How was your gig?

One of my friend’s son is a musician in Canada. A couple of years ago, he told me that he was now getting frequent calls for ‘gigs’. When asked, he explained that when a free-lance musician is given a contract for one performance, it is called a gig.

Last week, the Finance Minister of India spoke about the ‘gig economy’ in her budget speech. She announced that the government was setting up a portal to collect data about the gig economy, so that the social protection of workers in gig economy can be ensured.

So, what is this gig economy? And who is working there? Of course, free-lance musicians continue to be a part of gig economy. Who else is part of it? Technical experts on short, deliverable-based contract are also part of gig economy. Called ‘on-demand’ workers, they receive payment after performing their gig (or task contracted for). Of late, platform workers are also considered a growing part of gig economy. ‘Platform’ workers are those who work through a digital platform…Uber & Ola taxi drivers, amazon, Zomato and Swiggy courier boys..are called platform workers.

Gig is a slang used first by jazz musicians in America in 1920s. It was a handle to refer to one night performance, popularly called gig. Nearly a decade ago, especially in America, the phrase ‘gig economy’ began to be used to refer to such one-time jobs which get performed based on a fixed contract. Initially called ‘sharing economy’ or ‘collaborative economy’, when referring to Airbnb or Oyo room rentals, drivers of Uber/Ola began to be classified as part of gig economy.

The promotion of gig economy as a new model of livelihood has emphasised how flexible livelihood options it generates. One time, short delivery work that young middle class professionals and educated housewives can do to supplement their income became the initial argument in support of gig economy.

The discussion on security of livelihood and earning minimum wages began to confront workers in gig economy when drivers of ‘ride-hailing’ services and courier delivery boys realised that they had no legal support for their status as employee; and no social security, health care or pension provisions were available to them. Despite delivering packages 24*7, with no week-end or public holiday, such livelihood arrangements for semi-skilled workers result in fragile income arrangements, making them vulnerable to any shocks, like the pandemic.

The initiative by the government to collect data about such workers in gig economy is therefore a welcome first step towards creating a legal framework for ensuring social protection to such workers. How else will plumbers, masons, electricians, brick-klin workers, domestic maids will be provided security of income and social protection as gig workers?

But the broader question relates to the security of liveable income stream for poor, low income households. For students and housewives looking for extra income, platform-based gig economy can provide ‘additional’ income. Uber taxis in America are privately-owned cars, used as taxis when the owner has time, and inclination, for some extra income. Uber drivers in India are ‘renting’ or owning cars for earning full-time income for their families; it is their only source of livelihood. Similarly, courier boys for Amazon or Zomato do the delivery work to be able to earn enough income to support their families. Maids, construction workers, plumbers, carpenters, etc. are ‘blue-collar’ workers, looking to earn secure and liveable income for their families. They need to work every day, receive wages/payments immediately after completion of their ‘gig’, and are vulnerable to shocks generated from ill-health, evictions and lockdowns.

What types of policies will provide such workers social protection? Will these policies be different from what is presently legislated in four labour codes? How will accountability of ‘employers’ be ensured? The Employee Provident Fund and ESIC schemes have been periodically extended to include daily-wage earners, but compliance mechanisms remain weak.

The new label of ‘gig economy’ may not be enough to ensure decent livelihood and effective social protection to millions of Indian workers, including migrants. Platform workers need to be provided legal framework for labour rights such that platform owners are held accountable. Otherwise, low income, semi-skilled and blue collar workers will remain underpaid in insecure livelihoods, even if they get a new label of gig economy!



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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