Rahul Gandhi rides with a Blinkit delivery man in Bengaluru
Rajasthan's new law gives gig workers big lift
Civil Society News, New Delhi
A state law passed in Rajasthan recently holds out promise for gig workers by ensuring a public record of their jobs and having employers of their services contribute to a government-supervised fund for social security.
The gig economy has so far been under the spell of aggregators who have used online applications to a voodoo-like effect. Once they are in, workers have few choices and no real control over the terms on which they can earn. In such a trance-like state they spend long hours on the job jeopardizing their health and risking their lives to meet impossible deadlines.
Gig workers are visible in cities big and small, delivering just about everything from pizzas to parcels, driving taxis and now increasingly providing services of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, cleaners and even healthcare attendants. In the absence of enough organized sector employment, people sign up. Regular employers in turn have found it advantageous to outsource their manpower requirements and get people off their books.
The Rajasthan law for the first time seeks to put the brakes on the free and easy ways of aggregators who thrive on the sizeable commissions they earn by taking services to customers. At the heart of the control they exercise are technology platforms that decide charges, wages, hours of work and targets.
But it is technology itself that the Rajasthan law will be using to give gig workers social benefits. An IT platform will reflect the employment data of all aggregators. Every job done will be recorded. And a percentage of what gig workers are paid will flow into a social security fund to be used for insurance, pension and so on.
The world over, gig workers have tried to assert themselves by calling for regulation. But it hasn’t worked because aggregators, being companies with investors and having valuations, oppose any attempt to set their rates or reduce profit margins and give workers a better deal, saying that such steps interfere with their business models. They argue that they need to be free to run their enterprises.
Another option explored was to have an app just like aggregators have apps except that this would be run by the government or gig workers themselves. But that meant running a company or cooperative or whatever entity. It would be an impossible task. Moreover, such an app would have to compete with established aggregators who have cash to burn and would be able to undercut the gig workers.
The inspiration for the Rajasthan law, which creates a platform and has a tripartite board, really comes from Baba Adhav and the head loaders or hamals of Pune’s wholesale markets. Loaders would carry heavy sacks and ruin their health but have no social security to fall back on.
Baba Adhav (riding pillion) who brought in social security for the hamals or head loaders in Pune’s wholesale markets
Baba Adhav organized them into a union and institutionalized a small levy on every load which would go towards their social security. A tripartite board consisting of traders, the loaders and the government would govern the fund.
“This was so appropriate. The focus was on social security which no one could object to, not even the aggregators,” says Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) who was closely involved in the process.
Secondly, the hamal breakthrough was to form a board and have a levy on each sack, meaning on each piece rate work which would go to social security. This is exactly what the Rajasthan law does.
“We picked up on that idea in Rajasthan and that’s the Rajasthan breakthrough. And we made a demand not just for a law, but it was a law that had a solution in it, at least for social security,” says Dey. “And that was put in front of the chief minister and it was put in front of Rahul Gandhi and it was passed as a law.”
Gandhi himself had taken an interest in the lives of gig workers in Karnataka. He was seen jumping onto the bike of a delivery executive in Bengaluru amid talk in Karnataka to regulate gig employment.
In Rajasthan Gandhi was presented with a draft law while he walked through the state as a part of his Bharat Jodo Yatra. It went from him back to the Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, and was passed.
Nikhil Dey to the right of Rshul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra
In Rajasthan there are perhaps 300,000 gig workers and in terms of a constituency they don’t add up to much. But across India, the numbers are huge as people sign up in droves for work, often simultaneously with one or more aggregator companies — the Uber plus Ola kind of thing.
While the Rajasthan law is not necessarily a vote-catching stratagem, it is a good example of what politicians should do to improve social equity, promote fraternity and legally empower workers in complex workplace equations.
The true test of the law will be in its implementation. But it certainly has much going for it as it dribbles past challenges in regulating the gig economy. It is called the Rajasthan Platform Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act, making it clear that it is meant only for those who are registered on platforms of aggregators.
The gig economy goes much beyond its online manifestation. Construction and domestic workers, for instance. Or casual labour engaged in road construction. You could add to them security guards. But the law does not serve any of them because having a record of their identities is next to impossible. The rules on construction workers, for instance, have been imperfectly implemented. Vast numbers remain to be registered and therefore don’t benefit from the cess collected from builders for their social security.
The Rajasthan law nevertheless overcomes many hurdles. Right now it is a breakthrough. But chances are that it could become a model. With the use of IT, similar regulation could serve other forms of employment as well.
Among the achievements of the law are: