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Why does social security look like a pipe dream for gig workers?

Lakhs of gig workers in India continue to work amid little or no access to social security. We find out more about their plight and also if the new labour codes will address their social security void

social security | gig economy | Indian labour laws

Harshit Rakheja & Krishna Veera Vanamali  |  New Delhi 

We now get food and groceries delivered within 15 minutes of ordering them on mobile applications. But have you wondered what it takes to accomplish such a feat? What the delivery executive goes through in between picking the order from the restaurant or warehouse and handing it over to you? One of them, Salil Tripathi, lost his life eight days ago on a cold winter night, while his wife and a minor son waited for him back home. Salil was the sole breadwinner of his family. And so are lakhs of others who continue to walk a tightrope without any insurance and other benefits which workers in organised sectors enjoy. When Salil’s accidental death attracted the media glare, Zomato CEO Deepinder Goyal took to Twitter and assured help in processing an insurance payout of Rs 10 lakh. Zomato employees contributed Rs 12 lakh to the family and a fundraising page started by his wife raised about Rs 9 lakh. While Zomato’s move came as a welcome step, this instance has emphasised the need to provide benefits to gig and platform workers. Gig workers currently depend on the generosity of companies. In the absence of a legislation that grants protections to gig workers, the companies employing them don't have a uniform policy on the kind of insurance cover they should provide to their drivers or delivery partners in cases of accidents or medical emergencies. Zomato covers its delivery partners with accident and life insurance along with an OPD allowance, whereas Swiggy offers Rs 6 lakh worth of medical and accident insurance cover. However, Shaik Salauddin, the national-general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT) told Business Standard that there have been several instances where Zomato and Swiggy haven’t done enough to compensate their delivery partners for ‘loss of pay’ after they met with an accident while on the job. The IFAT represents gig workers employed by food delivery and taxi apps. The recent Fairwork India report 2021 ranked Indian startups based on how they treat their gig workers. It said that most Indian startups don’t score well when judged against the principle of ‘Fair Conditions’. To address this issue and many more, the Central government has come up with the Code on which recognises gig and platform workers.

But according to reports, the Centre is unlikely to implement it before state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab this year, as it is worried about the possibility of protests by labour unions, after having had a similar experience with the three contentious farm laws that had to be withdrawn. The Supreme Court too has admitted a petition by the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT) that seeks classification of gig and platform workers as ‘unorganised workers’ under the Unorganised Workers Act, 2008. This would entitle them to benefits such as provident fund, health and maternity benefits and old age protection. “This is obviously an attempt to distance itself from any language that would make the aggregator responsible for providing the drivers with social security or any form of protection or acknowledging any form of ‘employer-employee’ relationship,” reads the IFAT petition. The IFAT’s petition points out that recently, two large cab aggregators ‘updated’ the service agreements for their riders and drivers to “essentially absolve the ride sharing/ hailing company (the aggregator) of all liabilities and/or responsibilities towards the drivers or riders”. One of the aggregators, for instance, has stopped using the word ‘partner’ in the agreement and now defines individuals utilising its app service for commercial gains as ‘customers’. Gayatri Singh, cofounder of Human Rights Law Network and the advocate who filed the PIL on behalf of IFAT, explained why the present working arrangements between gig workers and platforms is untenable. The new Code on Social Security introduced by the government also envisages a social security fund for gig workers, which will collect contributions from aggregators. Introduction of the code will address many issues plaguing the in India now. It mandates compulsory registration of both gig and platform workers on an online portal to avail these benefits. Because of a continuous fall in wages and a rise in out-of-pocket expenses, these delivery gigs, originally supposed to be part-time work for pocket money, have now become the mainstay for many. According to several testimonies in the Fairwork report, most delivery partners spend 12-16 hours daily to make ends meet. And the is here to stay. A report by Boston Consulting Group says that India’s has the potential to serve up to 90 million jobs in the next eight to 10 years from about 24 million today. Labour codes are indeed a big step in the right direction. But, clearly, the road to social security for gig and platform workers is long and bumpy.

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First Published: Mon, January 17 2022. 08:15 IST