According to ILO’s 2021 Flagship Report on the platform sector, there has been a ten-fold increase in the number digital labour platforms over the last decade in the world, with India accounting for 8% of the world’s labour market platforms. NITI Aayog’s Report on the Platform Economy (2022) estimates that the number of gig and platform workers engaged on such platforms is likely to increase, from 7 million in 2020 to more than 20 million in 2030. While this new sector provides an opportunity to improve employment opportunities in India, it also raises several new challenges related to the rights and status of workers on these platforms – such as precarity of earnings, lack of social security benefits, poor work conditions – linked to the informal nature of work on these platforms.
A virtual panel discussion was organised by the Digital Platforms and Women’s Economic Empowerment (DP-WEE) programme, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to understand the status and legal rights of the workforce in India’s digital economy. The discussion was moderated by Farzana Afridi (Head, DP-WEE) and Bhavya Gupta (PhD scholar, Jawaharlal Nehra University), and featured Uma Rani (International Labour Organization), Sona Mitra (IWWAGE), Nikhil Dey (Mazdoor Kishan Shakti Sangthan), Bornali Bhandari (NCAER) and Apoorv Kulkarni (OMI Foundation).
The discussion delves into the unifying issues faced by platform workers across the diverse digital workforce, from ride-sharing to skilled freelance tasks. It addresses the potential of the recent legislation by the Rajasthan government to mitigate concerns of formalisation, minimum wages and social security provision for gig workers; as well as how the platform businesses and aggregators are addressing platform workers’ well-being. However, while this legislation is a monumental step, social security has to be portable and continuous (across platforms and cities) and take into account workers’ earning and spending patterns to provide micro-savings and micro-insurance options. The speakers also consider the need to balance worker welfare with the growth of the platform sector.
The discussion then moves on to some of the unique challenges faced by delivery workers, and particularly women in this sector. It touches upon the trade-off between flexible working hours and earnings, and the investment required (in terms of purchasing smartphones, fuel and vehicle maintenance costs) to join the platform workforce.
The panel discussion concludes with the speakers highlighting the need for aggregate-level worker and usage data on digital platforms, and also a better understanding of whether these platforms are indeed creating new jobs or whether these are existing jobs that are being digitised. They suggest that improved urban infrastructure and better governance is needed to protect workers in the larger informal economy, beyond the responsibilities of digital platforms towards their workforce.
The discussion ends with underlining the opportunity presented by the burgeoning platform sector in making progress towards greater formalisation of India’s workforce.