One of my acquaintances, a school teacher, was on paid leave for studying B.Ed. And then came the once-in-a-century pandemic. His B.Ed. classes went online, and he simultaneously taught in a private college — that too online, of course — without informing his employer. That’s moonlighting — holding more than one job, outside the normal working hours without the knowledge of the principal employer. This is not an aberration, though.

Didn’t an HR manager recently track multiple, active provident fund accounts of a new hire at a Bengaluru-based IT company who was working for seven firms at the same time? Employees are widely exploiting the latitude of the pandemic-induced work-from-home (WFH) culture to explore other avenues of income since they are not sitting physically in the office and also saving 2-4 hours for preparation for office-going, commuting, etc.

Moonlighting is inscribed in American culture; the multiple job-holding rate was around 7 per cent before the pandemic. Now, the moon is laughing in this country as well, so to speak, amid the WFH paradigm— especially among Gen Z (the online generation), with some even moonlighting for companies located in multiple geographies.

Gartner has reported that 30 per cent of Indians would be working remotely by 2022, a huge logistical advantage for employers as well.

In different avatars

But hadn’t moonlighting existed earlier, in every society? Some teachers give tuition outside of school, some physicians of government hospitals practice privately, and consultants in various professions often moonlight for independent projects. Many employed people become part-time insurance agents. Well, haven’t some successful start-ups come up as the founders were moonlighting?

But not everybody who’s earning handsomely would like to sacrifice precious leisure and family time just to earn more. Moonlighting could also take a toll on the physical and mental health of a person, leading to burnout. From companies’ point of view, it may lead to productivity and revenue loss.

What is the underlying economics of moonlighting? Small companies can certainly benefit from the moonlighting culture. Using evidence from US state-level data, a 2003 paper in the journal  Growth and Change illustrated that multiple job-holding acts as a short-term shock absorber for cyclical changes. In the long term, these effects dissipate. Conversely, multiple job-holding rates are inversely related to average weekly earnings.

The moonlighting debate in India gained momentum as Wipro fired 300 employees for doing just that — “plain and simple cheating,” said its chairman Rishad Premji. Most IT giants joined the chorus. Certainly, nobody can dispute the zero-tolerance policy where conflict of interest and intellectual property rights violations exist.

CP Gurnani, CEO of Tech Mahindra, however, pointed out the necessity “to keep changing with the times”. And last month, food delivery company Swiggy announced its “moonlighting” policy, by allowing its employees to take up gigs/projects outside of their regular employment at the company, during their hours away from work. Working for Swiggy and Wipro is, however, completely different in nature.

How to combat moonlighting? It’s almost impossible to track employees remotely. Employees’ return to the office floor might ease concerns. And would a salary hike to retain talent work? (Remember the finding of the above-mentioned 2003 paper.)

The Minister of State for Electronics and IT, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, recently said moonlighting is “an idea whose time has come”.

There may be widespread discussions on moonlighting; the grey areas that the labour codes don’t talk about. Should the labour laws be reframed by acknowledging the inevitable, balancing ethical issues and conflicts of interest?

The writer is Professor of Statistics, ISI, Kolkata

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