For an increasing number of employers, hiring employees of ‘freelance or gig-like nature’, instead of formal ones, has emerged as a much-favoured short term hiring tool. It has become a mechanism used in coping with the country’s massive unemployed population. Unlike formal employment, these stopgap measures are immediately available and offer gateway opportunities for people to enter the gig economy.
Although there are no clear definitions of these new part-time employment modules, the rising trend of informal jobs in the market is adding to the gig economy. It is being discussed globally and will certainly undergo modifications in the future. By and large, after the transformation of the platform business model, gig economy has entered the digital online market, and invariably operates on social media.
The modification in the gig economy, however, poses new challenges for those who are ‘on-the-go’ workers. Subsequently, ‘quasi-jobs’ are developed to compensate for the huge unemployment, which might boost job numbers, but bring a sense of stress and panic amongst the new precarious workforce.
Rise of the gig economy
Since 2019, white collar professionals are taking to the gig economy as well. There has been a surge in young professionals joining digital platforms for gig-related work. Ranging from interior design, coaching and tuitions, health and fitness, and counselling, young professionals distinctively chose gig economy work to not be tied down by a full-time job. Last year, in a working paper, published by London School of Economics, titled “To Gig or Not to Gig” spoke of the absorption of e-health services under the umbrella of gig economy.
The range of work available under gig economies is no longer limited to unorganised and informal sectors. The freelance nature of these “gigs” suggests that anyone can apply for these opportunities available under a common umbrella. However, as these professions are being further defined, the nature of gig-economy platforms are slowly becoming its own tragedy of the commons.
For example, the dismal plight of Ola and Uber drivers, as shown by protests in the past, has been further amplified by the lack of unionisation among these aggregators, making it difficult to unite as a group.
Between 2019 and 2020, with the support of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), digital platforms became a source of strength and mobility for many informal workers, and has shown a new scope of employment in e-commerce. Along with transformation in ICT, there has been a transition in people’s lifestyle, expenditure and occupation after the advent of smartphones.
By May 2020, as the surge in ICTs, including the increase in digitalisation, led to firms and educational institutions to shift to work from home (WFH), gig workers and the gig economy increased in scale. However, the heavy dependence on ICTs and eventual increase in WFH opportunities are adding to the ongoing debates on allocation of duties, work-hours, possible incentives, budgetary cuts, and the fatigue surrounding these professions.
This transition has led to more people taking to digital platform based jobs as part-time. While ICTs serve as indispensable inputs for global and national economies by promoting the well-being of their societies, their incorporation into mobile phone technologies has not been able to serve the gig workforce in an appropriate manner.
The ‘Uberisation’ of work
Alongside these global conversations, questions are being raised on the lack of welfare schemes for gig workers. The relation between digital platforms and gig workers is considerably problematic as these workers are not considered full-time employees and hence, are not entitled to employment benefits.
It raises the questions surrounding work allocation, collaboration, motivation, and aspects of work overload and presenteeism. The use of digital technologies increased dramatically, and the digital surge in accessing these internet-based applications arose to a great extent. But has it offered any meaningful incentive to these informal intermediate workers who continue to promote the wellbeing of the society?
Michael Dunn distinguishes gig workforce from traditional employment and further focuses on the quality of life of gig workers depending upon their motivation and intention, which is mostly based on their work-centric life and various typologies.
Digital platforms allow migrant youth and the unemployed to integrate within ICT, and are recently responding to various crises during the lockdowns. Alternative part-time jobs in the labour economy are also likely to be trending as the gig economy is the future of work.
For example, taxi cab aggregators like Uber and Ola offer necessary services to metropolitan cities as they are easy to access and bypass common barriers faced by consumers (language, haggling, availability). India’s NITI Aayog has included online application jobs, such as these cab aggregators, as to-be job generators for unemployed youth in India.
But in reality, it has only tried to counter the unemployment data by stating that application-based jobs (like Ola and Uber) are generating employment for ‘new entrants’. App-based cab services throughout India, where organised rental cab services have existed since 2004, grew exponentially only after 2013. The concept of app-based services is not new, but its usage is no longer fixed to a specific line of profession.
In other words, the ‘uberisation of work’ is getting more attention in a gig society. It may be seen as a digital platform of both blue and white collar professionals that can provide a wide array of services to customers.
Yet, with a freelance gig economy, comes a heightened vulnerability of labour and risk of exploitation. In this regard, does India’s Social Security Code 2020 and Occupational Safety, Health and Working Condition Code 2020 evaluate and scrutinise these entrepreneurial companies?
Informal intermediaries and high risk jobs
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns in India directly increased the rate of unemployment, simultaneously witnessing a surge in the number of online platform based jobs. On one hand, there were instances of factory workers, hotel owners, contractors and the likes laying off workers, but on the other, a new workforce was quickly absorbed, mediating between corporate entrepreneurs and WFH employees. The recent tech companies have transformed the job market into an “intangible workforce”. They cater to essential services that are irreplaceable and hence intangible.
