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How gig workers in India are fighting back against low pay and precarious employment

Ola and Uber drivers protesting against Delhi Transport Minister Satendra Jain in New Delhi, India, February 2017. Photo: IMAGO/Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times

Capitalizing on massive supplies of human resources, labour-intensive industries have been the mainstay of economic growth in South Asian economies in recent decades. In the wake of liberalization, the Global South has very quickly become the main provider of outsourced, labour-intensive jobs for the industrially developed nations. This incorporation into the global value chain, which Joonkoo Lee defines as a “network of labor and production processes whose end result is a finished commodity”, has intensified power imbalances throughout South Asia which had already been present as a legacy of colonialism.

Dipsita Dhar is a student activist and the All India Joint Secretary of the Students’ Federation of India. She is currently pursuing her PhD at the Centre for Studies of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Part of this article was first presented at the forty-first International Labour Process Conference at the University of Padua, Italy.

In what is known as the new international division of labour, the advanced countries are increasingly focused on research and development of novel technologies, whereas the developing world is increasingly used as a source of cheap, low-skilled labour. The existence of a pool of low-wage workers that could act as a reserve army of labour and a lack of strict labour laws made it easier to get people in the region to work for very low wages.

The outsourcing, sub-contracting, and overall informalization of employment in South Asia has been a gradual development, driven by globalization and the liberalization of trade. The ever-expanding platform economy, also known as the “gig economy”, is now deliberately targeting this unorganized and informal sphere of labour to advance its business model.

It will be interesting to see how Indian workers with limited resources and bargaining power negotiate with corporate bosses, who cleverly refuse to recognize them as their employees in the first place. What roles will the traditional trade union play in organizing these workers? Or do the grassroots gig workers’ unions actually offer an alternative that breaks the rigidity of the old forms?

Defining Gig Work

In essence, gig work refers to temporary work in which the wage is paid after the completion of particular tasks. Unlike the time-based wage where a worker is paid on the basis of the number of hours worked, here, the piece wage is paid according to the number of units produced.

In the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, gig work became a major source of income in Europe and America. Workers were forced to take multiple non-permanent, low-paid jobs to compensate for job losses and falling wages. Although this informal, temporary form of work was nothing new, what made it distinct was the use of automation in organizing the production process, the move away from rigid spatiality, the inclusion of remote forms of work, and the use of technology as a platform that connects producers and consumers, job seekers and job providers.

Uber, a taxi company that uses an app to connect drivers and passengers, was among the first successful ventures organized in this way. Uber was founded in March 2009. As of now, they hold 32.7 percent of the global ridesharing business. This successful business model, referred to as “mobility as a service”, has inspired similar companies across the globe, like Bolt in the UK, Ola in India, Cabify in Spain, and Lyft in the US, among others.

Similarly, apps allowing users to order food online have been popular for quite some time. Pizza chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s began their own food delivery systems as early as 1994, which allowed customers to order food over the phone and later on a website. The first online food delivery service,, was founded in 1994 by WorldWideWaiter, where one can order food from 60 different restaurants registered on their site.

With sweeping technological advancements and the increased popularity of smartphones, different food delivery apps started surfacing which do not deliver food from a particular restaurant, but rather use the Business-to-Business-to-Consumer (B2B2C) model to serve as a bridge between multiple restaurants and their potential customers. Grubhub, established in 2004 in Chicago, was the first enterprise of its kind, although its success inspired similar apps such as Zoamato, Swiggy in India, Food Panda in Germany, and Deliveroo in the UK.

Platform businesses that provide products and services pertaining to beauty, wellness, and domestic life are also very popular. The pioneers on this front were PRIV and Soothe, both founded in 2013 in the US, followed by Urban Clap in India, later renamed Urban Company, in 2014.

Gig Work in India

According to a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India, the size of India’s gig sector is expected to increase to 455 billion US dollars by 2024. As per a report by the Boston Consulting Group, the gig economy has the potential to create up to 90 million jobs among India’s non-farming workforce (roughly 30 percent of the total workforce), add up to 1.25 percent to India’s GDP, and create millions of new jobs across all sectors of India’s economy. Corporate gurus in India seem to welcome the growth of the platform economy in India.

