The urgent need for access to secure and fair workplaces for all is a key focus area as we imagine the future of work in the post-pandemic world. The precarity built into systems that depend on the seemingly dispensable, on-demand labour of gig workers is an issue of particular importance as we assess the ways in which exploitation is a direct consequence of a lack of social security in the workplace.
Even as the Social Security Code, 2020 extends social security schemes to unorganized workers, including gig workers, it is crucial to understand the vulnerabilities inherent in gig work which were exacerbated by the pandemic, and what it might take to embed accessible social security in gig work.
Meanings and Definitions of gig workers and social security
India’s Social Security Code, 2020 defines a gig worker as “a person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of a traditional employer-employee relationship”. Essentially, a gig worker performs on-demand, task-based labour upon being connected to a consumer through an online platform business. This can look like a food delivery aggregator connecting orders to delivery ‘partners’, or a ride-hailing app connecting drivers to passengers. Also referred to as ‘platform work’, the Code recognises such platform-enabled gig work as “work arrangement outside of a traditional employer-employee relationship in which organisations or individuals use an online platform to access other organisations or individuals to solve specific problems or to provide specific services or any such other activities […], in exchange for payment”. These definitions are central to the discussion of gig work in the Indian context because they are the first of their kind indirectly addressing and including gig workers within the ambit of labour codes and the associated benefits in terms of seeking safe and fair work environments.
As we begin the conversation on why social security is crucial for gig workers, particularly in the context of the pandemic in India, it is key to remember that social security in the gig workspace essentially translates to “the measures of protection afforded to employees, unorganised workers, gig workers and platform workers to ensure access to health care and to provide income security, particularly in cases of old age, unemployment, sickness, invalidity, work injury, maternity or loss of a breadwinner”, per the Code of Social Security, 2020. In our discussion of gig work and the many vulnerabilities to which it exposes workers, it is useful to define how social security can provide comprehensive safeguards against insecurity in the workplace, leading to more equal and inclusive workspaces, where economic survival does not come at the cost of the health, well-being and dignity of workers.
What gig work looks like
Many sources, like Boston Consulting Group’s 2021 report titled ‘Unlocking the Potential of the Gig Economy in India’, highlight the gig economy’s contribution to the creation of jobs for the unemployed in India, estimating that there will be nearly 90 million gig working jobs created in the next 8 to 10 years. Gig-work, this report asserts, is not a new concept in the country. Instead, the large informal sector in India, comprising nearly 90% of the workforce, has always comprised of gig workers in the form of agricultural labour, construction workers and household help.
Participation in gig work, proponents claim, allows for convenient, flexible work. Further, it builds an entrepreneurial spirit in workers, who are directly responsible for their earnings, which depend on their ability to maintain positive ratings for the platform’s algorithm. It also allows for organisations to work in efficient and cost-effective ways. Gig work saves platforms time since it includes little formal contracting and training. Further, since the pool from which gig workers can be drawn is immense, they are easy to replace if performance is not found to be up to par. It also requires very little economic investment from employers, since infrastructural costs are largely borne by workers towards investing in a more economically stable future, as part of what Kuehn and Corrigan refer to as ‘hope labour’.
In reality, however, a key defining characteristic of gig work is a lack of access to social security and control over conditions of work afforded to workers who are treated as independent contractors or ‘partners’ of an ‘asset-light’ platform.
Although their work has some features of formal employment (access to a grievance redressal for individual concerns, for instance), gig workers straddle the line between formal and informal work. For example, workers are forced to leverage informal unions like the All India Gig Workers Union (AIGWU) and the Indian Federation of App-based Transport workers (IFAT) to effectively rally against collective concerns with their respective platforms in the absence of ‘formal’ channels of redressal for collective grievances, since gig work can often be isolating and does not present opportunities to form collectives within organizations. Another example of the blurring of the boundaries of formal and informal work is that of pay. Although gig workers may be paid in predictable cycles, the amounts they are paid are unpredictable due to a variety of reasons – varying demand, frequently changing payments per task and lack of clarity on how payments are decided. Thus, a degree of informality gets built into the nature of gig work done for otherwise organized workplaces. This gap can be observed in the ways in which social security and benefits like minimum wage protection, maternity and paternity benefits, leave plans, gratuity plans, social security schemes, etc. are unevenly applied to gig and permanent workers.