The nature of these jobs are viewed as “informal intermediaries” who provide services to consumers, and this relationship between a consumer and several private entrepreneurs has become popular through mobile-based applications. Their existence, however, is limited, with no health benefits, financial security or any safety nets.
Media is actively shaping these jobs through digital platforms as much as affecting the lives of this workforce. There appears to be a mismatch between public and state definitions of essential services in the context of their availability and accessibility.
On 24 March 2020, when the Government of India ordered a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, the state reassured citizens that they would have continued access to goods and services. Yet, the chaos and confusion that followed was exacerbated by a lack of clarity in service providers, curfew timings, shortage of supplies, and heavily restricted vehicular entry into any states.
While the lack of clarity and confusion can be viewed as unavoidable circumstances to any disaster, natural or man-made, it is the reassurance of service-providers, which ultimately determines the extent of damages incurred.
Around the lockdown phase, online therapy was a recent example of an intangible workforce employed. Due to the ease of access to therapy enabled by digital platforms, freelance therapists have been incorporated into the gig economy too. Although therapy is not considered “essential” as compared to daily requirements and medical aid, it is still a crucial resource in online platforms, like any other aggregator (Big Basket, Grofers, Zomato, Swiggy, Dunzo), which have evolved to become indispensable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Precarity in the gig economy
When pandemic-induced lockdowns worldwide brought several cities to a complete halt, the gig workforce became functional in providing essentials (food, medical supplies, groceries) to the public. What we see is an intersection between convenience and necessity, at the cost of putting this workforce at health risk.
The availability of public government services was overburdened, and there was a need to mediate between digital platforms and the public. So what does the new-age definition of ‘essential work’ and their ‘service providers’ (by intermediaries to consumers) really mean?
The gig economy is essentially precarious and vulnerable. The rise of digital platforms workers and aggregators such as Uber and TaskRabbit (outside India) seem to point to a new workforce that is labelled as the “precariat,” presumably a new class of workers lacking permanent employment and traditional social networks.
Ten years after British economist, Guy Standing, led the reins on defining precarious digital workers, the overall diversification and absorption of gig economy workers today is starkly visible. He even mentions the precariats as a ‘dangerous class’, who are often being treated as commodities and have been exploited by these digital platform companies.
Despite the unforeseen tragedies among the gig workforce, welfare strategies have been limited. The gig economy was not immune to past adversities and crises. As there is a need to explore the condition of the welfare services among the gig workforce, it is also important to understand what makes the precarity faced by gig economy workers even more tedious than regular employment.
Labour safeguards needed
Being hired as individual contractors, gig workers are responsible for their own procurement of welfare, well-being, and sustenance. In an ideal situation, gig economy workers are freelance contractors who are not bonded to their workplace. It is the freedom to choose one’s work timing and places, which attracted several young professionals to gig economy careers. There is no collateral damages incurred by companies hiring gig workers.
But unlike employees who are hired full-time, a gig worker is on a contract that may not be suitable to uphold in the long run. In attempts to find immediate and freelance positions, gig workers have to endure working without company benefits.
In India, after the passing of the recent draft rules of the Code on Social Security 2020, gig workers have to be registered with Aadhar and all online aggregators will also have a database linked to their Unique Registration Number. Such kind of technocracy in the gig economy may provide for operationalisation of provisions, but an effective livelihood income remains less as gig workers do not receive support from their aggregators and platform companies.
While it was observed that some companies generally respect fundamental workers’ rights, others, notably in personal transport, delivery, care and media services, refuse to acknowledge any employment relationship with the people who work for them. Any attempts to raise these concerns are negatively portrayed. Thus, the opportunity to raise questions surrounding contract-based work is limited and it hinders the possibility of designing fair contracts between digital platforms and individual contractors.
In the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, there is a lot of uncertainty in urban governance. The new policies for gig economies may be permanently changed from now onwards and much recommended to understand these intermediary jobs.
The rapid absorption of many ongoing new-age professionals, propagated by the pandemic, leading to job losses, has created clusters of welfare-lacking work environments, which are invisible to policy makers, employers, and government organisations.
Apart from critically validating the impending concerns surrounding gig economy, it is quintessential to acknowledge the growing void in work-life balance among young professionals, students, minorities, and communities living outside the realm of a “full-time” workforce.
While gig workers continue to be precarious, as they only function as ‘new role of intermediary performers’ between the aggregators and buyers, they might unfortunately never fulfill the criteria of a (full-time) work position. Their identity remains as the ‘disempowered’ precariat where there is a constant lack of stability in employment, wage and tenure.
With high risk vulnerabilities attached to this workforce, the Code on Social Security 2020 is aimed at addressing insurances for life and accidents, health and other benefits. In all, the gig workforce should have their own autonomy instead of devolving their labour into casual and unpredictable cycles of employment.
Views expressed are the authors’ own.
Debangana Baruah is a doctoral candidate at the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and a former visiting research fellow at the University of Göttingen.
Anisha Debbarman is an Urban Researcher at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. She is interested in sustainability and social psychology in urban spaces. Anisha is an artist in her free time and her work can be accessed here.