Fortune India writes:

Start-ups, including some of the celebrated unicorns like Ola, Uber, Zomato and Swiggy, hire contractual freelancers in both skilled and unskilled jobs to reduce cost. Start-ups are also one of the largest suppliers of gig workers operating in over 100 cities. Such is the growth and demand for gig workers that Google launched its app, Kormo Jobs, in 2020 to supply to other firms in India. The edTech sector is already riding the gig revolution and employs more than 90,000 people. Companies are increasingly looking for gig workers in HR operations, customer support, marketing and sales, software development, IT support etc. With the growth of Amazon, Flipkart, Uber, Ola, Zomato, Swiggy, Urban Company, Big Basket, Grofers and many others in retail, technology, food and beverages, home services etc. India has emerged as one of the largest employers of gig workers in the world.

The platform economy operates according to the “lean” business model, which is solely based on reducing capital input. Companies attempt to cut capital-intensive costs such as labour as much as possible to ensure the highest possible profit margin. These platforms avoid increasing costs for price-sensitive consumers, who are always at risk of switching to rival platforms.

In India, where the supply of labour is abundant, platforms choose to reduce losses by cutting workers’ pay. These platforms minimize risk by involving themselves exclusively in the trading process itself, not in the production of the commodity or services they sell to customers.

For instance, neither of the two leading food delivery chains in India, Swiggy and Zomato, owns a restaurant themselves, and neither is considered to be the employer of the delivery workers, yet they receive a percentage of the amount paid by the consumer with each order delivered. In this way, they shirk responsibility for any hazards that take place on the restaurant’s end or on that of the delivery person.

The trick used by these businesses is to maximize their user base and create a network effect through predatory pricing and referral bonuses. By keeping initial prices very low, they attract customers and eliminate competition at the same time, almost creating a monopoly. A cursory glance at India’s app-based taxi market reveals that there are hardly any significant players left aside from Ola and Uber. By providing bonus points for drivers joining with references from someone already working with Ola or Uber, these companies drew from already existing kin and peer networks to hire a large pool of drivers, creating a snowball effect. Having more users implies more data, and more data creates smarter algorithms that ultimately optimize their operating costs.

The lack of alternative job opportunities in urban settings also pushed more and more workers to opt for gig work, which initially came with hefty rewards and comparatively better returns. The promised flexible work hours attracted a large number of women and young people who could not commit to full-time employment. Platform-based work also became popular due its low barriers to entry, since people could register themselves as a “partner” with just a tap in the app, even without any specific skill set or formal education.

India’s market was ideal for this experiment, as India’s demographic dividend created a huge proportion of people in the workforce. The reserve pool of labour always drives down minimum wages and has a detrimental effect on the working environment. At the same time, India’s fast rate of urbanization created an urban middle class who were ready to spend money on services. The reduction of family size, gender-selective migration, and the overall change in domestic situations replaced female labour either with paid domestic help or online services. Occupational segregation in India had already generated a kinship network that workers followed, and these pre-existing contact points made recruitment simpler and faster. As a result, gig work became very popular as a part-time and even full-time job option in India.

The Legal Situation

The Indian government launched the e-Shram portal in August 2021, a first step towards the creation of a national database of unorganized workers. As of 14 December 2021, a total of 727,921 individuals were registered as gig workers on the portal.

However, setting up the e-Shram portal was only one part of giving gig workers substantial access to social security measures. Since the gig platforms refuse to recognize the partners as workers, any legislation that does not consider such companies to be employers would be futile. Additionally, the social security code falls short when it comes to ensuring the overall welfare of workers. Currently, the code does not provide any social security to workers, but states that the national or state government can formulate benefits schemes pertaining to healthcare and maternity, life and disability coverage, pensions, and education allowance.

A report by the Institute of Public Policy (IPP) suggests:

The denial of employment relationship and projection of independent partnership helps platforms evade coverage of the Code on Wages, 2019, which guarantees minimum wages, overtime pay, equal remuneration and nondiscriminatory treatment of workers, payment of bonus and standardized regulations for how wages should be disbursed and what deductions may be made from the earnings of all wage workers including contract workers (in the formal and informal economy). The non-application of the Equal Remuneration law creates the possibility of men and women being engaged in a discriminatory manner. Evidence already indicates that women in the platform economy earn less than men. Constantly changing incentive structures and dynamic pricing add to the precarity of platform labour. The workers are denied protection under the Employees‟ Compensation Act, 1923, which guarantees workers compensation and medical costs in case they incur injuries, illness, disablement or death in connection with their work. The legislation is very relevant, given that most forms of platform work, particularly delivery work, exposes workers to the risk of injuries, illness, disability and death. Women workers are denied benefits and protection under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. Workers in platform-mediated work are also denied gratuity benefits under the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972. The importance of gratuity benefits can be gleaned from the fact that the Code on Social Security Bill, 2019 presented in the Parliament seeks to extend it to fixed term contract workers upon the termination of their working relationship even if such termination occurs before the completion of 5 years of continuous service. Independent contractors are denied this form of social security under Indian law. As a result of the denial of employment relationships, digital platform workers are denied use of the formal machinery of dispute resolution for individual and collective grievances guaranteed under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.

