Platform workers need justice, not charity
Tipping delivery workers, offering them shelter during rough weather conditions, and other basic gestures of humanity, have all been mooted. While important in their own right, it is crucial to note that the problem is institutional, and requires an institutional solution
The narrative of the platform economy has been dominated by the platforms themselves. Whether it is Uber, Ola, Zomato, or Swiggy, we are told about how platforms are “disruptive”, how they offer flexible working conditions in what has largely become a gig-work economy, and how they make life easy and convenient for us, the consumers.
Over the last month, however, that narrative has changed, as platform and delivery workers have themselves taken to social media to speak directly about their experiences. Their testimonies pertaining to low pay, hazardous working conditions, and the neglect shown by platform companies, have been striking. And these have been supported by numerous detailed investigations into working standards in the gig-economy that have painted a grim picture of exploitation and precarity.
All this has led to a natural response among consumers — what can we do?
Tipping delivery workers, offering them shelter during rough weather conditions, and other basic gestures of humanity, have all been mooted. While important in their own right, it is crucial to note that the problem is not one that can be resolved by individual acts. Rather, the problem is institutional, and requires an institutional solution.
At the heart of the issue is a simple fact. Platforms deprive delivery workers of protection under labour law by classifying them as “independent contractors” or as “partners”. By engaging in the pretence that the relationship between a platform and a delivery worker is between two equally positioned professionals — such as, for example, a freelance designer and a client — platforms ensure that delivery workers cannot access any labour rights, whether it is the right to a minimum wage, the right to basic conditions of safety, the right to bonuses or overtime, or indeed, the right to collective action.
The actual relationship between platforms and delivery workers, however, is nothing like the pleasant fiction described above. Researchers of the platform economy have shown how the business model depends on having, at any time, a surplus pool of on-demand workers, which helps to drive down wages and ensure compliance. Thus, a “contract” between a platform and a delivery worker is more like a take-it-or-leave-it offer made by an employer who knows that the employee has little choice but to take what he or she is being offered.
Furthermore, the actual relationship between platforms and their workers belies the myth of the “independence” of the delivery worker. The testimonies of such workers have shown us how tightly platforms control the performance of tasks. Platforms set the wage, exercise disciplinary authority by retaining absolute power to “kick” workers off the app, are able to surveil how workers are performing the tasks, and put into place a “ratings system” which serves as a constant method of performance appraisal. None of this fits in with the vision of an equal relationship between two professionals. Instead, it is a classic example of hierarchy and control, albeit one that has moved off the factory floor and into the online world.
Labour legislation — first enacted at the end of the 19th century — came into existence on the basis of one fact. In a capitalist economy, relationships between employers and employees are deeply unequal, with the former’s control over capital enabling them to exercise far-reaching power and control over the conduct and even the life choices of the latter. Labour law was meant to redress this imbalance of power by, first, protecting the rights of workers to organise and collectively bargain for better working conditions; and second, by guaranteeing specific, substantive rights, such as the right to a minimum wage, limitations on working hours, to basic health and safety, against unfair dismissal, and so on.
By classifying their workers as “independent contractors” — and going to the extent of writing it into the contract that is then unilaterally imposed upon the worker — platforms attempt to exempt themselves from the basic obligations of labour law. Needless to say, legislatures and courts across the world have grown wise to this.
Every level of the judicial hierarchy in the United Kingdom — from the Employment Tribunal to the Supreme Court — rejected Uber’s arguments that its drivers were “independent contractors” without any labour rights. Courts in France, Spain, Italy, and across the rest of Europe, have come to similar conclusions, as have various courts in the United States. All these courts have held that the moment one goes beyond appearances, and looks at the actual relationship between platforms and their workers, the control and hierarchy that defines this relationship becomes unmistakable. Consequently, labour laws and labour rights must apply.
In India, unfortunately, the law remains murky, which is what enables platforms to engage in misclassification. The new labour code contains some thin social security guarantees for platform workers, but nothing beyond that. Parliament has not yet legislated to specifically protect the labour rights of platform workers, and the matter has not yet come before the courts.
It is, therefore, obvious that the situation of platform workers is a question of justice, not of charity. Needless to say, in our individual conduct, we should ensure dignified and humane treatment of delivery workers. Beyond that, however, the responsibility lies with the platforms to treat their workers as workers. And, failing that, it is for the law — either through Parliament or through the courts — to intervene.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based advocate
The views expressed are personal