Swati Gundeti, 32, had worked as a software engineer for five years, when her husband moved cities in 2014. So, she decided to become a freelancer. Once the joy of not spending crazy hours tied to a desk in the office passed, Gundeti became aware of a major struggle in a freelancer’s life—finding clients and getting paid for the work.
“It was completely unpredictable and stressful. I would have to network and find work for myself. And even if I found work, I was never sure that I would get paid on time," she recalls. After four years of freelancing, Gundeti signed up with Wishup, a platform that provides virtual assistance service by connecting gig workers to companies across the world.
“I get paid on time, and I get a steady stream of projects. So I can focus on the work I do," says Mumbai-based Gundeti, who is now a training manager at Wishup.
Besides remote working and being your own boss, the benefits of being a gig worker are not too many. Gig workers—though their numbers are growing worldwide—seldom have access to healthcare, paid time-off and provident fund. To address these issues, platforms like Wishup and Flexing It are working out ways to make the life of gig workers easier either through access to training or guaranteeing timely payment for their work.
Bengaluru’s Shahrukh Ahmed, 29, became a freelance web developer and content writer three years ago after a stint working full-time at Yahoo. Over the years, he has realized that one of the key ways to survive as a freelancer is being careful with money.
“As gig workers, we know that we won’t get any of the regular benefits. For example, I have to plan any long leave I need to take because I will not be paid for those weeks. And I will have to plan my finances in advance," says Ahmed.
Ahmed has made the effort to teach himself to deal with his finances, has family insurance and is now considering other ways to invest, including public provident fund.
A gig that’s satisfying
The number of gig workers across the world is on the rise. Their number in the European Union doubled between 2000 and 2014, making gig workers the fastest growing group in the region’s labour market, according to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed.
In the US, freelancers represent 35% of the total working population, according to research by global brokerage firm Morgan Stanley. While there is no comprehensive data on the group in India, 70% of corporates in the subcontinent surveyed by Noble House, a human resources consultancy, said they had used services of gig workers at least once in 2018 for major organizational issues such as advisory support to functional teams and design of policies.
“We’ve been working on ways to make remote workers happy. As we see it, if they leave the clients will leave as well. So it is in our interest to make sure we can provide gig workers as many benefits as possible," says Wishup’s co-founder Neelesh Rangwani.
At present, Rangwani is in the process of rolling out more steps to ensure benefits reach the workers. “The plan is to give our clients an option to contribute to the remote worker’s insurance. Most of our clients are based out of US. For them, paying $10 more will not be much, and they are usually keen to make sure that employees can avail all the benefits as well," he says.
Noble house, too, is working on similar lines. Health insurance is the first one the human resource consultants are looking at providing and are in talks with several insurance providers. “Insurance companies are not very excited to take on freelancers or gig workers. Other than the temporary nature of their job, their age is also a factor. Most corporates have a largely young workforce. This helps insurance providers spread out their risk. But for gig work, even in our company 70% of the workers are above 35 years. They are moving into the high-risk category," says Sanjay Lakhotia, co-founder, Noble House.
Pay for work done
For gig workers, the benefits begin with timely payments. According to Chandrika Pasricha, founder and chief executive, Flexing It, benefits are still far from the mind of freelancers.
“Most of the white-collar gig workers get into the profession with their eyes open. They know that they will not get paid time-off, health and medical insurance, or take part in training programmes. They factor it into their pay and ask accordingly," she says. However, Pasricha adds, the bigger challenge for them is getting paid on time.
Gig workers in India cover an extreme spectrum—they either have niche skills and are sought after by multiple companies, or they don’t have any special skills and are taken as contract workers, says Nishith Upadhyaya, head advisory, SHRM, a professional human resources membership association. “The latter is usually denied benefits, while for the former, those on the extreme high end, companies are willing to lay down the benefits. But the conundrum is that a majority of those in the gig economy might not have the skills to demand benefits, but they are the ones who need it the most. Maybe local governments can step in to help their cause," he says.
Pasricha believes that even if government cannot step in, consumer courts can take steps to ensure that contracts between companies and gig workers are honoured. Similar contractual protection is now provided in developed economies like the US and Singapore. She adds companies are also becoming more aware that the only way to retain talent, even if they are non-permanent in nature, is to be fair and attractive.
For example, Google recently announced that the company will require vendors and contractors globally to provide their workers with specific perks and benefits, including healthcare, minimum wage and sick leave. “Many companies are also looking at partial benefits like performance bonus, paid time-off and even making learning and development modules accessible to them," says Pasricha.
Startups are also looking at new models to offer credit, banking or insurance products to gig workers. “Portable benefits (that are linked to the gig worker and not the employer) are likely to be the way forward in India, as the gig economy becomes more structured," says Pasricha.