Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Consumers should take the lead in helping struggling gig workers

At the heart of India’s gig economy is a paradox: gig platforms are worth billions of dollars and yet a large part of their workforce struggles to make a living wage. If this is the ‘future of work’, it looks alarmingly like the past—the Industrial Revolution of past centuries.

It is a situation that recalls the world of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times—the worker as a cog-in-the-wheel of machines that enriched a few. Today, instead of the factory clock, algorithms set the rhythm of work, summoning workers in response to invisible taps on “order now” buttons.

If you are a reader of the free-market bent, you may reasonably believe that wages will correct themselves as digital platforms compete for reluctant workers. Moreover, if things are so bad, at least some of the platforms would switch to competing on the basis of better work conditions. In practice, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The reason is that most services lose money on every order they complete. The industry is therefore focused on improving “unit economics’’ and its chosen path is to scale even faster. Much is at stake. Platform-based gigs are the primary form of work for 10% of workers in the US, but only about 1.5% in India. This is why investors were doubling down until recently by pouring in huge sums of money to encourage more online ordering, with even wilder bets like free ‘10 minute delivery’.

Alternatively, if you are a reader who believes that this industry can only be fixed with strict regulation, you should know that the challenges are many. Some common-sense new rules—mandatory insurance coverage, standard leave policies and protection of the individual’s right to work for multiple platforms at the same time—would help. But they cannot fix the fundamental economic reality of platforms, which is low or no profits. This is not a rich industry reluctant to share the spoils.

In our research for the film Zwigato, which I co-wrote with Nandita Das, we found that the average gig worker expects little from platforms or regulators. They have too many immediate concerns on their plate. Gyrations in petrol prices affect the monthly household budgets. Bad traffic can change how much they make every day. And every order is subject to the vagaries of how some black-box algorithm treats them. Despite that, there is optimism; many believe that a better job is around the corner. In fact, the chief source of despair is surprising; it is the layer upon layer of obstacles and insults they face from consumers. The resident welfare associations (RWAs) of housing societies that became all-powerful during the pandemic, for example, are too often incredibly discriminatory towards delivery workers. It is still common to see signs asking “delivery executives’’ to take different elevators, or sometimes even the staircase.

Today, in most major Indian cities, we can conjure almost anything we want with the press of a button. There is undoubted wizardry at work. Yet, we need to get past the age of technological wonder and consider what lies behind it all, hidden in plain sight. The hard truth is that ensuring reliably predictable on-demand services for us requires making the daily lives of millions of workers unpredictable. The personal choices we make can help gig workers earn more and qualitatively improve their day-to-day life. First, even small changes in ordering habits could offer delivery workers a big help—like pooling small orders, resisting (or at least not wantonly using) ‘10 minute’ delivery and rating them with compassion. Consumers can also ensure delivery workers have easier access to amenities in their own homes and apartments.

Consumer action will not merely be a ‘feel good’ change, nor just ameliorative, it can be the catalyst needed to make both platforms and regulators act.

There is a precedent of such large-scale consumer coordination. Fairwork certification in Europe is an example. It is a project that aims to set and measure decent work standards in the platform economy. Companies are rated on a scale of 1 to 10 based on five principles: fairness in pay, conditions, contracts, management and representation. The project echoes the highly successful Fairtrade International, formed in 1997 to help small farmers around the world get paid a fair price for their produce. At its peak, millions of farmers and thousands of companies, including the world’s biggest retailers, accepted the conditions needed to get Fair Trade Certification.

Chaplin made Modern Times in 1936, at the height of anxieties similar to the ones we see today: desperate workers getting squeezed by big business. The film struck a chord around the world and was a big box-office success. Chaplin’s hapless tramp caught in the machine still retains its punch. What is also worth remembering, however, is that the film’s dystopian fears did not quite come to pass. Working conditions improved dramatically in the decades after its release, especially in the West, and set standards of ‘middle class’ life in the rest of the world. While inequality is once again intolerably high and sophisticated automation is a new version of the assembly line that Chaplin spoofed in that movie, it is important to remember that the old world of factories did get reformed.

In the same way, it is not a given that gig work will always be miserable. But the climb is going to take long and the first strike for it will have to begin in our homes.

Samir Patil is the co-writer of ‘Zwigato’, a film about a delivery worker and his wife’s struggles and triumphs.

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