Will the gig economy dig a hole for the future of labour rights in post COVID recovery?
The rise of the gig economy for a populous country like India is a matter of concern.
The post-pandemic economic revival in India is supposed to be based on the demand, enterprising and infrastructure as mentioned in the stimulus package. What best suits this strategic revival is the ‘gig economy’ which is on its way of becoming a crucial part of the job market in India. A ‘gig economy’ is defined as a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs as far as the dictionary meaning is concerned.
Having its roots in technological innovation and digital revolution gig economy jobs originated in high-end customer service related corporate world in the west which have access to big data and tools to apply big data results for commercial purposes. Emerging economies witnessed the entry of gig jobs with the wake of digitization and labour market sophistication and such gigging found its place in emerging economies due to its advantages like, flexibility, convenience to both service providers and customers, rising demand etc. making it clear that gig economy is here to stay.
The structure of gig economy envisages a horizontal pattern wherein gig platforms, i.e. tech corporate, service providers which are termed as independent contractors or delivery partners and customers to be on the same line with an equal stake. Tech corporates provide a platform for customers to place demand for their services by using information technology and make service providers a contact point to serve the customers with a certain anonymity.
Such horizontal equity makes the gig economy looks attractive especially for those who are well equipped with smartphones and stable internet connectivity excluding the rural, digitally illiterate portion of customer demand completely. Thus, the gig has created a rural-urban divide in emerging economies where the service providers may belong to the rural area but the customer base almost always belongs to the metros and suburban areas making it urban centred geographically.
Especially before the COVID pandemic, the gig economy was led by service providers like Zomato, Swiggy, Uber, Ola, Dunzo, etc. According to the ‘Professional Gig Economy 2018-19 Report card’, the gig economy will take merely two years to double its business in India. According to National skill Development Corporation, around 70 million job seekers will enter the job market by 2023 and the gig economy has the potential to create numerous jobs for the skilled workers thus making it imperative for the policymakers to invest in skill development. So, the technology augmented skilled labour force of digital India will reap the benefits of this new labour market ecosystem blurring the lines between blue-collar and white-collar jobs boosting the start-up culture.
With the advent of this pandemic where social distancing and safety measures must be followed gig platforms are in a position to get the advantage of it. As a result, as a part of the unlock strategy, gig platforms were the first ones to get the green signal to resume their operations. The pandemic induces humanitarian crisis of COVID-19 resulted in joblessness and economic stagnation making it difficult for the poor to survive.
It resulted in jobless platoons of people especially in urban areas for those who were highly dependent on high-end technology-driven jobs. Can the gig economy be the answer to this difficult situation? To some extent, ‘yes’. Gig jobs can offer immediate yet temporary relief to the people solving their livelihood problems at least. But beyond this extent, the gig economy raises several pertinent questions that enter the domain of regulatory framework, social security and a safety net for the contractual workers in the gig economy.
It is not a matter of merely showing empathy to these workers as they continue to provide services to your doorstep but a larger question of providing them safety network. Unfortunately, India does not have a regulatory policy to monitor the gig economy as the problem of tracing the fast-moving contractual workforce is very intense in this case. Although some security drafts and guidelines for employer companies have been made by the government recently. But there is a need for a proper policy framework to regulate the gig economy like the state of California in the USA.
During the pandemic of COVID-19, employer companies were unable to maintain financial viability and hence couldn’t guarantee job security to the employees. On the contrary, now these companies are expanding their business rapidly as there is an uptake in demand for durable consumer goods. At the same time, companies deny the responsibility of giving a safety net to employees and trying to transfer the risk of losses.
Thus, it raises the question of life risk to service providers who come in direct contact with customers and the economic risk of job loss if the duty is denied. More importantly, if such expansion of gig jobs continues, it will become irreversible for the job market to go back to the old pattern which will complicate the issue of unemployment further.
So, the rise of the gig economy for a populous country like India is not just a matter of concern for policymaking, risk to life due to COVID or job creation but it is a larger concern of redefining job market in future which has moral and ethical dimension too. So, are we satisfied with gigging the job or digging the hole deeper for us?
Aparna Kulkarni is an Assistant Professor at Xavier's College in Mumbai. The opinions are the author's personal.