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REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
The gig is up.
NO STARS HERE

The ugly truth behind being a gig-economy worker in India

By Aria Thaker

The last decade has seen India’s technology startup industry have its moment in the sun, with ample funding from global investors and sky-rocketing valuations. However, there’s one group that’s getting the short end of the stick: The hundreds of thousands of gig economy workers who are contracted by these young companies—drivers, delivery personnel, and others.

Some of the best-known Indian startups also have some of the worst working conditions for these workers, according to a recent study. Ride-hailing unicorn Ola and its food-delivery subsidiary, Foodpanda, scored the least in the study by the Fairwork project, an initiative led by two Oxford University researchers.

Ola’s arch-rival, Uber, is also ranked at the same spot in India.

The ratings, released on March 25, included 12 Indian internet ventures and was done in collaboration with the International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru. The companies have been marked on a scale of 1 to 10 based on five core areas: pay, conditions, contracts, management, and representation. The researchers interviewed representatives of the companies, as well as workers.

E-commerce major Flipkart, now owned by US-based Walmart, topped the list.

Platform Score (out of 10)
Flipkart 7
Dunzo 5
Bigbasket 5
Zomato 4
Swiggy 4
UrbanClap 4
Housejoy 4
Rapido 3
Uber Eats 3
Uber 2
Ola 2
Foodpanda 2

The only criterion that Ola, Foodpanda, and Uber met was pay, which means they were found to have paid at least the local minimum wage, including employment costs incurred by the worker.

On the other hand, Flipkart was able to provide evidence that seven of the criteria were met. “One of the reasons why Flipkart scored higher than other platforms is they had a number of policies in place which we haven’t seen with other platforms,” Jamie Woodcock, a sociologist and one of the lead researchers of the project, told Quartz. “So for example, they have a programme around supporting differently-abled workers.”

But even Flipkart lacked some simple competencies. For one, it does not provide “clear terms and conditions,” meaning worker contracts are not available in a language and format they understand. Only one of the 12 companies included in the study, delivery-app Dunzo, met this condition.

None of the 12 companies included in the research received a point for having recognised, or being ready to recognise, a labour union among their workers. And only three Indian companies—Flipkart, Zomato, and Swiggy—received a point for providing a mechanism for workers to voice their concerns.

Global trends

Fairwork also recently conducted similar research in South Africa, where it found the platform ratings to be much higher.

Of the six platforms rated, only one scored below five. Even Uber scored substantially better in South Africa than in India, getting five points.

“It’s harder to evidence the awarding of points in India as it is in South Africa,” Woodcock said. “This could be an indicator that work is comparably less fair, but it could also be an indicator that many platforms are less prepared to provide evidence, and are less prepared to engage in this process.”

But the researchers are keen on conveying that the vagaries of the sharing economy affect workers from all over the world. “Whether you’re a delivery driver in Bengaluru, London, or Johannesburg, there is a common experience of risk, and often that translates into the potential for bad working conditions,” Woodcock said.

This risk often leads to harm for workers. “Particularly in Bengaluru, traffic is a high-risk factor. So if you work on a piece rate, and if you have to complete many jobs to make a living, that places additional risk on drivers,” Woodcock said. Research out of the University College London has shown that such pressures result in gig-economy workers being more at risk of traffic accidents.

Fairwork plans on repeating the rating process annually. They are also interested in expanding their coverage next year to other companies, which could give workers a chance to see how Flipkart’s high rating stacks up next to that of e-commerce behemoth Amazon, which is currently not on the list.

“What I hope for the second year is now that platforms have their scores, that we are able to cooperate with some platforms—talk about how their score can be improved in the future, and open up some of those conversations between workers, platforms, regulators, other bodies, to talk about what fair work means,” Woodcock said.