The Precarity of Gig Work in India

According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), the unemployment rate in urban India stood at 9.4 percent between January and March 2021, and 22.9 percent among youth. Gig work presented an easy option for many of these unemployed youth.

Considering the fact that many of them are familiar with technology, the increased costs of education and livelihood can partly be said to have pushed them to be part of such an industry. It is also important to understand that the mere use of technology creates a sense of entitlement, as exemplified by an Ola driver in Mumbai who perceived himself to be in socially superior to one driving a taxi. For many, taking up platform jobs was morally less challenging than doing the same job independently, due to its perceived higher social status.[1]

Initially, all these factors created an incentive for people to take up gig work, but very soon thereafter the low pay, incentive-based pay-out structures, high commissions, and arbitrary surveillance systems that gauge work quality forced the gig workers to spend longer hours working under hazardous conditions or searching for work. Moreover, their status as “independent contractors” forces them to bear several other costs associated with purchasing fixed assets and fuel, while at the same time having no legal claims to social security benefits.

The situation became worse during the pandemic-induced lockdown, as many gig workers either had to forgo any job whatsoever or expose themselves to vulnerable situations in which the companies or the government shirked their share of the responsibility. Delivery workers and drivers worked on the frontline by ensuring the transportation of essential commodities and emergency deliveries, but instead of being rewarded, most of the platforms increased the percentage of commissions taken from the workers, leaving them with almost nothing to sustain themselves with.

A worker with Urban Company told me: “Early on, they took 20-percent commission from us, but during coronavirus when there are fewer jobs on offer, they hiked the commission to 30 percent. This means there are days when even after working 12 hours a day, we won’t even make 1,000 rupees. In addition to this there was harassment by the police, and the company didn’t help us out.”

Similar discontent could be heard among the delivery partners: the reduction in pay per order, starting wages, and longer wait times between orders made their working hours longer and the money the workers earned was less and less. “Earlier we were tasked with serving a certain area, but during coronavirus they increased the size of the area without any increase in our pay. How can I afford the extra fuel? Due to the lockdown my father lost his job, several people in my family back home were infected with COVID-19. Where should we ask for help? The company? The government? No one cared for us.”

Ola and Uber drivers complained that they were left to pay for everything required to abide by coronavirus protocol, like sanitizer or PPE kits. Although the company was charging the customers for protective kits, the drivers had to purchase these with their own money. “What is this if not a scam? Even during a pandemic, the company’s sole concern is to earn money. They don’t understand anything else but money”, said Ismail, a 23-year-old driver from Hyderabad.

The pandemic actually exposed the platform corporates for what they really are, and revealed their claims of partnering with the workers to be an absolute sham. The apathy of the government, lack of social security measures, and non-existent mechanisms of the welfare state made the situation more precarious for gig workers in India.

Resistance in a Changed Situation

According to Davide Però, the labour movement has struggled with transformations in the production process that structurally promote more outsourcing, fragmentation, decentralization, tertiarization, and financialization. By not making any effort to accommodate marginalized workers, the large traditional unions have lost their ability to retain members and protect their deteriorating conditions. These problems require solutions, that is to say, a new kind of union.

Contrary to this claim, the Indian trade unions seem to have found a meaningful way of confronting the challenges that accompany digitalized work process. Since 2013, there have been a few small-scale and extremely localized instances of outrage that took place across the big metropolitan cities in India in different gig sectors, but none of them can be considered to have been a full-scale agitation.

Ola and Uber drivers, have gone on strike in Hyderabad (2017), Bengaluru, Delhi, and Mumbai (October 2018), and Kolkata (July 2019) to protest against the lack of safety measures, inconsistency of earnings, and diminishing returns they received — all of which in turn threatened their ability to pay off the loans acquired to buy cars necessary to work for these platforms in the first place. Food delivery workers attended public protests to air their grievances concerning harassment by platforms, the misleading advertisements used to recruit workers, diminishing pay, and the unilateral and overnight changes in payment and incentive terms that were made without consulting the workers. Protests of this sort took place in Chennai (August 2020), Musheerabad and Kochi (June 2019), and in Mumbai and Bengaluru (September 2019).

