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Locating Migrants in India’s Gig Economy: A Scoping Report

Posted by Kaarika Das and Srravya C at Jan 04, 2022 03:06 PM |
Gig workers working for on-demand platform services have been adversely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cab hailing services came to a standstill in several Indian cities as the central government imposed a nationwide lockdown in March 2020 for over two months, restricting people’s movements. Food delivery and home-based services were deemed ‘essential’ services and continued to operate during the lockdown. They received little support from the platform companies as well as the government to cope with the effects of the health and economic crises. A significant proportion of these workers are migrants from rural and semi-urban areas, who moved to the cities in search of employment. Yet, their lived experiences, aspirations and demands as migrant workers in the gig economy remain unexplored in academic and policy discourse. Against this backdrop, this report examines how the migrant status of the ‘gig’ worker may shape their experience in the platform economy.

Based on our conversation with platform workers and representatives of platform worker unions based in Jaipur, Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore, we observe that migrant workers constitute an overwhelming majority on on-demand service platforms. Although migrants may not necessarily migrate to join platforms, their transition to app-based work is motivated by hopes of a lucrative income and incentives. While the transition proved lucrative initially, platform companies began to lower per kilometer rates, reduce incentives and increase their commission. We highlight that the business model of platforms as intermediaries warrants and relies on a free-flowing supply of cheap and easily disciplined labour, which is ensured by the large pool of migrant workers, who act/operate as the ‘reserve army of labour’ for platforms.

Typically, migrants are engaged in work characterized by informal work arrangements. While engaging in platform work as ‘independent partners’ entails working for a formal enterprise, their working conditions continue to be characterized by informality, such as lack of job security, social security, provision of minimum wage, etc. The modality of platform work is such that there is no scope of human interaction with workers being managed and disciplined by an opaque algorithm which decides the frequency of their matches, ride fares and even allocation. Far from being treated as independent partners, app-based workers are subjected to arbitrary impositions (such as reduction in rates, increase in commission etc.) which they can either concede to, or ‘voluntarily’ leave. Such a work arrangement that is app-mediated and algorithmically-managed underscores the alienation of the platform worker from their employer as well as peers.

Finally, we highlight the impact of Covid-19 on migrant workers in the gig economy, specifically in the initial months of the pandemic in India. In the absence of meaningful response from platform companies in addressing their concerns, the livelihood of platform-based cab drivers was especially at stake. Those who continued to work incurred significant losses due to drop in incentives as well as increased expenditure owing to rising fuel costs and precautionary hygiene and sanitary measures. As the Covid-19 situation worsened in India, migrant gig workers were faced with the tough choice between remaining a gig worker in the city or returning to their native town or village. Without viable job alternatives, their livelihood continues to hang by a thread.

Click to download the full report here (With inputs from Kaveri Medappa; Edited by Aayush Rathi and Ambika Tandon)