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Pushed To The Edge: The 'Entrepreneurial' Worker Of The Present

Niti Aayog estimates India has 7.7 million gig workers and will be around 23.5 million by the end of this decade

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Driver-partners, micro-entrepreneurs, delivery partners, service partners providing a whole spectrum of services at customer’s doorstep are the many terms that are deployed to refer to the growing number of gig workers dotting the urban landscape of India. Their numbers have been steadily on the rise. Niti Aayog estimates India has 7.7 million gig workers and will be around 23.5 million by the end of this decade. BCG expects a long-term rise in numbers to be close to 90 million gig workers in India. It is important for us to look at these numbers and the range of economic activities and service provision that these gig workers are engaged in.

Wide range of services like delivering consumables, plumbing, electrician services, taxi driving to providing service partners for baby care, care for the elderly, sick and cooks through apps imply a range of expertise, training levels that will all be under the ambit of gig economy and gig work. The question is how do we make it work – for the workers? for the customers? for the platform companies? in a manner that predatory tendencies are kept at bay in the short as well as in the long term?  

For a very long period most of these platforms function in a state of legal vacuum – that is a complete absence of legal framework and infrastructure. None of the workers, customers and authorities know what to do if any thing goes amiss. It is only after some unfortunate incidents of pricing gone wrong, rape threats, wages not being credited, miscalculation of incentives that resentment starts to grow and some action gets to be taken after a round of protests and media coverage. It is on a case-to-case basis and is insufficient given the growing importance of the numerical and economic relevance of many of these lean platforms in the Indian economic outlook. 

A state of legal vacuum creates space for numerous macro level violations to continue unabated, as seen in the case of Ola and Uber in the city of Mumbai where their numbers are not capped leading to traffic jams, their drivers run on driving license as against CDL (commercial driving license), taxis run on petrol and diesel polluting the city air when the law states that any public transport or intermediate transport for public use has to run on clean energy. Platform companies have strategically placed themselves in the regulatory gaps or in the legal vacuum to grow their presence – both in terms of numbers, the diversity of services provided and deeper penetration in the cities and the country at large. But what is to happen if a regulation mandating running on clean fuel is imposed? What happens when CDL becomes the mandatory requirement keeping passenger safety in mind? Is it the companies who will bear the cost of transition? Will there be a transition? 

Even though legal vacuum persists we see increasing number of individuals across cities, skill sets, age, caste and gender have come onboard with the platforms to earn income, supplement their family income or earn something extra worthy of investment in the later years. The promise of flexibility – flexible work has attracted many. However, what needs to be understood critically by researchers, policy makers and analysts is how the umbrella term ‘flexibility’ is strategically creating space for adverse and exploitative working conditions, in a manner that needs regulatory oversight. The recent protests by the Blink-it delivery partners was a reaction to slashing of their incentives as well as their fee by half without any discussion, any notice. A change that one notices when one logs into start their day of livelihood earning. This is a flashback to the past dotted by numerous Ola and Uber driver strikes across the country at different time periods challenging their fare structure and change in the incentive-subsidy model which has been unidirectional, that is solely the decision of the companies concerned.

At no instance have the drivers or their bodies been involved in financial decisions that have a direct bearing on their monthly family incomes. Protests against one app/ company are seen by other platform companies as chances to recruit delivery partners, a tendency that is highly predatory but is also indicative of a greater malaise – workers can’t remain without jobs and income for longer and the competing models are also fundamentally same, thereby a chance of yet again landing in a helpless situation is unavoidable for such workers. While the company in focus at the moment is also recruiting new delivery partners, a constant reminder of unemployment in the economy and the desperate efforts by many to make it work in the city.  

So how does this partnership work? Is it a partnership? Or is it an innovative use of language to present a halo-ed work position which in reality is a hollowed out and a highly precarious occupational position? 

These platforms are technology and data driven however, they are opaque structures. The logics and their operations and working are not known to all and cannot be accessed on a real time and continuous basis – a fundamental for any regulatory framework to emerge. Unless transparency of their operations is assured, any act of regulation is bound to look obsolete and one from the bygone eras. This combines with their growing numerical strength and diversity of services to complicate the challenges they pose to the regulatory structure. For instance, Ola and Uber are now providing the drivers to come on-board after choosing one of the three models of associating with the platform as against when they started operations in the country. 

Regulators have to not just factor in the growing number of workforce on-board with them who will be directly impacted with the enforcement of any regulatory framework but also the fact that regulation will have to build in flexibility and dynamism in its framework to remain in line with the dynamic structural changes of the many platforms that it looks to regulate. A successful framework would need representatives from the whole range of workers voicing their app-specific particularistic conditions of work, customers, platform companies as well as regulators to abstract out trends from particular concerns in order to healthily regulate this burgeoning work-sphere without impinging on the growth prospects of the workers as well as companies. Only then can we see a reality of partnership in the gig economy. 

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(Dr. Chhavi Sharma is an Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology at Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi)

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