The initial promise
Ramesh Prasad remembers the large advertisements that Uber and Ola had pasted on the back of buses and large billboards around the city of Kolkata, India. The year was 2015, and Prasad was the personal driver of a family based in Kalighat. He was used to seeing adverts that were too good to be true, promising working-class people like him a better life and more money.
“But this particular advertisement said that by driving my own car, I could earn Rs 1 lakh ($1223 USD) every month! And I could set my own times too,” says Prasad. (One lakh is a numerical unit in India equivalent to 100,000.)
At the time, he was earning Rs 20,000 ($245 USD) per month, and the Indian per capita income was estimated to be Rs 93,293 ($1141 USD). Prasad took out a car loan and bought a car for Rs 8 lakhs ($9782 USD), left his previous job, and started driving for Uber. What he liked most about his new job was the freedom it seemed to offer. He could switch on the Uber delivery app when he wanted to take orders and switch it off when he wanted to rest.
In 2015, Prasad did indeed earn Rs 1 lakh every month, as promised. He enrolled his only son in St. Xavier’s school, a privately-owned English-language school attended by middle-class and wealthy children in Kolkata. In a society structured by hierarchies of caste and class, access to this elite education offered rare hope for social mobility. For a moment, it appeared that this new form of employment might meaningfully change the course of Prasad and his family’s life.
Prasad had minor complaints about Uber’s management, but he ignored them since he was earning good money. Drivers joining Uber with the same dreams as him eventually began to see cracks in its promises.
Gig work: caste and class
In conversations with gig workers based in Bangalore and Kolkata, I investigated how gig work compounds the insecurity and precarity of already-marginalized groups in India, particularly along caste, class, and citizenship status lines. The majority of the workers I met with are men who previously worked odd jobs as personal drivers or were unemployed and are now delivery drivers. Many workers described facing mistreatment and abuse due to discriminatory attitudes related to differences in language, religion, caste, and community. According to Suman Dasmahapatra, the Karnataka coordinator of the All India Gig Workers Union, the majority of Bangalore's gig workers are Bengali migrant workers from the states of West Bengal and Assam. Dasmahapatra says they are frequently unfairly labeled as illegal Bangladeshi nationals due to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in India. Migrant workers often face discrimination, at times with state collaboration.
There are several prevalent casteist and classist practices in the domestic work industry that help us understand the situation of gig workers. The Hindu caste system is still an entrenched aspect of Indian society, detailing a hierarchy of four primary castes: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Dalits, often known as "untouchables," historically are considered the lowest group in Hindu society. Despite widespread complaints that the caste system is unjust and backwards, this system has remained largely unaltered for centuries, locking individuals into rigid social class structures.
In modern India, the discriminatory impacts of the caste system overlap with general attitudes towards working class people as well. Anyone who is deemed to be different in terms of caste, class, or community is treated as an ‘Other,’ whether they are domestic workers, gig workers, or migrant laborers. Ambika Tandon, a researcher who co-authored the report Platforms, Power and Politics: Perspectives from Domestic and Care Work in India for the Centre for Internet & Society (CIS), discussed some of the casteist norms that gig workers face. These include segregated public areas and consistent disrespect and differential treatment at work, such as not being provided access to bathrooms. If a lower-caste worker needs to rest, clients will often refuse to let them rest in their home since untouchability is associated with lower “hygiene.” These domestic workers will need to take breaks in the stairway, where they are not seen or heard. People will also specifically request Brahmin cooks because cooks from other lower castes and religions are deemed impure.
Gig workers contend with uncertain working conditions and algorithmic wage discrimination from the platforms they rely on to match with clients. Companies can use algorithmic wage discrimination to tailor and distinguish salaries for employees in ways those employees aren't aware of, incentivizing them to act in ways that benefit the company for as little as the minimum wage.
“Flexible” work and faceless management
As widely reported elsewhere, platform labor attracts people with false promises of quick cash and flexible hours. In reality, they often spend more hours working than they would in other forms of labor available to them, such as being employed directly by particular families or companies. Flexible work means gig workers must manage their own flow of tasks, spending all their time fulfilling requests and waiting on standby to receive more orders from the apps’ systems. They are at the mercy of opaque algorithmic service matching and payment policies.
Santosh, a 20-year-old gig worker, was enticed by the notion of working on his own time but soon learned it was all a sham. "Now I have to work longer hours since after the app and company cutbacks, I don't have much money left at the end of each day." In FY '22, Uber India reduced their employee benefit expenditure by 44% year over year to Rs 150.96 crore, as reported by the Economic Times.
According to the gig workers I spoke to, especially when the companies first began hiring, new employees were promised incentives for joining these platforms and taking on a certain number of tasks. However, many of these have been retracted or are subject to arbitrary and complex black box algorithmic rules. For example, drivers for the food delivery company Zomato were told they can earn an extra Rs 1500 (approximately $18 USD) if they deliver 32 orders in a day. But upon closer investigation, the app appears to make this purposefully difficult to attain. Suman Dasmahapatra describes an informal survey they conducted with drivers for Zomato and its competitor, Swiggy. “We noticed an uptick in orders coming to some drivers while other drivers were left standing for hours to receive an order. We found that drivers who were just one or two orders short of their daily Rs 1500 incentive would stand for hours to collect orders, while drivers who were far from meeting their quota would receive orders at the same time and in the same location…A delivery worker has to now work for 14-16 hours in a day just to earn a Rs 1500 bonus.”