The first organized union in the transportation sector was the Ola Uber Drivers’ and Owners’ Association (OUDOA), which emerged in 2016 in Bangalore, Karnataka. Its leader, Tanveer Pasha, is sympathetic to the Janta Dal Secular, a regional party formed by former Prime Minister H. D. Dev Gowda. In 2017 the Sarvodaya Drivers’ Association of Delhi was formed. While president Amarjeet Gill is not affiliated with any political party, he is known for being extremely critical of the current political regime.

In 2019, the two most important unions for app-based taxi drivers were formed: the App Cab Drivers’ Union Kolkata was formed on 9 January, and the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT) formed in September of the same year. The ACDU is affiliated with the Centre for Trade Unions (CITU), whereas the IFAT is registered with the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

The United Food Delivery Partners’ Union (UFDPU), which is closely associated with the Socialist Unity Centre of India, came into existence in Bangalore in 2019. The All India Gig Workers’ Union (AIGWU), affiliated with Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), was founded in August 2020, seeking to bring together all the small trade unions working in different sectors together under one roof. This is the first time a traditional union has attempted to streamline the gig unions based on the similarity of their demands, while continuing to endorse and support their independent interventions. The App Based Delivery and Temporary Workers’ Union was formed at a recent gig workers convention in Kolkata on 26 March 2022.

A Way Forward?

India saw multiple protests and actions by gig workers, some of which were spontaneous and internally coordinated, while others took it a step further and were able to form a union. However, we have yet to see a union that is truly able to organize actions and at the same time create a larger political dialogue beyond raising particular issues. Nonetheless, a few have set some hopeful examples.

The workers’ movement, led by various left-wing parties, has a long history in the city of Kolkata. It has also been popular in metropolitan areas where labour unions were abundant and enjoyed government patronage under elected left-wing officials. The first registered app-based taxi union came into being with the help of the ruling party, Trinamool Congress. Their West Bengal Online Cab Operators’ Guild, presided over by former transport minister Madan Mitra, came into existence as early as 2015.

It is rare for state representatives to be directly involved in the trade unions, and one might have hoped that having the support of left-wing officials would help intensify the labour struggles. But nothing of that sort was observed. With the exception of gaining some members here and there, the union did little to organize drivers on the ground. There was little organized political activity in Kolkata during the initial years under the left-wing government, but the situation changed rapidly after the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that businesses were entirely shut down, the increased pressure of loan repayment, and the restricted transportation made it quite difficult the drivers.

It was precisely at this point that the Ola Uber App Cab Drivers Union came into the picture. Established in 2019, they began by organizing drivers against the illegal fines issued by the police, and later helped them organize for an increase in commission from the companies, accident coverage, and more. The first notable spontaneous protest took place on 28 January 2019 in front of the Uber office, where the workers locked the main gate and formed a picket line demanding a fair share and that certain blocked driver accounts be reinstated. On 13 September they led a march to the Labour Commissioner’s office demanding an ease in commercial licensing, among other things.

The camaraderie amongst the workers was solidified during the first wave of coronavirus, when the union took responsibility for its members and started providing ration kits amidst the complete lockdown. Later on, the union negotiated with the Police Administration and successfully had passes issued to its members for emergency transportation. This major breakthrough encouraged many more drivers to associate with the union, and soon more than 2,000 drivers were registered with them.

During the second wave of COVID-19, the CITU union also started a taxi ambulance service, which garnered broad support. Different government and non-government organizations awarded the female union members who drove the ambulances for their service as frontline workers.

We must take a very nuanced view on how the pandemic was used as an opportunity to unionize the workers, since the success in this regard must be attributed to the ability to understand not only the vulnerability of the workers, but also the unions’ ability to act at the right time. According to Indrajit Ghosh, president of the App Cab union, their success was based on them having plenty of experience organizing and on the formation of networks between unions. “It is not easy for a driver to rebel against a company until he or she realizes that there are others in a similar situation as them. We initially gave them confidence by explaining that we were an organization of lakhs of workers, and that if they took up some issue, we would stand by them.”

He added that during the pandemic, app-based taxi unions worked together with the nurses’ union, and that both parties benefited from the coordinated action. The existing legal team helped in drafting memoranda and litigation to both the company and the government. “We didn’t want this to be a bilateral conversation, with the current legal juncture there are some limitations that the union has, and until or unless the state is being held responsible and forced to regulate the companies, nothing substantial change will occur”, he emphasized.

On 15 March 2021, Kolkata witnessed a massive strike by the Ola and Uber taxi drivers against the increase in fuel prices and demanded more commission from the company. On 22 October 2021, the drivers marched to the police headquarters to protest the police harassment of drivers. Following this, on 6 March 2022, a Joint Forum of Cab Operators (JFCO) was formed to negotiate with the state government and the respective companies. The first meeting had representatives from Ola, Uber, Rapido, the police, and union leaders.

