Amazon Workers’ Italy Strike: How Can India Protect Gig Workers?

The Amazon workers’ ‘strikes’ remind us that the path ahead for labour laws should be tempered by fairness.

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Opinion
4 min read
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“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

- Tom Goodwin, advertising & media guru

“May you live in interesting times.”

- Ancient Chinese Curse

Plight of the Average Amazon / Swiggy / Zomato Delivery Boy in India

On 16 March, the Pune Amazon delivery personnel decided that customers who ordered on the platform at enticing discounts wouldn’t be receiving their deliveries as the retailing giant had discounted their delivery charges from Rs 35 to Rs 14, and Rs 22 to 10 (for big packages and small packages respectively). We are talking about 15-20,000 Amazon delivery personnel in Pune alone! Many countries away, on 22 March, 8500 Amazon workers of Italy have threatened to go on nation-wide stir.

The ‘gig’ economy, whose contradictions Tom Goodwin so aptly illustrates in my opening quote, is finally facing a global pushback.

The term ‘gig economy’ describes an economic system where the labour market is characterised by the prevalence of ‘short term’ or ‘freelance’ contracts. Put simply, the Swiggy or the Zomato man who is delivering that mouth-watering dish that you just ordered, is in all probability, not an employee of the delivery portal.

  • He has no permanent employment.
  • He has no guaranteed minimum wage.
  • He has no terminal benefits like gratuity or leave encashment.
  • He has no protection against job loss.
  • The poor chap is paid per delivery with the tip amount that you agree to added in.

In a Gig Economy, Is the Worker Really His ‘Own Boss’ — the ‘Master of His Own Destiny’? No

As the traditional economy was reeling under spiralling labour costs and compliances, smart entrepreneurs came up with this revolutionary idea, bypassing the conventional ‘employer-employee’ relationship completely. The idea was sold as a win-win for industry as well as labour. While capital would no longer be hostage to the tantrums of labour, the labour would be freed from the confines of an employment.

He would be his own boss, the master of his own destiny.

He would choose the extent and degree of his engagement.

He could also moonlight a gig while working on a regular job or studying just to supplement his income.

Many Uber drivers the world over bought into this dream. Gave up regular jobs. Bought cars on loans. Became their own masters. It was only a matter of time before the chimeric nature of their dreams stood exposed.

Most gig workers realised that ‘freedom’ and ‘flexibility’ were simply excuses to avoid the welfare and regulatory tentacles of labour and employment laws and to simply cut costs.

As the glitter of predatory engagement terms faded, the warts inherent in a ‘gig’ arrangement — such as work hours, pay protection, minimum pay, protection against sexual harassment and discrimination at work, regulation of job loss and retirement pay-such as pension and gratuity — started showing.

Gig Workers’ Strikes For Fairness & Security

While the status of a ‘gig’ worker remained amorphous in India, in the developed West, unions of gig workers started taking the platforms to court.

The battle was to judicially inject the facets of traditional employment into the gig-engagement — a marriage of contrasts.

While in India, Uber was successful in getting injunction orders from civil courts against its workers going on ‘strike’, their compatriots in California were luckier. The Uber/Lyft Drivers managed to get the California Court of appeals to rule that the platform must classify the hailing cab drivers as their ‘employees’.

Across the pond, recently on 19 February 2021, in the United Kingdom, the Supreme Court brought a smile on the face of each of the country’s 40,000 Uber drivers, by upholding that they ought to be classified as ‘employees’ for the purpose of minimum pay and annual leave.

India’s New Labour Codes

India is in the process of making a major transition in her employment regulatory regime. All the existing labour laws, a we had quite a few, have been distilled into four Codes.

While the Codes have been passed into law by the Parliament, the bureaucracy is tongue-tied in framing the crucial rules.

One major criticism of the Codes has been that the statutory articulation, especially on welfare aspects, have been left vague, overly burdening the rule-making process to flesh out the details.

As we have seen with the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act enacted by the previous regime, this model does not work. This law remained simply on paper, and though enacted in 2008, several states did not even frame the rules to implement them until 2020.

Baby Steps Towards Protecting Gig Workers

The Code on Social Security for the first time recognises ‘gig’/ ‘platform’ workers. It provides that platforms have to register them and requires them to contribute from their revenue to fund schemes for their life/disability cover, accident insurance, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, crèche and ‘other benefits’ which are to be floated under the Code by the government. As Rules are yet to be framed, the jury remains out. Yet, this is a baby step, a welcome beginning.

While the gig economy has opened up enormous prospects for an economy such as India’s to finally secure a makeover of its labour-intensive and unorganised character, the Amazon workers’ ‘strikes’ remind us that the path ahead should be tempered by fairness.

(The author is an advocate practising in the High Court of Delhi and in the Supreme Court of India. He tweets @advsanjoy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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