Studying Platform Work in Mumbai & New Delhi

Posted by Anushree Gupta, Rajendra Jadhav, Sarah Zia, Simiran Lalvani and Noopur Raval at May 05, 2022 05:13 PM |
A report by Centre for Internet & Society (CIS) and Azim Premji University (APU) maps platform work in India and notes from four studies of workers driving taxis and delivering food for platform companies.


With the arrival and rapid spread of gig platforms in India and across the world, scholars across fields – from economics and sociology to digital and new media studies – started to investigate how app-based gig platforms are affecting large and small-scale social and economic transformations. In the ‘first wave’ of gig economy research, scholars questioned the nomenclature itself, debating whether it should be called the ‘sharing economy’, gig economy, or rental economy. The impetus for these debates was, perhaps, that we already had some existing models for the sharing economy that largely drew on the idea of ‘the commons’ – or the general understanding that highly networked environments would offer people the opportunity to share their knowledge and spare resources freely, without charge, thus bypassing established corporate oligopolies as well as national and international laws that restricted free movement and access to knowledge and resources – especially for people from the so-called ‘developing’ world. To that effect, there exists valuable research now that bridges the moment of the sharing economy with the gig economy. For instance, Lampinen and colleagues studied older platforms and communities, like Couch Surfing, which allowed people to host and live on other people’s couches (or in their spare rooms) for no cost. The same set of scholars also studied Air Bnb and offered comparative understandings of how norms and expectations around partaking in (someone’s) idle resources change when the ‘gig logic’ enters the frame and platforms become real-time marketplaces for the exchange of goods and services, as against a temporally slower and more altruistic community-based model of sharing.

The ‘second wave’ of gig economy research, mostly originating in and responding to technological,social, and economic developments in North America and Western Europe, has focused on the disruptive effects of gig platforms on employment trends and the future of work. To elaborate, these scholars argue that gig platforms, by offering the promise of flexible work and quick earnings, but not the benefits of full-time, standard employment,are contributing to the ongoing casualisation and precaritisation of work at large. As marketplaces powered by algorithmic decision-making,platforms often argue that the resultant prices as well as earnings are not a product of human or organisational decisions but rather a result of algorithmic decisions and data points. Since these algorithmic systems are ‘black boxed’ or treated as highly confidential intellectual property, there is little scope to audit or ‘peek’ into their workings to understand how or why ‘real-time dynamic surge pricing’ works the way it does. A related host of issues concerns over the employment status of gig platform workers. As critics of platforms have noted, while platform companies classify workers as ‘independent contractors’ or‘vendors’, gig workers satisfy all the requirements of the employment test and thus deserve tobe recognised and compensated as full-time employees. In a landmark case brought forth by gig worker representatives in the UK, the court did recognise platform workers as employees and called for companies to reclassify them as such. Underlying debates around employment classification, compensation, and job security are united by a centralised theme that resonates with labour scholars globally – the (in)formalisation of work.

Reclassifying gig workers as full-time employees would further make them eligible for paid sick leave, maternity leave, and other health benefits, and would possibly make them eligible for minimum wage as well, thus leading to the formalisation and increased regulation of gig work.As scholars of platform work (including crowdwork) outside of industrialised countries have noted, even reclassification or simply recognising these jobs as a part of the formal sector may not necessarily translate to similar benefits or increased salaries in the longer term. Juxtaposed against a landscape of ubiquitous informality, as in the case of India, gig work does offer some features and affordances of formal work, such as financialisation, formal contracts, and the ability to at least appeal unfair practices, albeit to a limited degree. However, formalisation for its own sake in traditional legal and economistic terms may neither be possible nor entirely in response to the unique moment of precarity in the global South, where youth unemployment and skill and job misalignment, among other structural issues, inform the horizon of what kinds of futures are possible and how to attain them.

However, investigating questions of work, futures, and digital participation are not merely about finding answers to challenges in structural economic development and long- and short-term policy-making. The present, so to speak, is far from being determined by, or lived out in, the service of state or corporate visions; it is not the result of what happens between people as they participate on digital platforms. What happens to urban spaces; notions of kinship, publicity, social relationships, and hierarchies; and quotidian understandings of money, desire, aspirations, respect, morals, and justice is equally rich and important when understanding social transformation and the contribution of digital media to social change. Further, rather than approach economic, social, and cultural encounters as separate, we find it valuable to unpack platform encounters and exchanges, as we describe them in this report, as socio-technical and digital-cultural texts that hold within them the working out of macro and micro phenomena. Why and how rural, urban, migrant, and local workers take up gig work and invest in certain kinds of smartphones, cars, scooters, friendships, relationships, and uniforms cannot be attributed only to economic rationality or macro-sociological factors. But, simultaneously, in addition to these material cues, the conversations between gig workers, the norms they hold, and the norms that are in the process of being worked out as they go through their daily motions and emotions, their changing fashioning of the self, the perplexity resulting from daily work within an environment where they get very little information beforehand – all these are important forms of evidence to understand the human-machine encounter within a global South context and the resultant transformation of the self and society. Class, gender, and caste power in urban India are constantly being asserted, challenged, and reworked, not just through visible, large-scale social movements, but also through habits of consumption, intimate conversation, and encounters with the ‘other’. In the field reports that follow, researchers have tried to mine and attend to these daily intimate platform encounters to produce traces of what is ongoing and still being worked out: the process of platformisation and its social, cultural, and digital effects.

When we imagined this project, we were responding to some of the gaps as well as the disciplinary orthodoxy of scholarship that dictates platform studies and digital labour scholarship. We deliberately wanted to follow and replicate more generative approaches to the study of capitalisms and platform capitalism in this case. To that effect, we wanted to focus on the life worlds and laboring practices of gig workers, looking beyond the money they make through apps, how they are treated by platform companies, and how they resist their algorithmic management. As we succeeded in some measure through each field report, our aim was to recentre gig platform scholarship around who these workers are as urban dwellers, as gendered, caste, and class-ed bodies navigating Indian city spaces, and how their aspirations, constraints, and understandings of success, money, safety, and respect inform their encounters with the platform company, customers, police personnel, and the app itself.

We, the team at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, as well as co-principal investigator (PI), Noopur Raval, and field researchers, Anushree Gupta, Rajendra Jadhav, Sarah Zia, and Simiran Lalvani, are grateful to the Azim Premji University Research Grants Programme for their generous sponsorship and support for the project. This project contributes to thinking about the Future(s) of Work theme that is an active area of inquiry within the university and beyond. To reiterate, digital labour and platform studies scholarship in India and the global South is still at a nascent stage. Since the time we conceptualised, conducted, and analysed this gig work research, more studies have emerged (including studies by other researchers at CIS), and our report adds to this growing field of inquiry. The insights we present far from foreclose the questions or even the lines of inquiry that we open here. The report is structured as follows: we begin by reflecting on the changes in the gig work landscape after the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically in terms of how the pandemic has affected working-class communities, and, by extension, those who work in the platform economy. Subsequently, we present individual field reports by three field researchers, Sarah Zia, Simiran Lalvani, and Anushree Gupta, who reflect on their studies of gig work in Mumbai and Delhi, respectively. The report ends with a short conclusion and some methodological reflections that we gathered during the project.

Access the full report here.


Anushree Gupta, Rajendra Jadhav, Sarah Zia, Simiran Lalvani and Noopur Raval