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By Aayush Abraham

What happens when a “rapidly growing” economy is faced with defending itself from a virus that has taken over the world, a bunch of cyclones, the largest lockdown in history and a swarm of murderous locusts – a truckload of nervous graduates and working-class population inching towards the poverty line? Unfortunately, the dilemma is much larger than that, with the entire nation in a state of paralytic fear of the future. Countless layoffs, salary reductions and a sudden work-from-home culture shift have taken the world by surprise, but not the good kind. The unorganised sector is left with no source of income during this period, in comparison to their sparse earnings pre-Covid. The Indian unemployment rate hit a historical 27%, painting a rather devastating picture of the months to come. Amidst all this damage, a messiah of the masses has paved its way into the lives of the population – Gig economy. The question remains, does today’s achievable solution have the prospects of being a deferred complication?

Gig economy represents a free market system where organizations and independent workers engage in short-term work arrangements. This encompasses freelancers, consultants, independent contractors (professionals) and temporary contract workers. These can include on-call workers, seasonal workers, artists, transport aggregator drivers, delivery executives, etc. It is estimated that 44% of gig workers derive their primary source of income through this economy. The average age of these gig workers ranges from 18-34 years of age (Edison research). These are general statistics. Let us talk specific to India:

● India is the fifth largest country in terms of its flexi-staffing (leased employees, contract workers and temps from hiring agencies).
● From the year 2015 to 2018, this workforce has grown by around 16.8% and is rising as we speak.
● According to FICCI, EY and NASSCOM, India is a global leader in terms of online labour market globally, with a whopping 24% share.

This economy has proven to be an active contributory in reducing India’s unemployment rates by facilitating easy and accessible ways for people to be employed whenever and wherever they are, regardless of their educational background or economic status.

We can determine a few pros of the gig economy – flexible work hours, incentive- based remuneration and basic healthcare facility. The concept of “being your own boss” has been evidently highlighted. There are certain cons as well – lack of job security, no job rotation, no base income fair to maintain sustenance, no formal proof of employment and in some cases, disregard for basic labour rights as these individuals aren’t on the company payroll. These characteristics range among most “gigs”, whether you are a student web developer, a musician or a delivery executive. Now that the general idea has been established, let us delve into the two broadly classified schools of thought – techno optimism and techno pessimism.

There have been countless debates between the two and have been depicted in various hypotheticals over the years. One thing is certain, technological advancement in inevitable. With each generation inventing and creating, the image of the future is volatile and uncertain. To paint a cruder picture, with each wave of the population “refresh”, each generation of young inventors grow in a new and technologically upgraded childhood diorama. To pre-determine whether VR headsets must be given to 12-year olds as a learning tool, or if Skynet will take over the world, would be a futile exercise (even though both are occurring simultaneously as we speak). The techno pessimistic ideology speaks of apocalyptic predictions of technology and machinery taking over the human race as we inch closer towards being dependent on them while the optimists consider it as the key to alleviating unemployment, poverty, healthcare and educational crises. This is where the future of the gig economy and technology is intertwined; possibly shaping the lives that we will lead once we graduate.

The amalgamation of technology and gig economy caused a phenomenon called the “human cloud” to emerge, where individual tasks/projects are performed and executed remotely by independent contractors. The IoT innovation started a chain reaction of businesses opting to possess a digital presence for its global reach, user- friendly interface and an untapped market. As time progressed, various services were being sourced via these platform based markets (web design and development, coding, customer care, graphic design, search engine optimisation, marketing, financial analysis, outsourcing artwork, production, teaching, event management, content writing, etc.) and the idea of a payroll system for its employees didn’t seem to be feasible. Hence, the emergence of freelancing and contracting via the internet, providing seamless employment to those who possess the skill in demand and on-demand.

A paved road away from perpetual unemployment seemed like a quick fix. Unfortunately, the right contingencies were not placed in the event of major economic slowdown, apart from the lack of any sort of legal backing towards the protection of the rights of primary gig workers. ‘Whilst precarious work is not a new feature of capitalist societies, it is argued neoliberalism and associated discourses of flexibility and freedoms have exacerbated the conditions of precarity we see in the gig economy and are amplified in the current crises’. According to The Fairwork Foundation (2020), an approximate of 5 out of 120 of these platform companies have offered to compensate for the losses incurred to these gig workers during Covid-19. This number might be an upper limit while taking India into consideration. Since gig workers haven’t availed the “employee” status under The Minimum Wages Act (1948), they aren’t protected by any form of social security and are not entitled to the benefits under the Act. The silver lining now is that there exists scope for gig workers to be enveloped under the Contract Labour Act of 1970, which may provide these workers with healthcare and welfare obligations.

Once the Employment Compensation Act (1923) is imposed, these professionals will be ensured compensation for accidents arising out of and in course of employment, which will be a vital key in inviting more individuals to apply to this lifestyle. The new Labour Codes of 2019 will protect gig workers with minimum wage requirements, once it becomes a law. These legal proceedings may take time as they have been severely halted by the pandemic. But once applied, will be a turning point for the gig economy scenario in India. The worldwide projected gross volume of the gig economy is expected to reach at $455.2 billion by 2023 (Statista).

The Human Cloud Revolution has been set in motion and now is the time to imbibe its ideology and connect to it to ensure survival and growth in the years to come, with respect to our livelihood. Once the youth work force turns to the gig economy for economic assistance, we shall be able to identify the core demerits to this system and be able to fight for labour rights from within, using our ever so rampant “social media activism”. The creation of a young and indispensable workforce that doesn’t rely on a single income source and doesn’t rush behind the mirage of job security in the midst of crises is of utmost importance. Our courageous and cumulative effort can make the largest digital workforce a force to be reckoned with.

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