Opinion

How trade unions recharged for the gig economy

Soumya Jha and Ulka Bhattacharyya | Updated on October 28, 2021

Trade unions are assuming a new avatar, bridging gaps between platforms and workers

A prominent home-based service platform recently announced a 12-point agenda to improve the working conditions of its worker-partners after social media highlighted lapses. Previously, another social media storm had brought to fore similar grievances of app-based food delivery workers. Encouraged by the support garned online, gig worker federations have initiated social media training for members as a newer means of organising workers.

Trade unions are actively engaging with the emergent gig economy. This is interesting, as trade unions — perceived as tired, archaic bureaucracies with limited technological acuity — are adapting quickly to new-age ways of organising and collective bargaining. The trade union-gig economy interplay is noteworthy, given the inherent dichotomy — trade unions are predicated on traditional employment, while the gig economy relies on flexibility and heterogeneity.

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Global momentum

In the US, California’s AB5 law (entitling independent contractors to ‘employee’ status) marked a watershed in gig economy-trade union interactions, with the latter playing a pivotal role in its passage. Even the recent invalidation of Proposition 22 (enacted in opposition to AB5) has resulted from trade union activity. On a related note, in New York, platforms and trade unions are negotiating a middle-path, ensuring minimum pay and other benefits to independent contractors, in exchange for trade unions giving up demands for ‘employee’ status; a legislation is expected soon.

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Trade unions are clearly assuming a new avatar, bridging gaps between platforms and workers; AB5’s passage and Proposition 22’s invalidation bear testament to trade unions’ influence on law- and policy-making in America. The recently proposed Protecting the Right to Organise Act, 2021 (PRO Act), which expands the scope of worker rights to organise and collectively bargain, will only intensify this momentum.

In the UK, the Supreme Court unanimously held that drivers on a popular ride-hailing platform were “workers” (that is, employees), making them eligible for social security benefits. Consequently, the ride-hailing platform, in a ground-breaking move, recognised one of the UK’s largest trade unions. This underscores the potential for collaboration between platforms and trade unions on issues including earnings, representation, organising and pensions.

A force to reckon with?

Multiple gig worker organisations have emerged in India. Claiming significant membership, they seek to address wide-ranging concerns (including wages, compensation and working conditions) and not solely social security (as envisaged by the recently enacted Code on Social Security, 2020). Further, the pandemic and the UK Supreme Court decision have reportedly spurred the formation of a gig worker ‘umbrella union’ in India. Adding to this is the recent petition filed by a prominent trade union at the Supreme Court, seeking social security benefits for gig and platform workers as “workmen” under existing legislation. However, it is still early days for such organisations. Recent demands such as reducing commissions and waiver of vehicle loans have reportedly gone unheard, while gig worker organisations remain dispersed. Interestingly, a few field studies in Indian cities seem to indicate that many app-based drivers may not actually depend that much on unions or worker organisations.

One reason why gig worker organisations have not gained a stronghold yet could be the dearth of traditional employment opportunities in India, and the low entry barriers for gig work. In the absence of traditional ‘jobs’, gig workers may lack the incentive to organise and bargain for ‘rights’. However, the pandemic-induced dependence on gig workers has led to an exponential growth of the gig economy, pushing it to the forefront; the issues highlighted via gig worker unions is a consequence of this recent mainstreaming. The enactment of the Code on Social Security, 2020, has further spotlighted the gig economy, as also the social media engagement. Trade union-platform interactions are rising in India, with social media becoming a potent tool to represent issues and negotiate with platforms.

The last Economic Survey highlights India’s flexi-staffing industry as one of the world’s largest. With the gig economy’s steady growth, gig worker organisations will engage deeper with larger issues such as compensation and working conditions. The growing engagement of unions with the gig economy will ensure the sector grows sustainably, benefitting everyone.

(The writers are research fellows at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas)

Published on October 28, 2021

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