India’s Gig Workers Remain Undocumented, Unprotected
Aman Singh  and  Udisha Srivastav (IndiaSpend) 28 June 2024
Savita (name changed on request) was shocked to discover that her Urban Company ID had been blocked in February 2023 because she did not meet the monthly target of 40 clients. “My mother-in-law passed away and I took a break of one month from work. I was left without any means of income,” the 39-year-old beautician from Telangana’s Secunderabad told IndiaSpend.
 
Urban Company, an app-based home services platform, says it works with more than 40,000 people, called ‘partners’, across India, the United States, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and other countries who work on the gig-work model. Urban Company service professionals have to maintain a rating of 4.5. If it drops lower than 4.5, they are taken off the platform and are reinstated after retraining, IndiaSpend reported in January 2021. The professionals are given two chances for retraining.
 
Savita had no job for 11 months till she started her own beauty parlour in the Raniganj area in Secunderabad. “Most of the customers want the premium service by fancy heavily-advertised companies. It has been difficult to survive. I am wondering if I should restart working with Urban Company,” she added. 
 
Gig work has given opportunities and income to many Indians. Yet, millions like Savita remain undocumented, one of the reasons that they are largely bereft of social security in a little-regulated sector, say experts. 
 
India’s definition of a gig worker is loose, and refers to a “person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationship”.
 
And even though India’s gig economy is growing, there are no government data on the exact numbers of workers the industry employs. Private companies, such as Urban Company and Uber, do not publish data on how many partners they work with. 
 
According to different reports, the gig economy is expanding in the country. As per the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India, the country’s gig economy is growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 17% and is projected to surpass US$455bn (billion) by 2024. According to a report by the government think-tank NITI Aayog, India’s gig workforce is expected to expand to 23.5mn (million) workers by 2029-30, three times the estimated 7.7mn in 2020-21. Another report by the Boston Consulting Group predicts that the gig economy has the potential to serve up to 90mn jobs (roughly 30% of India's non-farm workforce), and add up to 1.25% to India's gross domestic product in the long run.
 
We have asked Urban Company about what happens in cases such as Savita’s. We will update the story when we receive a response. 
 
What data exist
According to a report in The Economic Times, Uber has more than 1mn drivers in India, its chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said during the ride-hailing platform’s March-quarter earnings call. As mentioned on Zomato’s official social media, it has more than 350,000 delivery partners in the country. 
 
Responding to IndiaSpend's queries, Uber said, “As per our privacy policies, we do not publicly publish gig worker data as this is personal identifiable information. In some States, we’ve shared requests with drivers to seek their permission to share their information with the State Governments.”
 
In the absence of hard data, organisations have used different methods to estimate the number of gig workers. 
 
The NITI Aayog, for instance, first identified the characteristics of people who could become gig workers, and then looked at which industries and jobs are most likely to hire gig workers, through supply-side characteristics. Finally, they matched these potential gig workers with the needs of gig-intensive industries and jobs, leading to the estimate of 23.5 million workers by 2029-30.
 
The Boston Consulting Group derived its estimates from detailed job-type mapping across industries, extensive interviews with large corporations and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), a survey of over 600 urban households, and insights from industry experts. 
 
On the reliability of estimates, Balaji Parthasarathy of the Center for Information Technology and Public Policy (CITAPP) at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru, said, “For a sector which is widely acknowledged as being important to the economy, and whose importance will only grow, it is hard to believe that we rely solely on estimates of the size of the gig workforce. This is especially odd since the provision of workforce data by digital platforms should hardly be a challenge with the technologies they deploy.”
 
He further added, “Neither are the definitions of gig work used by the NITI Aayog report and the BCG reports identical, nor is there a single time-frame over which to compare the data.”
 
While the NITI Aayog defines gig workers broadly as those engaged in livelihoods outside the traditional employer-employee arrangement, the Boston Consulting Group differentiates gig workers from non-gig workers based on four key aspects, including their demographic profile, work and earning patterns, job triggers (motivations and reasons for taking-up gig work), and job drivers (monetary and non-monetary benefits of gig work).
 
No access to formal sector social security programmes 
Shaik Salauddin, elected National General Secretary and co-founder of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), said that it is the responsibility of the government to build regulatory laws for aggregator companies. He believes that the absence of regulation creates a loophole for companies, who do not make their data public. 
 
“Ola, Uber, Zomato, Swiggy never released the data of its employees. It is always rough estimates. How do these companies, which meticulously gather customer data for sales and marketing purposes, lack information regarding the size of their full-time workforce?” Salauddin asks.
 
He adds, “Like other employees, gig workers should also have provisions of provident fund, emergency fund along with other social security benefits. An eight-hour shift, minimum wage, health insurance and an easy mechanism for insurance claims should be made available to gig workers.”
 
Parthasarathy said that gig workers, unlike other formal sector enterprises, are not immediately plugged into the provident fund system and do not enjoy such benefits. 
 
Parthasarathy also said companies refuse to negotiate with unions, and insist on talking to workers individually. “Their logic is that the workers are independent partners, contractors; they're not part of any larger group. It also sort of plays to their advantage because of the enormous asymmetries that exist between a worker and a technologically powerful, financially deep-pocketed company.”
 
