Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2021
Standard employment, the long-term work arrangement with one employer, pension and benefits, is vanishing. The pandemic has made the process faster. Non-standard, exploitative forms of employment have existed since ages and remain the dominant arrangement in capitalist societies. The only difference is that another category called ‘gig’ has been added to the existing irregular, contractual, temporary or on-call arrangements. The unifying factor for non-standard arrangements is that none provides protection to workers. Gig workers constitute a significant number of those impacted by Covid-19’s economic fallout in the Western world and Asia.
‘Gig work’ refers to non-standard employment on precarious contracts with digital on-demand platforms. The nature of work varies on the basis of different types of IT-based work platforms. Crowd-work platforms outsource online clerical tasks (eg data entry, business consulting) to a dispersed crowd of workers. Location-based platforms (eg Careem, FoodPanda, AirLyft) allocate offline manual work, such as delivery or transport services, to individuals in a specific geographical area. Online tasks which require a certain level of education appear to be less exploitative than offline manual work.
Gig workers engaged in offline manual services suffer like any other short-term contract worker. G. Harvey calls the gig economy neo-villeiny. In the Middle Ages, ‘villeiny’ was a feudal arrangement where the worker was held in bondage and his labour benefited the landlord.
Classified as ‘independent contractors’ and not ‘employees’ by work platforms, gig workers are excluded from the ambit of the law and not entitled to benefits. They bring productive assets (often accessed through loans) and work long hours on ride-based payment which the platforms keep reducing to increase their own profit. Take the Berlin-based company Delivery Hero that operates in 40 countries. One of its subsidiaries provides food delivery services in Pakistan. It requires its worker to have a motorbike (and petrol), smartphone and a Jazz cash account. In recent years, Delivery Hero workers have protested against unfair labour practices in Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Canada and Australia. In Pakistan, gig workers’ voices and news of their exploitation surface only on social media. However, when local restaurant owners in Karachi boycotted the food delivery service for increasing its commission which would have harmed them, the news was covered by the media.
Gig workers are raising concerns on key issues: legal classification as workers, exploitation, benefits and the right to organise. It is not just through street power and rallies; gig workers and trade unions are also filing lawsuits in many countries. In 2018, a Hero Delivery subsidiary shut down business in Australia due to mounting protests by workers (supported by the Transport Workers Union) and increasing lawsuits against its practices. In Canada, the company wound up business in 2020 because its workers had begun to organise a union due to a change in law classifying couriers as ‘dependent contractors’.
This brings us to the core issue: definition of ‘worker’ in labour legislation and the fight over it between the corporation and worker. In the US, where capitalist accumulation is the largest, the corporate is the winner. In 2016, transportation network platforms (ie Uber, Lyft) succeeded in getting a bill passed with a carve-out, or waiver, exempting the platforms from a range of labour standards in many states. In 2019, California reclassified gig workers as employees granting them benefits. But the platforms got app-based companies like themselves exempted from the new rule.
In Europe, where trade unions are still strong and the welfare state is not yet dead, the judicial fight is tough. In Belgium, where gig workers are classified as self-employed to some extent, the trade unions filed a case against a 2018 Act which stipulated gig work as ‘auxiliary’ and tax-exempt, hence not entitled to benefits. The court declared the Act unconstitutional. France granted certain protections to some platform workers in 2016. Italy amended a law in 2019 giving rights to ‘digital workers’. Columbia introduced a law in 2020 granting workers protection for contingencies related to sickness or old age.
The battle between capital and labour continues. Luckily, there are pro-humanity thinkers who voice sane ideas. One such policy entrepreneur is Wingham Rowan, the British policy entrepreneur who is advocating the creation of markets for gig work run as public utilities by governments and that are responsive to labour laws and workers’ goals — decent earnings and social protection. Policymakers and trade unions in Pakistan should start responding to the emerging gig economy and the provinces should gear up to draft legislative changes and include gig workers in the labour laws.