The strike in April this year, by delivery workers of Blinkit, over cutback in payment for deliveries, has once again raised the issue of the conditions of gig workers and the problems they face.
The term “gig” (Get it Going) is a slang word for a job that lasts only a specified period of time. Traditionally, the term was used by musicians or cultural artists, to define a particular engagement with an organisation for a performance.
A gig worker works and earns his livelihood in a work arrangement outside of the traditional employer-employee relationship. Since these workers are accessed by an organization using an online platform, they are also referred to as platform workers. The term ‘gig economy’ includes both the company owners, i.e. the employers who contract out the services of workmen, as well as the workers who work for them.
The gig economy is steadily expanding into more and more sectors of the economy in India, in recent years. Both the number of workers as well as the kind of workers in the gig economy are growing. India is currently estimated to have more than 1.5 crore (15 million) gig workers. Of these, an estimated 99 lakhs are in delivery services. According to a NITI Aayog report in 2022, nearly 2.35 crores workers will be working in the gig economy by 2029.
Many of the companies involved in delivery services are funded by the biggest Indian monopoly capitalists, such as Big Basket by Tata group and Dunzo by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance group.
Foreign multinational companies such as Amazon and Walmart (which owns Flipkart) employ a large number of delivery workers.
At present, gig workers include freelance workers, independent contractors, project-based workers and temporary or part-time workers on fixed-term contracts. They include drivers employed by cab aggregator companies such as Uber, delivery workers, freelance journalists, writers and editors, creative workers, consultants, designers and online digital piece-workers. Tech platforms such as Uber, Airbnb, Urban Company, Swiggy, Zomato, Dunzo, etc. employ gig workers to provide many services such as travel, hotel accommodation, home repair and maintenance, delivery of food and other essential items, etc. There are also a number of specialised gig platforms focused on knowledge economy services, which enables users to hire freelance scientists and technical experts, management consultants, etc.
Factors behind the expansion of the gig economy
The first and most important factor driving large numbers of youth into the gig economy is the growing unemployment and the lack of regular employment, both in the state sector and in the private sector.
In recent years, a large number of skilled workers, earning in the range of Rs 60,000-80,000 per month or higher, have lost their jobs due to companies closing down some operations, retrenching workers, etc. The Covid-19 lockdowns accelerated this process. These workers are now compelled to work in the gig economy, some for just Rs12,000-15,000 per month, to save their families from ruin.
With increasing automation, use of artificial intelligence, high speed computation systems and sophisticated technology, capitalist owners are reducing the number of permanent workers they require and resorting to large scale retrenchment. In this way they are cutting down the cost of production to enhance their profits. The chances of regular employment in industry as well as in services are greatly shrinking.
The use of modern technology is increasingly enabling work to be done remotely via digital platforms, without the need to have a fixed number of workers present for a definite number of hours, at a fixed place. The emergence of modern, user-friendly digital technology has enabled large numbers of youth with a certain degree of basic education to enter the gig workforce in large numbers, especially in services such as goods delivery, cab transport etc.
Intensifying capitalist exploitation
The workers who are part of the gig economy are not considered as workers by the labour laws of India. The capitalists who are enriching themselves by exploiting the labour of these workers deliberately call these workers by some other name, such as “delivery partners”, “delivery executives”, etc. This is to hide the real exploitative, capitalist, character of the relationship. (No legal rights for gig workers)
In a gig economy, the capitalists can greatly cut down on their costs of production. The capitalist employers do not have to provide the gig workers any of the benefits that regular workers are eligible to by law – e.g. sick leave, maternity and child care leave, health insurance in the form of ESIC, unlike traditional workers. They do not have to pay statutory minimum wages or overtime. They do not have to invest in training the workers, they do not have to provide workers with office space, equipment and infrastructure. They do not have to compensate workers for work-related expenses, such as travel costs, internet and mobile phone time, accidents incurred on the job, etc. They do not have to invest in social security for the workers in the form of pension or provident fund, etc.
A gig model enables capitalists to make temporary contracts with workers, when their services are needed by the company, instead of hiring them full time at a fixed salary.