A different aspect of gig work that leads to loss of control for the worker is the opacity present in the working of the algorithms of various platforms, as well as algorithmic control. First, with very little understanding of and control over how task rates are determined, workers are often forced to undertake tasks at rates which they had no hand in determining, and which may not necessarily reflect the cost they incur in order to complete the task. Second, most platforms depend on a reputation or ranking-based system of assigning work. While at first glance, this may seem to promote a merit-based system of success, in practice, that may not be the case. What it may mean is that a worker’s ability to find work depends on their ability to secure arbitrarily assigned positive ratings, often in the face of difficult customers or uncomfortable conditions. Third, the constant surveillance of workers’ activities through management systems and GPS tracking has negative psychosocial effects.
As a result, while gig work does generate employment and income opportunities for many, the quality of work in these opportunities per the ILO’s standards of decent work is questionable, considering the lack of social security, such as income security and healthcare cover, offered by systems that operate the gig economy. The employment generated by gig work should also be assessed for its ability to provide safe, inclusive and dignified workplace conditions, even under the most difficult socio-economic circumstances.
Doing gig work in the pandemic without social security
During the COVID 19 pandemic, workers and working conditions globally were impacted in significant ways. As multiple lockdowns were imposed and more and more people began to socially distance and isolate at home, the demand for ‘gig worker jobs’, such as home delivery, rose exponentially. In some economies, people who had lost their jobs in the organized sector also began to turn to gig work as a secondary or primary source of income. However, this rise in demand for gig workers came with its own challenges.
Many platform-based businesses chose to capitalize on the demand for delivery services during the pandemic by promoting delivery workers as ‘COVID warriors’ or ‘heroes’. These ‘heroes’ were forced to work even during the height of the first and second waves of the pandemic.
Their work often involved making deliveries to containment zones and coming in direct contact with a number of people, risking their physical safety. In most cases, the onus of vaccination, temperature checks, masking, social distancing and ensuring no contact was on the gig worker and not on the customer, which was indicative of the control the customer had not only on the gig worker’s income but also on their safety.
This, when there was very little clarity on the issue of the essential worker status of delivery personnel, leading to many having to face police violence in the absence of relevant passes or government mandates. There were also a host of other concerns – many regions saw a decline in delivery requests, meaning workers received little to no payouts during this period. In some cases, they were also having to independently buy protective equipment and fund petrol costs. Many gig workers who had migrated back home early in the pandemic also lost jobs and any financial security. Ultimately, these social, physical and financial risks that gig workers were forced to take in order to ensure economic survival led to negative effects on their quality of life and their ability to perform labour.
Bajwa, et al. (2018) classify these negative conditions into three categories of vulnerabilities associated with gig work – occupational vulnerability, precarity and platform-specific vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities offer a particularly useful framework to navigate the conditions of gig work during the pandemic. The first, occupational vulnerability, is associated with risks to the health and wellbeing of workers in their line of work, such as the risks posed when coming in contact with potentially infected individuals during a task. The second, precarity, refers to the dangers posed to gig workers by unstable working conditions – incurring their own infrastructural costs, no job or income security, pay discrimination and low wages for women or other marginalized groups, misclassification as contractors rather than employees and associated loss of benefits etc. Lastly, platform-specific vulnerabilities refer to opacity in the platform’s algorithmic logic, worker surveillance, etc.
Even as we discuss the negative impacts of gig work during the pandemic on the health, well-being and security of workers, it is important to recognize the role of intersectional identities in the shaping of the experiences of different people. Women, in particular, were hit by the pandemic in very complex ways – many left the workforce to perform care work full-time, while others who were primary earners found it difficult to manage working long hours (to earn uneven wages compared to men) in their seemingly ‘flexible’ gig jobs alongside care work responsibilities. Another significant issue for women gig workers were the algorithms of their platforms, which had been designed with varying degrees of bias against women and their work. Algorithms and systems had, over time, learnt various means to restrict women’s ability to earn as gig workers – assigning domestic work tasks specifically to women, gamifying work in a way that women’s shorter or scattered hours (in line with their care-work schedules) earned them less money, etc. Therefore, women gig workers’ ability to work was impacted not only by the pandemic but also by the patriarchy and associated power relations.