In an effort to provide social security to gig workers, the Government of India launched the Code on Social Security, 2020, which advocates providing social security benefits (including healthcare and income security) to all employees and workers, including to gig workers. 
 
Pallavi Bansal, a gig work researcher and assistant professor at Bennett University, referred to this Code as the country’s push towards collecting data on the informal sector including gig workers and benefiting the society. The Code suggests the digitisation of data on gig workers and for maintaining electronic records for the easy exchange of information. The NITI Aayog’s report mentioned above also pushes for training of gig workers and extending social security benefits to them. 
 
On gig workers, Bansal said data have to be collected continuously as gig workers keep entering and exiting various platforms. “The onus is on the platforms and government to maintain these records. While the Code on Social Security emphasised data collection and could have been a way to provide benefits to the gig workforce, it is unfortunately yet to be operationalised,” she said. 
 
In its manifesto for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has formed the government with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance, said it would assist in onboarding gig workers onto the e-Shram portal. The portal was launched in August 2021 with the objective to create a national database for unorganised workers and extend benefits of government schemes to them. The portal has issued over 290 million e-shram cards, as of June 14, 2024. 
 
The Indian National Congress (INC), of the opposition alliance, also made a poll promise to provide comprehensive social security cover for gig workers. The promised measures are similar to the law brought into Rajasthan in 2023, called the Rajasthan Platform Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act. It proposes setting up a welfare fund and providing social security benefits to the gig workers of the state. The Act also seeks to register all gig workers across the state and maintain a digital database. However, even as there is a government portal for registration, data on registered gig workers are not available in the public domain. 
 
Before the Karnataka state assembly elections, in November 2023, the INC had announced an accident and life insurance cover, amounting to Rs 4 lakh for the state’s gig workers. However, data available between September 2023 and January 23, 2024 show that the state labour department received only 1,778 applications under the Karnataka State Gig Workers Insurance Scheme
 
While a few state-level policies--such as those in Rajasthan and Karnataka--have been formulated, the Code on Social Security is yet to be operationalised across states. 
 
“In the absence of data that the government must collect, we cannot make good policy. So, it becomes a sort of a vicious circle,” Parthasarathy says. 
 
Margin of the margins: Women, transgender persons and the disabled 
The lack of public availability of data on gig workers impacts marginalised sections the most, experts say.
 
Without specific data, it is challenging to implement tailored policies and programmes for specific groups like women, individuals with disabilities, or non-heterosexual people, says Bansal. This includes measures such as maternity benefits, period leaves and other targeted provisions. 
 
Bansal gives the example of ride-hailing gig platforms, such as Ola, Uber, Rapido and BluSmart. “We don’t know if there are enough women riders. If there was a public database available, we [people, in general, and gig workers themselves] would know what percentage of women are riding cabs,” she said. “Currently, a woman cab driver works in isolation. She does not have any means to contact another woman driver. If there was public knowledge, say, 40% of cab drivers are women, then they could pressurise the companies and demand a change in policies.”
 
“While female employment in the organised sector is not up to the mark, the situation further exacerbates for women working in the unorganised sector,” Mounika Neerukonda, lead researcher of Fairwork India, a platform which rates gig platforms, said. “The gig workers are comparatively at a disadvantage due to lack of awareness about various schemes and policies, and no hand-holding by their respective companies. Above all, these women are generally not part of trade unions who can put forth their concerns,” 
 
A survey conducted by the employment consultancy TeamLease in 2019 showed evidence of a 8-10% gap in earnings between men and women working as delivery executives for digital platforms in India.
When asked if availability of data on gig workers can be helpful, Bansal says, “The data will at least put it out there that women constitute a considerable number of all gig workers. Once there is enough awareness…women can find means to raise these questions and concerns.”
 
Fairwork India has five principles on which platform-based companies are rated: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation. The organisation seeks participation from gig platforms, conducts interviews with gig workers, and relies upon secondary research to deliver ratings. In Fairwork India Ratings 2023, all participant platforms, including Swiggy, Zepto, Zomato, Uber, Ola, Flipkart and Dunzo, scored zero on the ‘fair representation’ principle--the principle which refers to the formation of unions to amplify the voices of gig workers. 
 
Abdul Naeem, a 40-year-old Uber driver for six years, is protesting a mandatory air conditioning installation notice by Uber. Burdened with rising costs and no compensation for the air conditioning, Naeem told IndiaSpend, “I feel my voice is not heard anywhere. The government does not even consider us as employees worthy of worker rights and these companies make arbitrary policies.”
 
Uber responded, saying, “Almost all cars on-boarded on the Uber platform have a pre-installed AC and Uber expects drivers to keep it switched on during a ride. We continually review trip fares to ensure that flexible earnings on Uber remain attractive.”
 
IndiaSpend sent an email to the offices of the minister and the joint secretary in the Union labour ministry, reached out to the deputy secretary’s office of the e-shram portal by phone, and wrote to Ola and Urban Company for comment. The story will be updated when we receive responses. 
 
Comments
Meenal Mamdani
4 weeks ago
I am sorry to read about the travails of gig workers.
Yet, only white collar workers qualify as gig workers as such.
Most of the workers like housemaids do not even get counted in this. They don't have contracts, no one keeps any data on them, they are not covered by any scheme.
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