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Gig economy: Making it work

Food delivery, home cleaning, cab driving or courier service — gig jobs have become a dependable fallback for the huge number of young men and women looking for ways to earn a living. However, as lives get a tad better, the rigmarole gets tougher and more fragile

Gig economy: Making it work

Food delivery, home cleaning, cab driving or courier service — gig jobs have become a dependable fallback for the huge number of young men and women looking for ways to earn a living. However, as lives get a tad better, the rigmarole gets tougher and more fragile. File photo: PTI

Sarika Sharma

An electrician by day, 24-year-old Arun Kumar, a resident of Buta Mandi in Jalandhar, turns delivery boy with Zomato in the evenings. Come rain or sun, he is on the road, but doesn’t mind. What he does is rude customer behaviour. “Even if the order is five minutes late, they get annoyed, use foul language. There could be plenty of reasons behind getting late — traffic, flat tyre, accident — but the customers are least interested. Rather, they get back by giving low rating,” he adds.

What Arun narrates is not mere rant. And we all know it. However, in a country with 8 per cent unemployment rate, gig economy is bringing food to the table. And that is what is pushing young men and women to be gig workers, making it so huge — yet so unorganised — a market. A Niti Aayog report puts the range of gig workers from 80 lakh to 1.8 crore. With 47 per cent Indians having access to Internet and the scale of deliver-on-demand services rising, the numbers are set to surge further. From small towns to big cities, the gig economy is rising and everybody plays a part.

Fairwork India Ratings 2021 put Urban Company at the number 2 spot, with a score of 5 out of 10, while Ola, Porter and Uber earned 0.  Photo courtesy: Urban company

Like this 27-year-old Muktsar resident. Armed with a decent IELTS score and a BCA degree, he was preparing his papers to go to Canada for studies when Covid struck. As the world closed its doors, he didn’t know what to do. It was then that someone suggested he join a cab service. As the first wave ebbed, he bought a hatchback, shifted to Mohali and signed up with Ola, Uber and InDriver. Two years on, the young man has been able to take a chunk of loan off his head and is preparing for IELTS again, hoping to be in Canada by next year. This time, he feels, his driving experience with Uber would come in handy.

Some years older, and like him reluctant to be identified, this Mohali-based beautician with Urban Company (UC) says the app was her saviour during the pandemic. “For two years, when people were wary of anyone entering their homes, I had my hands full.” The company, she says, lays stress on hygiene, “which made people trust those like me”. For the last three years that she has been with the platform, she has only gained, even though UC might be charging 35 per cent commission. “I had no dearth of orders ever. In fact, it is I who have had to go offline to take a break.”

A Niti Aayog report says women participants in platform businesses are more likely to continue in this workforce due to flexibility offered.

Unlike most young men his age and qualification (Class XII), 19-year-old Dinesh from Juani Ropa village in Kullu has been earning Rs 15,000-20,000 per month. Delhivery, the courier company he works with, offers him a weekly remuneration as per the packages delivered. He is working hard and hopes to soon be on the company’s payroll, which would ensure a starting salary of Rs 10,000 plus incentives, and chance of growth.

When a BA degree and several technical courses failed to provide Samreet from Ludhiana suitable employment, she decided to take up the job of a delivery girl, something still not commonplace. “My father’s untimely death meant that I had to bear the burden of the family. Working from 8 am to 8 pm, I am able to earn Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 daily, giving my family a dignified life and education to my younger brother,” says Samreet, who is in her 30s.

Unlike most youth his age, 19-year-old Dinesh from Juani Ropa village in Kullu has been earning Rs 15,000-20,000 per month.

If the onset of the pandemic was a nightmare for those in the gig economy, the ebbing of the first wave saw a spurt in e-commerce and q-commerce, ‘q’ standing for quick, with delivery time as less as 10 minutes in some cases.

Market demand has forced conventional retailers to take the plunge, too, whether they like it or not. Surinder Kumar, owner of a leading departmental store in Ludhiana, says survival is not possible without tying up with online sellers. “We must admit that people like to shop online — whether it is apparel or grocery. The footfall at all stores has considerably reduced,” he says, adding that out of compulsion, “we have to abide by the dictates of the delivery portals”. A major drawback is that an item sold for Rs 100 online brings the retailor only Rs 70-80, reducing the profit margin. Add to that, says Kumar, the fact that while payments are received on apps instantly, shopkeepers’ payments are delayed. The only upside is that the sales have gone up on the whole.

