Labour pain

The gig workforce, once the toast of the town, seems to have gone for a toss

26-uber-driver Tough times: Most blue collar gig workers such as Ola and Uber drivers have returned to their villages | Salil Bera

When Gauri Shanker, a content writer, chose to be a freelancer, he was sure that he had the best of both worlds—the freedom to work on his own schedule and a steady income. But the current lockdown has upset his plans. On the second day of the lockdown, the agency that gave him projects told him that companies had stopped content sourcing for the next few months. Shanker is now clueless about how to meet his financial commitments; he is left hoping for the lockdown to end fast and things to get better. “No one is launching new campaigns,” he said.

Most gig workers—those who work on a contract rather than permanently—in India share Shanker’s misery. Blue collar gig workers such as Ola and Uber drivers have returned to their villages. “This situation will not change soon. It is better to be with our families than to struggle in the city,” said Ravi Kumar, an Ola driver in Bengaluru, who hails from a village near Vijayapura in north Karnataka. He does not have any plans to return to the city soon.

Broadly there are two sets of gig workers. The first set—professionals who provide services in software coding, content writing, creative design and photography—has been active in India for the past 15 years; its 1.5 crore-strong workforce accounts for about 25 per cent of the global skilled gig workforce. The second set are blue-collar workers on daily wages, mostly couriers, delivery staff for food aggregators and drivers with cab aggregators.

Gig workers are paid either based on their projects or hourly. Also, freelancers do not have an employment contract, which makes them the most vulnerable workforce. —Gaurav Vohra (in pic), co-founder and CEO, Jigsaw Academy

“The lockdown situation exposes those in the informal sector and those who have minimal formal skills the most,” said Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder of TeamLease. “While those with skills and those who commoditise their skills as service might still be able to do so remotely, that is not a possibility for the informal sector. Their ability to step out is where opportunities of making a livelihood starts and the lockdown completely takes away that opportunity. Hence, until and unless we see through the lockdown it is very difficult to predict the extent of impact they might face.”

The digital gig economy is valued at about $200 billion worldwide. India, which is the fifth largest flexi-staffing economy, created around eight lakh gig job openings between March 2018 and 2019 just in Bengaluru and the NCR region. This number was poised to grow in 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. “We estimate that more than 80 per cent of freelancers work from home. In the recent past, this group has seen exponential growth with revenues increasing by more than 30 per cent in 2019 vis-à-vis 2018,” said Rohit Kulkarni,regional manager of Payoneer, a digital platform.

In the case of blue-collar gig workers, the impact has been a mixed one. While more delivery persons are needed by the essentials and grocery e-tailers, other e-commerce sites have cut down their operation and cab-hailing services have completely stopped. There have been huge lay-offs in the aviation, tourism, travel and event management sectors. On the other hand, white-collar gig workers are yet to see the full impact of the lockdown, as many companies will reassess their business dynamics only after the lockdown.

“If the lockdown continues for longer, then the impact would be deeper. But if this gets over in 21 days the impact will be minimal,” said Vineet Arya, founder of Outsourced CMO and Co-Hire. “The chances are that companies will be very cautious in getting service from gig workers, especially in the HR and marketing field. The HR field may be hit due to freeze in new recruitment and the marketing field will see reduced spending.”

The crisis has brought to the fore the vulnerability of gig working. “Gig workers are paid either based on their projects or hourly. Also, freelancers do not have an employment contract, which makes them the most vulnerable workforce during a recession or lockdown. All these factors may contribute to a decline in the gig economy in the long run in India,” said Gaurav Vohra, co-founder and CEO of Jigsaw Academy.

The current crisis may prod the government to enact a legislation to provide a social security net for gig workers. “In India, people are part of the gig economy for the real need of a job,” said Mansij Majumder, HR head, Manipal Global Education Services. “As long as the number of people available is more than the number of jobs, this will go on. What we will witness is an increase in investment in personal development. The gig worker will be thinking of ways to increase his savings, have a cover for the difficult times and on retirement planning. This pandemic has changed the normal.”