Overall, the pandemic served to exacerbate and throw into sharp relief the various precarities that shape gig work in the current socio-economic context of the world. Now, more than ever, the pressing need for rights and justice in the form of social security for gig workers is apparent. Evidence such as Fair Work India’s dismal ratings of work conditions for gig workers in several big platform-business players in the country identifies the various issues with fairness in pay, representation, conditions, contracts and management which must be addressed in order to solve for the multi-faceted exploitation of and lack of social security for gig workers.
As we begin the conversation on what social security can look like for gig workers and why it is important, it is key to remember that social security in the gig workspace essentially translates, among other safeguards, to “the measures of protection afforded to employees, unorganised workers, gig workers and platform workers to ensure access to health care and to provide income security”, per the Code of Social Security, 2020.
How does social security solve the issue of precarity?
The Social Security Code, 2020, referenced earlier in this text, is a crucial piece of legislation to discuss when assessing viable solutions for embedding social security in gig work, particularly in the Indian context. Also known as the Code of Social Security (CSS), it is “an act to amend and consolidate the laws relating to social security with the goal to extend social security to all employees and workers either in the organised or unorganised or any other sectors and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
To summarize, the Code extends social security benefits, including “access to health care and to provide income security, particularly in cases of old age, unemployment, sickness, invalidity, work injury, maternity or loss of a breadwinner”, to all employees, gig/platform workers and unorganized workers, per relevant welfare schemes. These schemes would be funded by the central and state governments (as relevant), beneficiary contributions, and contributions by aggregators at a rate of 1 to 2 per cent of turnover, and not exceeding 5 per cent of the total amount paid to gig workers. It also states that the central government would institute a Social Security Fund for gig workers. The Code also provides for the making of a National Social Security Board with a tenure of three years, which would oversee the recommendation, monitoring and administration of welfare schemes. This board would include, among others, five representatives of gig workers and five of aggregators.
The Code of Social Security (2020), although it is an important piece of legislation in terms of ensuring social security to gig workers, is not a comprehensive solution for the issue of social security. The Code is part of four key labour codes in India – the Industrial Relations Code (2020), the Occupational Health, Safety and Working Conditions Code (2020), and the Code on Wages (2019). The Code of Social Security is crucial to the discussion on precarity and gig work since it is the only labour code in the country which recognizes gig work, platform work and workers. This means that as yet, gig workers are not explicitly mentioned as being part of the national legislation on unionization, collective bargaining, occupational safety and minimum wage protection. This is troubling, since industrial relations, occupational health and safety and minimum wage are all central issues for gig workers in the post-pandemic world. Because these issues form the larger context of precarity in the gig working sector, no conversation or legislative action on one can be considered complete without the others.
As we critically analyze the labour codes as policy tools to aid social security and justice in the workplace, it is important to note that they currently stand deferred, at least since April 2021. This deferment has been attributed to a variety of factors, such as states not having finalized the rules applicable under the codes, as well as delays due to COVID. Until the Code of Social Security remains deferred, no legislative action can be taken towards the goal of providing social security and control to gig workers and their precarious workplaces.
Most importantly, it is crucial to remember that the mere enactment of legislation will likely not ensure safe and just working conditions for gig workers. Apart from the implementation of the Code of Social Security in comprehensive ways and the dispensing of welfare schemes in a timely and effective manner, sustained advocacy and organizing against exploitative working conditions and continued conversations on the issue of workers’ rights, algorithmic justice and holding platforms accountable for working conditions are important steps towards reimagining the future of work as being more just, inclusive and safe.
By Karishma Shafi, Senior Program Officer, Knowledge at One Future Collective