The new generation of trade union
As the gig economy is expanding into a workforce of lakhs, it has welcomed new forms of alt-unionism based on the needs of casual workers
On December 6, 2018, Swiggy workers in Chennai went on a strike and their colleagues in Pune had done the same in November 2017.
Uber workers in Cochin went on a strike on December 5. It was not entirely a localised affair. Uber workers across Indian cities have been on a long-drawn protest: starting with a strike by 60,000 Uber workers in Mumbai and 10,000 in Jaipur in March 2018, which spread to Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Gurgaon on subsequent dates. It peaked again in Mumbai in mid-November where Ola workers too joined them.
Tracking of the social media postings reveals that the Forum of Amazon Mechanical Turks is planning to intensify their protests against the tech giant and these gig workers are even planning some litigation.
These three categories constitute the lower, middle and higher end of the vast spectrum of expanding gig economy in India.
Swiggy is an online food delivery chain operating in more than 50 cities of India; it connects 40,000-plus restaurants and claims its 60,000 workers deliver food to homes from favourite restaurants close by at lightning speed. But their legal status is that they are not workers of Swiggy. They might be doing a job similar to Mumbai's 'dabbawallahs' (box boys) delivering food to office-goers from their homes. But the crucial difference is that they do not work like domestic workers for individual households but execute the work for a $1.5 billion corporate chain. They might be causal workers but Swiggy denies that they have any employer-employee relationship with them. Their wages might resemble piece-rated wages. But Swiggy claims they are not wages at all as these 'delivery partners' are independent business entities operating on commission-per-delivery basis despite these workers wearing the Swiggy uniform.
They might appear to be like those informal workers in the construction labour market, who assemble at a particular spot every day where the builders go and recruit them for seasonal work. While construction labourers are informal workers not knowing who their next employer would be or where they would work next, Swiggy workers work for a single employer — though they can earn only when online orders pour in. If there are no orders, then there is no delivery and they go home without earning a single rupee. They might resemble casual workers commonly found in many industries but neither regular workers accompany them nor do they get any statutory benefits that even casual workers are entitled to as per the law. They are bound by certain contractual obligations with the company but not as a contract between an employer and an employee as per Swiggy's claims.
Though dubiously glorified as 'delivery partners' and 'delivery executives', they are basically wage workers. They are supposed to bring their own two-wheelers but the company offers them neither ESI nor any compensation if they land up in some road accident. Like Swiggy, scores of online food delivery firms like Zomato and Foodpanda with total delivery workforce running into lakhs are a reality today in urban India.
In the middle level of the gig economy is the 'uberised' economy, where work is a hybrid of employment and entrepreneurship. The Uber taxi drivers, for instance, operate their own taxis albeit under a taxi aggregator. Through GPS, the company not only directs the cabbie to the customer through online communication via apps at both ends, for which it takes 20 per cent of the bill leaving only 80 per cent to the driver. There are certain types of services where the drivers get less, pay more for fuel from their pockets, and despite Google Maps showing a longer distance, Uber pays for a lesser distance, therefore causing the drivers an overall loss.
Until 2017, the country witnessed protests by conventional taxi drivers against taxi aggregator companies like Uber and Ola for destroying their livelihoods by offering to drive customers at rates lesser than what has been fixed by the municipal authorities for conventional taxis. After 2017, ironically, it is the turn of the drivers of Uber and Ola to fight against their own companies for improved shares. Besides the global monopoly Uber, and big Indian corporates like Ola, numerous local taxi services are also mushrooming with lakhs of operators at their disposal.
At the higher end of tech work in the gig economy, Amazon Mechanical Turks (MTurks) is one of the numerous crowdsourcing online platforms, peddled as fora that brings together businesses and part-time job workers, where they perform some routine micro tasks: like mining, collating and feeding data for machine learning algorithms. Out of around 500,000 turkers working for Amazon, the American monopoly, 40 per cent or around 200,000 are working in India. This piece-work platform is a digital sweatshop. Contrary to Amazon's claims that they could earn $40-50 per day, the majority of the turkers earn barely $4-5. They have virtually been reduced to mere ID numbers for Amazon. Work is allocated to these 'numbers' and money is transferred online to the bank accounts linked to these IDs. There is no other interface between Amazon, the employer, and these workers.
There are just three examples of innumerable forms of gig work emerging in India. If we consider the labour process independent of myriad forms that it assumes in the gig economy, it is just a capitalist labour process only. If we go into diverse concealed and fetish-like forms of owner-worker relations, they are, in the ultimate analysis, capital-labour relationship only. If the workers get collectivised on a social media platform and fight for their interests primarily through an online campaign, it is still part of the new labour movement only. Some of them have succeeded in registering formal trade unions. But many call themselves a 'forum', an online 'community' or a 'platform'. Still, they represent the collective will of the workers, force the employers into collective bargaining through their concerted action, and in this sense, for all practical purposes, they are a new generation trade union.
Gig economy and gig workers disrupt the conventional economy and traditional employment. As gig workers are the expanding contingent of the new 21st-century proletariat, they are likely to usher in the new century forms of alt unionism as well.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)