Rating, performance, incentive, deliveries… caught in the rigmarole, life is anything but easy for delivery persons. The daily struggle, the slow chipping away of their dignity so moved filmmaker Nandita Das that she turned it into a film, ‘Zwigato’, starring top comedian Kapil Sharma. “They cannot say or demand anything as they are in the service industry and the ratings make them vulnerable. I want to show a mirror to our own selves. How desensitised we have become to people around us,” says Das, who, during her research was also surprised to see how many of them are still hopeful amidst so much despair. ‘Zwigato’, which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is about Manas, who loses his job as a factory-floor manager during the pandemic and becomes a driver for a food-delivery app called Zwigato. With a familiar rectangular backpack, he zips around Bhubaneswar on his motorcycle, steering through another day of inconvenient obstacles and impatient customers.

Arun Kumar can identify with Manas. “I have been into this job for the last three years, but just once or twice have I been offered water without asking for it. Even in restaurants, we are looked down upon as uninvited guests. There are people who won’t share an elevator. Besides, in case of an accident, the delivery person is always held accountable,” says Arun, adding that they don’t have accidental insurance; nor are they entitled to any job benefits.

Consumer rights activist Rinki Sharma remembers being aghast once when she had ordered groceries from an app — the guy hadn’t reached but the status said ‘delivered’. “When he did come to my doorstep, I asked him why he had updated the erroneous status. And he told me there was so much pressure of on-time delivery. At the same time, he was worried if I had complained. I said I hadn’t — I had never wished for the groceries to reach me in 10 minutes. That’s insane!” she says. An active road safety advocate too, she says it is inhuman to ask somebody to rush through peak traffic and deliver goods in unreasonable time. “It is just a publicity gimmick and one should never fall for it,” she says, adding that a lot needs to be done to ensure safety of the army of youth taking up gig jobs.

Even as gig economy is hailed for formalising a part of the unorganised Indian economy, economist Prof RS Ghuman is not convinced. “Formalising economy means job security, social security and decent wages. None of this is happening in gig economy because all the jobs are sub-contracted,” he says. The only positive change, as per him, is that the manpower has a choice to engage in economic activities with flexible working hours. He adds that employment is being generated mainly in the service sector, which in itself is constrained by the development in other sectors.

The companies, however, insist they are making a start. A spokesperson from Flipkart — an e-commerce platform whose seasonal job creation over the festival season in the previous four years reached a milestone of 2.5 lakh jobs in 2022 — says they have dedicated programmes for the workers, such as supply chain employees, kirana delivery partners, and others. “During the peak Covid period, Flipkart rolled out a slew of initiatives dedicated to the wellbeing of employees, including its supply chain staff. Our kirana partners and freelance delivery executives were insured against any loss of income due to the disease. Kirana partners were covered under a medical and accident cover of up to Rs 5 lakh.” In the last Fairwork Ratings for Indian Gig Economy Platforms, Flipkart scored the highest, 7 out of 10, for “displaying greater concern for workers’ needs than others”. It was followed by Urban Company and BigBasket, with Ola, Porter and Uber scoring a zero.

Urban Company’s Chief Business Officer Mukund Kulashekaran says the organisation has a structured approach towards partner development and well-being centered around four key pillars: improved earnings, safety net, training and wealth creation. The company has a network of over 40,000 hand-picked professionals offering services in beauty, home repair, cleaning, etc. “An estimated 56 per cent of new employment in India is being generated by the gig economy companies. So, honestly, there’s no escaping it. However, important to note will be the quality of opportunities created wherein skilled workers will gain the most,” he says.

As the life of a gig worker intersects with ours on a daily basis, the onus, Rinki Sharma and Nandita Das say, falls upon the consumers.

“Small changes in our behaviour can be a big help to gig workers. For instance, we can help ensure that workers have easier access to amenities in our apartment complexes. Resident Welfare Associations often have discriminatory rules for use of lifts and bathrooms. We can intervene. We can take a minute to rate them which helps them get better incentives. It is hard work, so, at the very least, we can look at them, smile and be polite, acknowledging their existence. This in itself will make a difference in humanising our interactions with them. And this surely isn’t asking for much,” says Das.

— With inputs from Nitin Jain in Ludhiana, Avneet Kaur in Jalandhar and Abhinav Vashisht in Kullu

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