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Experts Call for Legal Framework Before Social Security for App-Based Workers

The workers have remained in a regulatory grey zone for far too long; it is a matter of worry now as the gig economy is being embraced as the future of work.
app based

The new labour code, which seeks to extend social security to workers both in organised and unorganised setups, are by experts seen as affecting app-based workers in two ways: allowing for incremental changes at best, or a policy design that “lacks imagination”, at worst.

It is what tech experts and representatives of workers’ bodies have to say about The Code on Social Security, 2020. Rules are currently being shaped for the new code, which, along with other two codes, saw their passage in the recently-concluded Parliament session. The Centre is reportedly aiming to complete the process before April next year.

Even though the social security code, in a first, qualifies an app-based worker to be eligible for benefits such as life and disability cover, old-age protection among others, experts and leaders argue that it falls short in addressing concerning demands.

The industry’s workers have remained in a regulatory grey zone for far too long; it is a matter of worry now as the shared economy, also referred to as the ‘gig economy, is being embraced as future of ‘work’ and decidedly so in the wake of a pandemic-induced disruption.

“Under the social security code, an app-based worker is eligible for benefits. However, that does not necessarily guarantee those benefits to them,” said Shaik Salauddin, the National General Secretary of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT). “Even now, many companies have social security schemes of their own, but they fail to alleviate the many hardships of app-based workers, when needed,” he added.

This was the case during the immediate period following a nationwide lockdown. With businesses of technology-enabled platforms taking a hit, the income of workers associated with them took an astronomical dip. The situation has glaringly resulted in less support from tech firms.

A survey of app-based drivers conducted in the months leading up to March this year – when the lockdown was imposed – revealed that 95.3% of the 2,000 respondents from six major cities across the country, claimed to have no form of insurance, accidental, health or any other. The fine print in another survey of food delivery partners did not paint a better picture.

Salauddin rued that this was mostly due to the lack of a legal framework for the shared economy in the country. “There is no grievance mechanism here for the app-based workers. Whom should they approach when they are denied social benefits – forget about even complaining against the unjustified cuts in payments,” he said.

Not much of this will get change under the new code, he said. “All we will be left with is to protest and engage in a collective struggle against the app companies for our rights – as is the case right now,” he said. He however, welcomed that the code recognised app-based employment, calling it “progress”.

In India, jobs in the gig economy are usually in aggregator firms including Ola, Uber, Zomato, Swiggy, and Urban Company, among others. The social security code defines its worker as “a person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationship.”

The industry did witness protests in the wake of COVID-19. Drivers reportedly took to the streets against the high commissions being charged. Food delivery workers, especially those with Swiggy, organised a strike against pay cuts.

Amid all this, a unionisation of these workers was first witnessed, with new bodies, such as the Delhi NCR-based All India Gig Workers Union (AIGWU) springing up, attracting support from the Central Trade Unions.

Aditi Surie, a researcher with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru, is of the opinion that such demonstrations will not end anytime soon. “In fact, the labour codes, by at least recognising this ‘form of work’, will only enable a more organised struggle of the platform workers in the future,” she told NewsClick.

Asked about how the codes address the challenges posed by the new labour arrangements under the shared economy, Surie, whose work is focused on technology and the informal economy, believes that “there’s a certain lack of imagination.”

“Earlier, the labour regulations were framed keeping a ‘factory worker’ in the mind – whose social security was needed to be ensured and who must be protected against certain occupational hazards associated with the manufacturing industries. That framework fails to reflect the need of the majority of the labour force here in our country,” Surie said, referring to the service-oriented economic growth recorded in India.

In a break from the tradition, “the codes do recognise this,” Surie said. For instance, The Code on Wages, 2019, uses ‘wages’ as the primary definition in defining who an ‘employee’ is. “However, there’s a scope for incremental changes in this direction,” she added.

Meanwhile, a report on Thursday confirmed that gig workers will also be required to make contributions for availing benefits under the new social security framework.

In an interview to The Business Standard, Labour and Employment secretary Apurva Chandra said that the government is also mulling over setting a minimum period of enrolment for workers to avail of insurance benefits.

With precarious gig jobs fetching less income anyway, and resultantly being looked down upon as a stop-gap solution for the urban youth in the face of rising unemployment, the reaction of workers remains to be seen.

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