Organizational Strategy

These efforts to renew union activity draw on experiences in organizing and representing various types of non-standard workers to bolster outreach to gig and platform workers specifically. The tools vary and often overlap with strategies used in other types of organizing. Furthermore, unions’ work in the gig economy is largely dependent on the political climate in which they operate.

Kelly Ross, Deputy Policy Director of the AFL-CIO, identifies three major trends in union-spearheaded, gig and platform worker organizing: “The first approach is a legal strategy to address worker misclassification claims; the second approach has been the development of associations and alliances which provide services to gig workers and lobby on their behalf; and the third has been a push for legal and regulatory reform at municipal and state levels in order to promote organizing and bargaining rights for gig workers.”

If we take the Indian case into consideration, we will see that both traditional and grassroots unions have pursued legal routes to determine their rights within the given legislation. But as concerns the development of broader solidarities both with the political parties and other like-minded unions, there is still a lot of work to do.

The left-wing parties outspoken about workers’ issues have become marginal actors in Indian national politics, which means that their impact inside the law-making institutions remains negligible even if they seem to be interested in organizing gig workers. The bigger political parties like BJP and Congress have favoured the capitalist class from the beginning, and contribute nothing meaningful aside from mere lip service. Nevertheless, the efforts undertaken by the unions to organize and advance a political battle might create more opportunities for building a stronger workers’ alliance.

Against Exploitation and Alienation

Alienation is an intrinsic part of labour under capitalism, and it reaches its height under gig work. While the psychological aspects of alienation and its detrimental effects on organizing are indeed very real, what is more profound is the extremely political nature of this alienation.

We have already seen how technology becomes a source of surveillance, control, and most importantly of the extraction of surplus value in the hands of the capitalists. The possibilities for creating alternative models through workers’ cooperative control over the technology must ultimately triumph over the obstacles created by the current conjuncture. Alienation often prevents gig workers from organizing to disrupt the asymmetrical division of power between capitalists and workers. Moreover, by arbitrarily collecting and controlling data, digital platforms allow capitalists to increase control, surveillance, and the extraction of surplus value from workers.

Capitalism’s influence is not limited to the production process — it also uses technology to mystify the social antagonisms and extend its regime of surveillance and control over the entire society. This mystification in concrete terms is, in the words of Mario Tronti, between “the force that creates value and value itself” and “surplus-value and the value of labour-power itself”. The greater the intensity of this mystification, the more it obscures the alienation (both that of workers from the production process as well as from each other).

Indeed, it is more difficult to pinpoint alienation empirically within the gig economy than the alienation in a manufacturing unit, yet this alienation nonetheless still shapes the basic framework in which workers operate. This framework shapes and gets shaped by both the passivity of the workers as well as their resistance. The collective struggle of Uber drivers in the United States that led them to achieve gains with respect to their agency on the Uber app, or the sustained struggle in the United Kingdom that resulted in a legal victory, are both ultimately an outcome of a sustained engagement with the framework outlined above.

In a nutshell, three things must be emphasized as the efforts of organizing the gig workers in India proceed.

Firstly, protests by gig workers might erupt spontaneously from time to time. Such struggles are an obvious outcome of the exploitation these workers endure, and even though they are merely the first experiences of collective struggle, they are merely skirmishes from the point of view of strategy.

Secondly, if the organizational efforts are to advance from the preliminary level of spontaneity to that of a serious battle with capitalism, it is absolutely necessary to engage with the alienation produced by a production process in which the technology used is controlled by big platform companies.

Thirdly, all this is taking place against a larger backdrop of increasing assaults on workers in all spheres. Whether it be the institutional legalization of conditions comparable to slavery through India’s four labour codes, the more fundamental process of unemployment, or the scarcity of jobs, gig workers in India are fighting a battle in which labour is being pushed against the wall.

However, the logic of capitalism has also historically revealed that these very conditions contain the germs of an intense conflict between capital and labour, which can lead to more advanced forms of organization. The most important aspect is to maintain awareness about the fundamental role of labour in the whole process of the production of surplus value, as well as how this labour is appropriated. This alone shall pave the way forward.

[1] According to conversations with multiple drivers employed with Ola-Uber, working for an app-based taxi company is considered more dignified by them and their family. The fact that it is not they who had to find new customers, but rather the customers who find them through the app makes them feel better and sought after. The use of automation and technology in general makes the job appear more advanced than the people who drive normal taxis.