insurance and job security can emerge only with direct acknowledgement of the role played by platforms in city job markets, and not by curbing asset light models or by regulating labour.
Governments now actively acknowledge that platforms provide work to the growing demographic of youth in the country. At the moment, the manufacturing sector in India is unable to provide employment opportunities to the youth. There is thus a mismatch between education and jobs skills in the market. Governments have also been unable to create viable public work schemes in urban areas for those continuously migrating into cities and towns. Private tech, however, has been able to do this, and the government seems to be aware of its potential.
Why don’t platform companies have to assume responsibility for providing employment and job security? The story goes back to four years ago. MoUs signed between platform companies and various State and Central Ministries over the years show that governments have actively invited companies to create work, entrepreneurial opportunities and skill development. For example, Uber partnered with Ayushman Bharat to facilitate free healthcare for drivers and delivery partners. UrbanClap partnered with the National Urban Livelihoods Mission to generate jobs with minimum assured monthly wages for the urban poor. In cases of informal jobs where it was difficult to identify workers for whom protection was to be given, platforms became vehicles to serve this purpose.
Creating public utlities
The ecosystem of public policy, platform work, and the government together can suggest an urban ‘Jobs for All’, a financialised employment guarantee scheme. The work created by these companies could easily be regulated as public goods in the coming years because it creates mobility and facilitates the movement of goods. An increasing number of these jobs has been created through incentivised demand using cashbacks, coupons, low fares, and even free services rather than through natural demand. Platforms have created public utilities that may not have been needed before via what is often low-skilled and poor quality work, but it is work that brings in some earnings. They have given urban workers a financialised, self-driven, optional economic safety net of ‘having a job, having a gig’.
Since investment around new technology is especially attractive for developing economies, what does this mean for the state of employment in Indian cities? The strength or ability of labour regulation to push companies to deliver full formal employment in a financialised world of work seems poor. If the relationship between platform companies and national and State government continues this way, where do labour institutions and workers unions stand? Platform companies rely on city markets for their workers to populate the platform and to hopefully eventually turn a profit just as much as governments look to platforms to generate work opportunities. The Karnataka Social Welfare Department signed an MoU with Uber last year to create work opportunities for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe youth.
As we see the platform ecosystem mature and contend with having to turn a profit as demand dips and stabilises, where does this mutual dependency take the urban resident who uses these platforms to earn a living? Does it imply an even further reduced importance of ‘employment’ as a way for social security to be delivered? It could also herald a time where platforms can be asked to perform more public functions like implementing a minimum wage.
Aditi Surie is a sociologist at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements