Behind The Veils

Invisible Workers

Joydip Ghosal

Behind the Veil of Algorithm : Invisible Workers’ –a report on workers in the ‘Gig’ economy published by PUDR (Peoples Union for Democratic Rights) is a valuable document that brings forth the conditions of the gig workers, the predicament they face and the exploitation the companies indulge in. This report stressed that ‘gig’ economy is a phenomenon of the last decade or so. Swiggy, Zomato, Ola, Uber, Urban Company and Amazon appeared to provide ' employment' and ‘service’ in the form of ‘gigs’. Some of these are international while others are of Indian origin.

In order to decipher different issues that mired people’s vision and understand the phenomenon PUDR conducted a fact finding mission. It was conducted over September -November 2021 into the terms, issues and working conditions that affect ‘gig workers’. The fact finding remained confined to Delhi NCR. But it was able to provide a holistic picture. The team spoke to the workers of Zomato, Urban Company, Swiggy, Ola and Uber. Gig is a slang used by entertainers to term a one-time performance. Merriam -Webster dictionary included the phrase gig economy in April 2019. It was defined as “economic activity that involves the use of temporary or freelance workers to perform jobs typically in service sectors.”

 In this process the team consulted technical experts, official company publications. Judgements in court cases in India and abroad were also taken into cognizance. They perused academic studies and reports and interacted with organisations that were trying to mobilise the gig workers across the country. Over the last few years gig workers demonstrated against the apathetic working conditions. Swiggy workers started a strike in September 2020. Urban Company workers protested in October 2021. Internationally the workers went to court and snatched away some rights. Fortune India in an article titled ‘The gig economy and India’s changing workforce’ clearly indicated that participation in the gig economy is more in developing countries. In this fact-finding report researchers drew reference from the book of Jeremias Prassel titled Humans as a Service: The promise and Perils of work in the Gig Economy which showed that in 2017 alone $ 12 billion were pumped into Uber Company.

This report threw light on the business model of gig economy where excess supply of workers gave birth to a situation where workers kept waiting for hours for orders or deliveries. According to this fact finding instead of physical supervisor, they were under overarching reach of ratings, algorithm and app. They were subject to continuous surveillance. Frank Field and Andrew Forsey in their pioneering research work Sweated labour :Uber and the Gig Economy showed that in USA Uber drivers were “at risk of taking home less than a third of national living wage “. Lack of regulatory institutional check effectively enabled the company to unleash pressure on the workers. Companies exerted supreme control while presenting them as ‘partners’. This report also pins the blame on state machinery for abetting the companies passively or actively for failing to hold them accountable. Sometimes the burden of speedy delivery makes the accident unavoidable. In case of grievous injury or fatal accident as the report points out companies intervention is minimal.

This research showed that some companies even decided the form through which workers received their wages. This happened despite the fact that they remained on the road for extended period of stay. Long shifts enabled the companies to have access to large number of workers. Gig workers bore all the expenses related to the job. The workers the researchers spoke to were forced to adopt drastic steps to eke out a living “such as 44 percent borrowed, 45 percent reduced their essential expenditure and 83 percent used their savings.” This report unequivocally stressed that the uncertainty of earnings could be borne as long the earnings were additional to other regular wages. Algorithm regulation over the employees was a far cry from the world of free entrepreneurs who worked in perfect autonomy. One Swiggy / Zomato worker told the fact finding team that declining an order meant a black mark, a kind of stigma for him. He would have to complete 100 deliveries without any complaint to extricate himself from that vicious tag. Even the workers who worked for UC expressed the fact that if they refused to do any job for some reason their chances of bookings or being assigned work went down. Through this report one comes to know how technology as double- edged sword exercised all -pervasive control over gig workers. Needless to say all workers had to maintain the bikes, cars and fuel cost. Some forced to sell off the car due to increasing precarity related to job and dip in earnings. This report shed light on the fact that the contractual agreement with the companies prevented them from striking an independent bargain with the customers. Repeated refusal to accomplish or undertake a task can led to deactivation for a period. If one compares them with the workers of nineteenth century one would be able to find out that the situation of gig workers is worse because as the report indicates they are deliberately excluded from labour rights. Misclassification and evasion of rights usher more predicament for them.

This fact finding report by PUDR highlights the complexities and the hazards the gig workers face. PUDR demands that immediate measures must be taken to fix the accountability of companies towards the workers. The government of the day cannot evade its responsibility.

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Vol 56, No. 32, Feb 4 - 10, 2024