Panel discusses legal protections for gig economy workers

A discussion co-organised by Citizen Matters and Vidhi Legal looked at the precarity of workers in the gig economy, and how the sector can be regulated to protect them.

“We are requesting the government to come up with a law or policy like that passed in California last year (for the protection of gig workers),” said Tanveer Pasha, representative of the Ola-Uber drivers’ association, in a panel discussion titled ‘Formalising the Gig Economy’, held on June 8.

Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and Citizen Matters, in collaboration with the Bangalore International Centre (BIC), had organised the panel discussion as part of Bengaluru Solutions Series, a public engagement series dedicated to urban issues. This was the sixth installment of the series. The discussion was centred around legal protections for gig economy workers, especially in the context of COVID-19.

Raghu Tenkayala of BIC introduced the event and welcomed the panelists. The session started with a brief presentation by Sneha Visakha, Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, on the legal issues affecting gig economy workers. These workers are not covered under the myriad employment and labour laws as they are deemed to be ‘independent contractors’ instead of employees. This renders them highly vulnerable, without legal protections such as minimum wage, collective bargaining, sick leave, health, maternity and safety benefits.  

T R Gopalakrishnan, Consulting Editor at Citizen Matters, moderated the panel discussion. The panel consisted of Dr Vidhya Soundararajan (Assistant Professor, IIM Bangalore), Dr Sarayu Natarajan (Founder, Aapti Institute), Tanveer Pasha (President, Ola-Uber Drivers’ Association) and Hari T N (Head HR, BigBasket). 

T R Gopalakrishnan opened the discussion by asking whether gig economy work required a new category of laws or if the existing ones were sufficient. Dr Vidhya said that gig economy work is essentially contractual labour in a new avatar; the newness being that this work is more visible to society nowadays. She cited the Contract Labour Act as useful to study, especially with regard to social security and minimum wage for labour, and how one can link it to gig workers at some level.

Dr Sarayu agreed that platform work does resemble contract labour, but noted that the differences specific to platform work should be accounted for, such as volatility of wages, how each task is paid for and how each contract is renewed.

Hari T N felt that regulation must tread the thin line between protecting labour from unscrupulous employers and the reasonable freedom for businesses to operate without interference. 

The panel discussed what ‘formalising’ the gig economy entailed. Dr Sarayu noted that one aspect of formalisation was the portability of performance between platforms or even identity and records, highlighting that formalisation was not only regulation by state but would also involve the market and society at large. She said there is cause to think about how formalisation will engage with the questions of wages, social security, etc., especially since protests by platform workers have been against the platforms and not the state.

Dr Vidhya talked about the importance of data collection as a basic step for formalisation, encouraging platforms to register their workers, facilitated by the state.

The panel then discussed corporate governance and the role of companies in protecting the dignity of workers. Dr Vidhya noted there were huge variations in contracts among platforms, and suggested standardisation of contracts, with a governing framework for basic terms and conditions.

Panelists also discussed the gender pay gap in platform work. Dr Sarayu highlighted two considerations:

  • Volatility in income, given women platform workers are usually engaged in personal services like beauty
  • Threats they experience in the course of work, given their place of work are often personal spaces; women workers often get no recourse from platforms whatsoever.

Hence the idea of formalising women’s work should include not only equal pay but also safety at the workplace, she said.

Tanveer Pasha highlighted the conditions under which drivers for Ola/Uber work, and explained that platforms refer to drivers as ‘partners’ in order to avoid the application of labour laws. He highlighted the situation of drivers under the COVID-19 pandemic as dire, because of a lack of demand for travel. Many drivers weren’t able to provide food for their families during this time. He said they sought a new law or policy from the government for protection of gig workers modelled on the California law passed last year

Talking about platform contracts, Pasha said that drivers do not sign any contract, and instead have to compulsorily agree to terms and conditions online as a precondition to logging in to use the platform. He said that Ola/Uber had offered false assurances over earnings, leading drivers to take loans to buy vehicles, which they then struggle to repay.

He explained that the companies had captured market share with the promise of incentives, which they have discontinued while collecting 25% of the fee as commission. The drivers are entirely dependent on them and are unable to make between Rs 200-500 despite working for up to 20 hours at a time. 

Dr Sarayu noted there is a power differential between platforms and their workers, and that the workers face difficulty in accessing terms and conditions. She felt the pandemic magnified existing inequities, which could also be an indication of the ‘new normal’.

Dr Vidhya opined that these issues existed before the COVID-19 crisis too, reiterating the need for a framework, to either treat workers as contract labour or at least create basic terms and conditions for them. Tanveer Pasha, likening initial company incentives to drug addiction, stated that platforms must not dangle unsustainably high earnings as incentives to workers, who then enter unsustainable financial commitments. He held that basic terms and conditions such as minimum guarantee of work for a year, and minimum daily earnings for 12 hours of work, could be potential solutions.

Watch the entire panel discussion here:

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