The gig economy is here to stay. With an estimated 15 Million gig workers in India, it is high time the government started to nudge gig economy firms to extend some sort of “protection” in the form of health insurance and social security (provident fund etc) as well as push gig economy firms to fix basic wages in line with global standards. With low pay, more deductions in the name of commissions, and an absolute lack of any “insurance” (literally as well as figuratively) for the gig workers, they are getting a “raw deal” and this is something that the Central, as well as State governments, have to act upon and legislate minimum wages and other such protections that formal economy workers are covered under.
Globally, there is increasing recognition of “gig work” as standard work and gig workers are treated just like formal economy workers. Of course, these recognitions have not come by automatically and it was only through sustained action, including Class Action Lawsuits in the United States that resulted in gig workers being deemed to be worthy of protections that are normally accorded to formal and informal economy workers. The usage of both formal and informal economy firms is deliberate as in India, with the present laws, the least that the government can do is to at least ensure that gig workers are treated as informal economy workers with rudimentary protections.
There are any number of reasons why gig workers need to be extended benefits much like their counterparts in full-time occupations. For one, the informal and the gig economy are where the jobs are and are also being created in record numbers and so, any attempt to address India’s gargantuan jobs crisis should start with encouraging more gig work and informal economy work. Such hiring and job creation in these segments would happen only where the gig workers are incentivized to take up gig work and more importantly, stay and stick to such work. Basic pay and regulated minimum wages, as well as mandated wages for the different types of gigs combined with decent working conditions and legally, provided days off and leaves would go a long way in ensuring a productive and engaged gig worker participation in the gig economy.
Second, the pandemic has proved that gig workers are essential and moreover, critical service providers in times when entire nations were locked down and access to even basic necessities was only through such gig workers. So, it goes without saying that the gig workers need some sort of monetary and nonmonetary recognition and a big thanks from all of us. Third, the gig workers in India are the unsung heroes who are solving the chronic last-mile connectivity problem, long a bane of the Indian consumer. With door to door and doorstep services, India’s gig workers are revolutionizing the consumer landscape and saving Billions of hours of personal time for Indian households, which now can be used for higher value-adding work.
Talking about adding value, gig workers are not only the delivery partners and the logistics partners but also the armies of social media influencers and freelancers who take up gigs pertaining to everything and anything under the sun. Speaking from personal experience, as a freelancer, I do feel sometimes that we are “drinking the Kool-Aid of aspiration” as the gates to the promised land of higher rates and lack of benefits such as health coverage and provident fund mean that freelancers are nothing more than glorified day wagers. This is where the government has to step in as freelancers and gig workers toil day and night without many returns and more importantly, nothing much to show for as they “age out” and touch retirement age.
On the other hand, the Millennial/Gen Zer generations have somehow mastered the art of monetizing social media and extracting good returns from gig work. One can see many influencers on LinkedIn and YouTubers raking in the Millions and ensuring that they stay ahead of the curve. However, despite all this, the “moment of truth” for many in the present TikTok generation is coming soon as the winnowing of the winners and the also-rans happens once industries and occupations mature. The term maturation of the gig economy is the key as gig workers are no longer wannabes “trying something different”, but, are serious and committed individuals wanting to earn just like their full-time counterparts.
As we transition to the Digital Age, the gig economy and the gig workers would predominate the overall economy as the “smokestack era” gives way to the digital age and all aspects of our lives built around the 9 to 5 workday model are altered to one where 24/7 and real-time availability are the norms. This transition would not be without its own disruptions and this is where the gig economy and the gig workers would be the pioneers of the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term coined by Klaus Schwab, who is the organizer of the World Economic Forum, at Davos. Perhaps, a day would come when gig workers would be seen as the harbingers of the future.
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