‘Budget silent on gig economy players’

Published on Feb 02, 2022 01:14 AM IST
The 38-year-old Prabhakar dreamt of being a film director since his childhood growing up with a single mother and an older brother in an impoverished household in Madurai.
Former assistant film director and now food delivery agent R Prabhakar, 38, in Chennai. (E J Nandhakumar / HT Photo))
Former assistant film director and now food delivery agent R Prabhakar, 38, in Chennai. (E J Nandhakumar / HT Photo))
By, Chennai

R Prabhakar was an assistant director with celebrated Tamil film maker Gautham Menon and he worked his way up to pitch his first film’s script with gigantic Lyca Productions when a court case stopped him on his tracks, the pandemic didn’t let him have a comeback and like many people seeking survival he has turned to Swiggy as a food delivery person.

Prabhakar said he was disappointed that union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman was silent on gig economy players like him. “Every year, we have some expectation that something will be done for us but our disappointment continues. This is how my peers feel too. And none of us think we can continue in our jobs in the long run,” Prabhakar said.

The 38-year-old Prabhakar dreamt of being a film director since his childhood growing up with a single mother and an older brother in an impoverished household in Madurai. He lost his father when he was just 2.

He loves writing, in particular, script writing making him a voracious reader. A fan of Russian authors Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy whose works he reads in translated Tamil and Tamil writers D Jayakanthan and S Ramakrishnan, the aspiring filmmaker is now riding more than 150 km across Chennai everyday to make ends meet.

“The target is to earn 1,000 a day,” says Prabhakar. From that 200 is gone for daily petrol and another 150 for his three meals. “So, I’m running around and slogging it just to make 850 a day.” Prabhakar, who has a wife and 2-year-old daughter at home, moves around in his motorcycle which a cousin in Australia helped him buy. He works 12 hours a day and all days of the week.

“For the amount of work, we do and huge profits our companies enjoy, our pay has to be more reasonable,” Prabhakar told this correspondent on his expectations before the union budget was presented. “In the food delivery business, customers are the only priority. Workers like me require protection systems under labour laws too.” He echoes the needs of several gig workers like him who wanted to see the 2022-2023 union budget to implement social security cover and minimum wages.

While working in films, he started an import-export clothes business in 2018 for financial stability when a staff member misused his licence for illegal activities. Two days after he pitched his film to Lyca and he was meant to call the male lead for the film, he received a call from customs officials that a case had been registered which subsequently went to a tribunal court in Chennai and he received a relief a year and a half later.

“I was mentally disturbed by being cheated and dragged to court that I couldn’t be creative to get back to cinema. I didn’t know any other job so I joined Swiggy,” says Prabhakar. “I didn’t think I would come to Chennai to deliver food.”

He has begun re-working his script-a love action film. His experience as a food delivery agency exposed him to so many different people, he says which is adding richness to his script writing.

Last year, on behalf of gig workers, the Hyderabad-based Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers filed a PIL in the Supreme Court for the union government to provide protection for these workers under the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008. Last December, the court had issued a notice to the union government and food delivery and taxi aggregator platforms such as Swiggy, Zomato, Ola, Uber on whether the gig workforce in India could be included in the unorganised labour category so that they benefit from social security benefits including insurance, provident fund, gratuity, and maternity benefits.

Sitharaman while presenting the last fiscal year’s budget had said that the government has proposed setting up a portal to collect information on gig-workers and other workers in the unorganised sector. HT on December 15, 2021 reported that the Union government was working on a range of social security and welfare schemes for the informal sector, particularly migrants and gig workers, covering basics such as food security, affordable accommodation, and medical benefits, higher order needs including skill upgradation, financial inclusion, and access to institutional credit, including cash transfers to registered beneficiaries.

Prabhakar says his company has recently introduced health insurance and an accident policy which he is yet to go through. “The problem is most people like me who are working in food delivery don’t see this as a long-term job,” says Prabhakar. “No one aims to be a food delivery guy. We are just doing it for survival and we hope it’s temporary. The companies know this too so neither the company nor the workers are consistently serious about our working conditions.” The Covid-19 pandemic related job losses led to a rise in the gig economy across the country.

For Prabhakar, however, the financial strain was not a deep dive as he was still struggling in the periods in between films when there was not filming. He moved from his native in Madurai to Chennai in 2010 to enter cinema and worked in a call centre until he got a break with Menon in 2013.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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