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How workers are being crushed by a brutal Gig Economy

Last updated on: December 15, 2018 11:37 IST

'Drawn in by fuzzy promises about unleashing the entrepreneur in each of us and the benefits of being one's own boss, people find themselves instead oppressed by an algorithm,' notes Rahul Jacob.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Hailing a cab during rush hour in Bengaluru, I watched in alarm as the driver's time to pick me up kept being revised upwards till he arrived some 25 minutes later.

The artificial intelligence that had connected us that day had not been so intelligent; he had made his way across one of the most congested roads in all of India.

When I jumped in, I noticed his eyes had a dazed look; I wondered if he was on strong medication or hallucinogens until I noticed him discreetly wolfing down a dry bun.

Ashamed to have had such thoughts, I asked him to stop for a minute and finish eating.

He had been driving all day since 10 am without a break for lunch.

It was by then 8 pm.

There are no Asian countries other than India where absurdly tight labour laws somehow coexist with an economy overflowing with people who work for themselves or others in brutal Dickensian squalor.

E-commerce unicorns' carefree abandon with other people's money, be it investors or in this case 'driver partners', lured many of these drivers with promises of income of Rs 100,000 a month.

Saddled with large car loans, often after selling farmland to make down payments, drivers have watched with horror as their average gross income (not including petrol costs) has crashed to a third of that, despite working 12 hour days.

 

IMAGE: Uber and Ola drivers during a protest in New Delhi, February 14, 2017. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

In a blog in March 2017, former president for Uber in India, Amit Jain, said that '80 per cent of drivers across India who are online for more than six hours a day make between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,500 net, after Uber's service fee'.

Most app drivers I have spoken to hotly dispute this, saying Ola and Uber's rapid withdrawal of incentives and low pricing per kilometre leave them little option but to be at the wheel for 12 hours a day, six and seven days a week.

Rising petrol prices have made things worse.

Not surprisingly, an estimated 50,000 drivers for Ola and Uber went on strike in Mumbai in October, demanding fares be raised.

Worldwide, the gig economy is turning out to be a mirage for workers.

Drawn in by fuzzy promises about unleashing the entrepreneur in each of us and the benefits of being one's own boss, people find themselves instead oppressed by an algorithm.

The lack of rights, let alone employee benefits, for 'driver partners' and others is attracting the attention of judges worldwide.

last month, in London, a taxi company lost a case where it argued that drivers were self-employed, a favourite argument of ride-hailing apps.

In another case in London, workers for Deliveroo, the food delivery company, are demanding 'collective bargaining' rights.

An investigation into the company's labour practices by the Financial Times made for grim reading.

Workers, many of whom use bicycles in London, said they did not know where they were delivering till they had picked up the food only to find it was often outside a feasible distance to travel by bicycle.

The driver's every meter to the restaurant and then on to the customer was tracked and evaluated.

Someone quoted in the article describes this as 'Taylorism on steroids', a reference to the father of scientific management, Frederick Taylor, who died in 1915.

Taylor prescribed the size of shovel workers at steel mills would be assigned and measured against as they lifted iron ore.

Employees may have thought e-commerce was a wave of the future, but in its capacity to dehumanise, it can be a blast from the past.

IMAGE: A Deliveroo scooter driver takes a break between deliveries in London, June 8, 2018. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

Still, in this fantastically unequal country, these are still better jobs than many on offer amidst India's jobless growth of the past few years.

Aside from the very real risk of taking on too much debt because your 'employer' expects you to bear the cost of production, it beats working as domestic help in most cases.

And so much of our service economy and contract labour work without benefits that it is unfair to point the finger only at the New Economy employers.

For riders, especially women, taxi apps have also had liberating effects.

I was using Uber every other day last month, despite griping about being sent a premium car when I wanted the standard variety.

But drivers who can are opting out or reducing their hours.

My driver to the airport in Bengaluru has created a WhatsApp networking group of drivers and friends who he says have regular clients that allow them to stay off the taxi apps because they don't like the working conditions.

My former part-time driver in Delhi now has an Uber taxi, but does jobs for repeat customers on a daily rate, thus switching off his app more often than not.

The apps must take notice, especially in India.

'We call drivers partners because moving cities is something we cannot do alone,' Jain wrote in his blog last year.

It may read as if an algorithm pieced that together, but India's increasingly disillusioned 'driver partners' appear to want more than rhetoric.

Rahul Jacob
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