The government’s quick response to complaints of overpriced Ola and Uber cars stands in stark contrast to its silence on the exploitation of workers who built the city’s gig economy.
In addition to its pro-industry laws, Karnataka announced its startup policy in November 2015, promising incubation, hand-holding and tax cuts for entrepreneurs. IT and ITes companies have been exempted from labor law.
The state is home to over 40 of the country’s 107 unicorns, some of whom rely on the hard work of gig workers.
Over the past 10 years, workers have protested frequently at the denial of minimum wages, but the government has done little to help them.
Overtime pay and social security, both core labor rights, were not even considered. Human rights groups have repeatedly stressed the need for legislation to protect such workers.
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In 2015, workers looted Uber’s Bengaluru offices as their earnings plummeted. Ola also faced protests.
The dissatisfaction culminated in the January 2017 strike, when thousands of drivers unsubscribed from the platforms for nearly a week.
“It was only when commuters complained about taxi unavailability that the government took notice, but even then drivers’ issues were completely ignored,” said Tanveer Pasha, chairman of Ola, Taxi for Sure, Uber Taxi Owners and Drivers Association.
The rejection begins with the contract, which describes gig workers as “partners.”
“The contractual agreements are often designed in such a way that the workers cannot go to court. The entire narrative of the platform economy is to emphasize the “personal responsibility” of the gig worker,” according to the December 2021 report by the People’s Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR), which looked at the terms of service of Uber and TaskRabbit, a Platform, the workers dealt aggregated.
Sampath C, general secretary of the Adarsh Autorickshaw Drivers’ Union, said the companies are disrupting the market by offering incentives in the early days.
“Just like taxi drivers, motorists lined up in front of taxi aggregators to sign contracts because they were promised incentives. Today they see half of their earnings being taken away from them by corporations,” he said.
Pasha said the drivers were “lured”. But currently they don’t demand the same incentives they received in the early days.
“What we are asking is a legal fare, not a share of the companies’ profits. Currently, 40% to 60% of the fare a passenger pays goes to the companies as a convenience or access fee. In addition, the companies deduct a platform usage fee as well as 25% commission on each ride. Drivers rely on the apps to book rides, but is that the price we have to pay?” he asked.
The PUDR report stated that the “structure of the commissions can be designed in such a way that the workers remain locked up for long periods of time”.
“I’m forced to work 14-16 hour days to ensure I can take home around Rs 1,000. That wasn’t the case before,” said Purushotham, a taxi driver.
Fairwork India, which ranks service platforms on a scale of 0 to 10 based on companies’ performance in protecting workers’ rights, has ranked Ola, Porter and Uber last for 2021 with a score of 0.
The best performer Flipkart scored 7 points, followed by Urban Company (5). Amazon, Dunzo and Pharmeasy each scored 1 point. Zomato (3), Swiggy (4) and Bigbasket (4) also had low scores.
The assessments considered the company’s approach to wages, risk mitigation and safety, among other things.
A study of food suppliers in Bengaluru, published by the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), says the situation of gig workers during the pandemic “exposes the myth perpetuated by the industry that these workers are independent contractors”.
The “unequal ratio,” in which the company thrives on dependency on the gig worker and sets unrealistic deadlines, exposes workers to the risk of accidents. This makes it clear that the workers are anything but “partners”.
“Workers can theoretically log off and go home. (But) the target and incentive model, with its many conditionalities, along with ever-deteriorating per-order rates and incentives, ensure workers stay locked to one platform and logged in for long hours,” it noted.
While the profession also involves fatigue from long hours and exposure to pollution and climate variability, the companies do not provide social security.
The study stressed the need to protect such workers in order to ensure fair and decent conditions.