As employment in India bounces back from the Covid lockdown, platform-mediated work is expected to come into its own. Indian legislation must take the right steps to protect the status and labour rights of gig workers in these changing times, while unions also need to bring these new workers into the fold.
Under the Covid-19 lockdown, India’s unemployment rate has shot up from 8 to 26%. In these dark and dismal times, platform-mediated work is likely to be an increasingly significant option for informal workers with limited education and skills. There are already signs that e-commerce in grocery and food retail is bucking the trend of the otherwise depressed economic activity. At the height of the lockdown, online grocery suppliers Big Basket and Grofers recruited 12,000 workers between them to meet surging demand. Platforms Swiggy and Zomato, previously focused on delivering cooked meals, have been laying off staff. But their diversifying into groceries and essentials is set to sustain their demand for on-the-ground delivery workers. Other, less essential services are also expected to see more platform-mediated delivery as more affluent customers choose to avoid public spaces out of fear of contagion. These could include domestic work, case work, beauty and wellness. Other sectors are likely to adapt or form new alliances to survive. The ride-hailing sector has been hit by plummeting demand, but could find some business niche to bounce back, such as tying up with state ambulance services. Gigs of the platform economy are here to stay, well and truly.
With a view to addressing these among other issues, the Government of India has initiated a grand project of labour law reform. Unfortunately, this has so far not paid adequate attention to the issues and concerns of platform workers. The Code on Wages Bill, passed by the Parliament in August 2019, includes only two categories of worker: ‘contract worker’ and ‘employee’ The law could have introduced a third status of ‘dependent self-employment’ exclusively covering platform workers. Its silence on their status is a failure to address their precarity. The Draft Code on Social Security, introduced in 2019, attempts to make some amends for this oversight. It provides for the central government to set up social security schemes for gig workers, which will cover all levels of e-commerce value chains, such as logistics and delivery.
However, the Draft Code on Social Security does not go far enough in making platform companies liable as employers for ensuring the rights of all their workers. The Code introduces categories of ‘contract worker’, ‘gig worker’ and ‘platform worker.’ But this fails to address the question of what rights are held by a platform worker who is de facto employed as a contract worker. This question may in due course be answered by a court of law, for example if unions take legal action, but it could usefully be cleared up at this earlier stage in the legislation under development.
Leading platform companies maintain the fiction that they are mere intermediaries matching ‘independent service providers’ with their clients. This allows them to position themselves as compassionate capitalists. Uber and Indian taxi-hailing platform Ola have made a great deal of noise about all the financial support they are giving their drivers during the lockdown, says Sangam Tripathy, Assistant Regional Secretary (Asia-Pacific region) of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. “But the process of funds allocation and eligibility criteria for drivers lacks transparency,” he explains. “What we need is for these companies to own up and fulfil their mandatory labour rights obligations to their driver workers”.
Against this backdrop, what must the Indian labour movement do to protect and promote the labour rights of platform workers? The government’s approach is to encourage corporate contributions through a CSR framework, to create social security funds for non-organized workers. The labour movement must push for mandatory contributions by platform employers to social security funds for platform workers. Lobbying for state-level legislation is also important. In the meantime, the 2019 recommendations of the Global Commission on the Future of Work of the International Labour Organization provides helpful guidance. The Commission underlines that universal labour guarantees (adequate living wage, limit on working hours, safe and healthy working conditions, collective bargaining, and access to social protection) must be available to all workers, regardless of their contractual arrangement or employment status. This is a useful peg on which to build legal guarantees for platform workers
Concerted thinking and action are also needed to assert the data rights of platform workers, as articulated by global unions. The 2019 Personal Data Protection Bill, currently before Parliament, in its current form does not adequately account for the imbalance of power between employers and workers. Additional safeguards such as a collective-agreements mechanism to govern data processing by employers need to be introduced, to protect workers, are protected from excessive data surveillance, in particular in the guise of contact tracing for public health reasons.
In order to effectively pursue these agendas, traditional trade unions need to make room for platform workers’ demands, Including new leadership from platform workers’ associations. In the current scenario where the entire Indian workforce is in distress and unions are firefighting to prevent the roll-back of hard-won labour protections, it is easy to forget the specific concerns of platform workers. But this impulse must be consciously resisted. Workers must stand united: In the words of The Internationale ”this is the time and place”, if not the ”final drama”.
This article was originally published on the FES Asia blog.