In times of crashing labour rights, the new Rajasthan Platform-Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act, 2023 (or RGW Act, as I will be referring to) comes up as a breath of fresh air. This first-of-its-kind ground-breaking piece of legislation aims to establish a welfare board and a dedicated social security fund for platform-based gig workers in the state. The bill is also highly applaudable because it is a result of the sheer perseverance of civil society pressure groups like MKSS, struggles of workers’ unions like IFAT (Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers) and rare political will demonstrated by the Rajasthan government, all of what has made this possible.
Rajasthan government under chief minister Ashok Gehlot has been in the news for pioneering a number of pro-people and rights-based legislations from introducing the Right to Health Bill in 2022, to Rajasthan Minimum Guaranteed Income Bill, 2023 (upholding the right to work) to this RGW Bill 2023, in addition to a promised allocation of Rs 200 crore to the Gig Workers Security and Welfare Fund, interventions that are likely to help the Congress Party in the upcoming Rajasthan Vidhan Sabha polls 2023 and setting an example for other states and the Union government.
Even the Congress government in Karnataka announced a seed fund of Rs 3,000 crore for comprehensive accidental and life insurance coverage under a “Gig Workers Welfare Board” for Karnataka after coming to power, as was promised in their recent election manifesto.
According to a recent Boston Consulting Group report, the gig economy has the potential to service up to 90 million jobs in India’s non-farm economy alone, transact over USD 250 bn in volume of work, and contribute an incremental 1.25% (approx.) to India’s GDP over the long term. India’s gig economy workforce is also one of the largest contributors to the global gig workforce. This clearly shows the exploding importance of platform/gig workers in the larger political economy of India and the world.
The gig economy acts like a net for millions of unemployed youth (and elderly) to join this low-cost, low investment labour market, in the hope of subsistence and “flexi-work” offered by platforms like Ola, Uber, Swiggy, Zomato, Urban Company, Porter, Dunzo, BlinkIt, Amazon Turks and so on.
These platforms call themselves “tech aggregators”/ “mediators”/ “facilitators” and not employers and misclassify these workers as “partners” or “mini-entrepreneurs” and not employees to evade all possible responsibility and accountability.
This is even though many factors like the mode of employment arrangements, payment arrangements, costs, fairs, incentives, penalties, and entry into and exit from this labour market are not wholly determined by the worker. The workers are often expected to obey and comply with rules and conditions often seen in formal job markets – such as wearing uniforms, carrying documents, and so on, and also adhering to the terms and targets set by these companies. However, the fruits of formal employment do not accrue to them, such as decent work, fixed working hours and social security benefits.
In fact, in cases of accidents or even violence at work as reported by some of these workers, instead of offering compensation or support, many of these companies have reportedly gone ahead and deleted the databases of the aggrieved workers.
It is in this context that the RGW Act 2023 is a historic one with offerings like registration of all gig workers (and issuing unique IDs to each), registration of aggregators and primary employers; proposed monetary cess (less than 2% and more than 1%) levied on each platform-based transaction/duty to be contributed to the social security fund for the workers; provision of social security benefits to these workers (including accident and health insurance, maternity, gratuity, pension, EPF, ESIC, scholarships in consonance with existing schemes as prescribed); grievance redressal mechanism for the workers, regular consultations with trade unions working with platform workers, provisions for heavy penalties (up to Rs 50 lakh) on non-complying aggregators and employers, among others. Moreover, the proposed welfare board is to comprise state officials, representatives of workers, aggregators and civil society, with at least one-third of the nominated members to be women.
Some of the issues being raised by unions around the Act are that no portion of the contributions to the fund should be deducted from the workers’ earnings as they are already heavily distressed. Secondly, the formation of the board and rules should be done before the model code of conduct so that elections and the results do not stall or delay the implementation process. Other issues such as the need for provisions on basic minimum earnings, capping of commission rates and deductions by companies, capping of maximum working hours, stopping illegal and arbitrary deactivation of workers’ IDs, data transparency, provisions for fuel and other inflation-adjusted fares and allowances in the RGW Act and Motor Vehicles Aggregator Rules 2023 etc. should be considered.
Finally, lessons of success and failure from other labour boards (Mathari Board, Construction Workers Welfare Board, Town Vending Committees under Street Vending Act 2014 etc.) established in the past should be seriously studied so that this new Act could be an exemplary blueprint for not just the entire gig-force of India, but also for over 50 crore workers of India, their social security, labour rights and human rights.
In the age of platform capitalism, with skewed and anti-worker algorithms operating as digital bosses, such a progressive law could possibly play a role in taming these bosses and paving the way to imagine open-sourced, worker-owned platforms and digital commons with fairer and humane labour practices.
Most importantly, such legislation, if implemented well, will be the first step in giving a dignified identity and recognition to a “gig worker” who can claim her/his rights from the state, can hold the platform accountable, will have a representation in decision-making, and is not merely reduced to an “Ola driver” or a “Swiggy delivery person”.
Akriti Bhatia is the Founder of PAIGAM (People’s Association in Grassroots Action and Movements), a media advocacy and action research platform. She has submitted her PhD at the Delhi School of Economics, Department of Sociology and specialises on urban, labour and election issues.