Given the grave unemployment situation in our country, the capitalist employers can exploit the workers to the maximum. Gig workers can be forced to accept low wages, long working hours and inhuman working conditions, because if they refuse to accept these, they can be thrown out and replaced by thousands of others. (Protests by gig workers)
Problems faced by gig workers
Insecurity of livelihood, the lack of a steady job and an adequate, secure income is the foremost problem faced by gig workers. (See Box: Incentives given and later taken back)
(See Box: Incomes of gig workers as compared to statutory minimum wages)
Gig workers do not have fixed working hours. Their working hours often extend to more than 12-14 hours a day. This affects their health, family and social life.
Gig workers involved in delivery services are under pressure to deliver in a short time and to maximise the number of trips in a given time. As a result, they suffer from road accidents which can sometimes be fatal. Workers in cab aggregator companies like Uber and Ola are under pressure to maximise the number of rides in a given time, making them vulnerable to road accidents.
Gig work like ride-sharing and food delivery require the worker to own a vehicle. So workers have to take loans to purchase a vehicle and paying back the loan is an additional burden, given the insecurity of the job.
Spokespersons of the bourgeoisie promote the gig economy as an “innovative” solution to the problem of increasing unemployment. They say that youth prefer gig work because gig workers allegedly enjoy greater “flexibility” in their terms of unemployment.
That is not true. Gig workers’ job assignments and work conditions are completely determined by the algorithms that the company platforms use. The algorithm determines their work hours, wages, etc. and tracks them as they work. If the workers protest, they are thrown out and replaced by others in the waiting line. Youth are forced into the gig economy simply because there are no other opportunities of employment. In fact, in the gig economy, it is the capitalists who enjoy great flexibility in hiring and firing workers.
The gig economy enables capitalists to extract maximum work out of the workers, by paying them as little as possible. It is nothing but heightened capitalist exploitation. The gig worker is no more than a slave, completely deprived of all the rights that workers all over the world and in our country have fought for more than a hundred years.
Trade unions have demanded that the government should make it legally mandatory for the capitalist employers to pay the statutory minimum wage for gig workers as well as social security and other benefits, like regular workers.
As increasing numbers of youth are forced into the gig economy, it is imperative for the trade unions and organisations of the working class to fight for basic rights such as fixed work hours, minimum wages, security of jobs, social security, right to organize and seek redressal of grievances, etc. for these workers. The gig workers have to join hands with the rest of the working class and all the oppressed, to put an end to the existing system of capitalist exploitation and build a new system that will ensure security of livelihood and a dignified human existence for all.
Incentives given and later taken back from Drivers
In their initial days, companies such as Uber and Ola wanted to capture the market by luring workers with the concept of incentives. Drivers were promised that they could earn up to Rs 1 lakh in a month. Several people bought cars by selling farmlands or putting their life’s savings into it.
“Initially, a Rs 3,000 incentive was promised at the completion of 10 trips. So, a driver would earn about Rs 4,000-5,000 in a day. Then the company came up with a minimum business guarantee scheme by which a driver was promised a specific sum after completing fixed hours of trips. This scheme was then tweaked by putting a fixed number of trips that had to be completed and the company said it would pay XYZ amount if the drivers could not generate it in that many trips. Then they came up with absolutely next-to-impossible plans like completing 20 trips in a city like Bengaluru to earn Rs 3,000. When they managed to capture almost the whole of the market, they said they would no longer pay incentives,” explains the president of the Ola Uber Drivers’ and Owners’ Association.
Once customers got used to AC car rides and discounted fares, the money spent on luring customers was made up by surge pricing. Workers’ incentives were slashed.
Incomes of gig workers as compared to statutory minimum wages
According to the latest announcement of the Delhi government on April 21, 2023, the monthly wage of skilled workers is ₹20,903, while that of semi-skilled workers is ₹18,993.
In comparison, the average delivery worker’s income ranges from ₹10,383 – ₹18,000 per month. Uber and Ola cab drivers’ average incomes range from ₹ 2L to ₹ 3L in a year, i.e. about ₹ 16,000-25,000 per month. The average incomes of many delivery workers and taxi drivers have been falling in recent years.