(Photo: Hindustan Times)
(Photo: Hindustan Times)

Opinion | The shift from jobs to ‘work’ in the gig economy

Gig economy has led to a rise in number of people leaving jobs to work as independents

Years ago, when I began teaching executives in a business school, I used to encounter an interesting set of employees, especially in large and mature organizations: the mantra for them used to be “I love my job, it’s the work I hate". Over the past few years, the rise of gig economy has contributed to a significant increase in the number of people leaving jobs and taking up “work" as independents. There are three kinds of people we are talking here. Those with significant financial security, seeking freedom to pursue their passion, leaving their jobs and becoming independent consultants seek autonomy, freedom, and the opportunity to contribute to a cause.

The second segment consists of your ubiquitous cook, household help, milk delivery person, the newspaper distributor, the personal driver, and the like whose vocations have been by definition not organized. They remain part of the India UnInc., and enjoy significant bargaining power with their employers.

The third set have risen because of the evolution of new business models like the food delivery men, the on-demand carpenter, and the app-based driver.

I ask six questions about these gig workers affiliated to the platforms. One, when you hire an Ola cab, who is the driver working for, the rider or Ola? The rider is the customer, but the platform defines the norms of the transaction. A lot of angst and helplessness surface in times of poor matching of rider requirements and driver expectations. At the core of this is that there are two contracts, between the rider and the platform, and between the platform and the driver.

Two, whither freedom and autonomy? The whole premise of platforms such as ride-sharing is that there is “excess capacity" that is being filled. In markets like India, Uber drivers are typically full-time drivers, and most often are working for a salary/commission. They are employees of the car owners.

Three, where is the security and insurance? In the torrential rain in Mumbai, delivery boys crisscross the city and deliver things. They are acutely aware that there are lot of takers for their jobs and that pushes them to risk illness and possibly a longer layoff. There is also little insurance for illness and opportunity lost.

Four, what risks are these people taking? Imagine someone providing physiotherapy in the clients’ homes, at times where possibly the entire family is not in. What checks and balances can the platform have to ensure her safety, security, and dignity?

Fifth, when a driver is delivering food to the client, what is his workplace? The restaurant where he picks up food? Or the clients’ doorstep where he delivers the food? Where do rules like workplace harassment apply?

Lastly, what skills are being imparted? What is the road ahead for these workers? With no specific skills learnt apart from basics of customer interaction and possibly using Google maps, what kind of career growth is possible for them?

I am not sure these are easy questions to answer.

Traditional regulations and norms might not work in this context. The time is ripe for a detailed discussion with gig workers and platforms.

R. Srinivasan is professor of strategy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB). He actively researches, teaches and consults platform business firms. Views expressed are personal.

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