In addition, the way an app defines a full day of work can be confusing. According to the survey by the All India Gig Workers Union, Swiggy workers are required to be logged into their mobile app for at least 10 hours. However, connectivity issues sometimes mean the app does not accurately reflect the full time they have worked. Due to this, some workers do not receive promised bonuses, even after working a full day, and have no recourse for appeal. Drivers also report that when orders take them outside of the zone they initially selected to work in, the Swiggy app will log them out. The delivery payments are made to them, but their time is not included as hours worked. The app’s frequent undercounting of their hours forces drivers to work more than 10 hours a day to qualify for bonuses.
On top of this, a delivery partner will incur a financial penalty of Rs 40 (approximately $0.48 USD) if they cancel or decline an order more than once. The sole outlet they have to lodge a grievance with is a customer service number. It is difficult for workers to get recourse or even clarification on policies since these platforms mediate interactions with their gig workers through what the members of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers union call "faceless management.”
Before the pandemic, gig workers working for ride-hailing cab aggregators like Uber and Ola say they used to meet once a month with their team leaders and field managers. The gig workers now rely only on an app for their communication needs. They also say that their calls to management go unanswered. Everything about their pay, including incentives and penalties, is handled remotely and automatically. There is no one around who can be reached by phone in the event of an emergency.
“Uber or Ola does not pay any heed to driver’s complaints. Before the pandemic, there used to be an office of both Uber and Ola in Kolkata where we could stand in line to register our complaints with the company representatives. But during the pandemic, the system changed, and now we have to call a number through the app to tell them about the problems we face on the job,” says Mohan Jadav, a driver who works for both Uber and Ola now.
The workers at Urban Company, a home-services marketplace, have similar grievances about the app platform. Previously, they could make an appointment, get a token number, and stand in line to register their complaints to Urban Company employees in their office. But now they have to wait for hours to get a customer care representative on the line when they call a number through the app.
“The customer support representative speaks in English, which I struggle to understand, and you have to wait for several hours on the phone to get your complaint filed, and that's only if they register it because they typically say that its company policy and there's nothing they can do,” says Ankita Pandya, a gig worker for Urban Company, who speaks Hindi.
The inability of gig workers to register their complaints and issues with these apps is especially challenging when their stream of gig work income is in jeopardy. For instance, there have been cases where Uber and Ola employees had their IDs blocked from the app because a customer reported the driver to the company or gave them a one-star rating. Nitai Pal, a driver for Uber and Ola, says, “Customers will smoke inside the car, talk rudely to us or change the route midway, but we are expected to say nothing to them. If we argue, the customer will complain about us through the app, and our IDs will be immediately blocked.”
Gig platforms’ refusal to classify their workers as employees deprives those gig workers of basic labor protections. They have very limited negotiating leverage inside these intricate systems since they are not even permitted to refuse the orders that have been given to them; if they do so, the gig platforms reserve the right to suspend their IDs. In a formal workplace, employees are typically connected to someone in charge of human resources. They may have the option of collecting severance, and the power of established trade unions and workers' unions in India deter corporations from terminating people without prior warning.
Facing a lack of adequate worker protection and fluctuating work and compensation policies, many gig workers are stuck trying to make the best of this increasingly untenable situation because of their upfront investments in vehicles, maintenance costs, and other capital costs.
Even if they have a means of transport, their meager wages make it difficult to cover the costs of petrol and internet service costs for mobile phones. Ola and Uber gig workers are required to maintain a clean car with a functional air conditioner. Some workers must also shell out money upfront for mandatory basic training and delivery of clothes that must be worn at all times while on the clock.
The cost of fuel across the nation rose to record highs in 2022 and have remained above pre-pandemic levels since.
Shashikant Kumar, who has worked as an Uber driver in Kolkata for the past five years, claimed that he used to earn around Rs 2000 ($24 USD) for a ten-hour shift, a quarter of which was spent on fuel. “With the way the cost of petrol appears to be rising, driving a car has become unsustainable,” says Kumar. Another gig worker, Tabrez Raza, who first started driving for Uber, mentioned that he took up employment with Ola as well due to car maintenance costs.
Unions and the struggle for worker rights
Several trade unions and organizations fighting for gig worker labor rights have emerged in the past few years as collectivized responses to the challenges of all those labeled independent contractors by tech platforms. Unions such as Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union, Indian Federation Of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), and All India Gig Workers Union are the most well-known unions and organizations, but there are also smaller, regional ones like West Bengal Online Cab Operators Guild. IFAT has approximately 36,000 members and is often the first union gig workers mention. The Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union has more than 10,000 members and began to provide membership to gig and platform employees via digital ID cards in 2023.
Trade unions are fighting for better labor conditions and protections for gig workers. They advocate for Uber, Ola, Urban Company, Zomato, Swiggy, and similar gig economy platforms to recognize gig workers as employees and give them the rights that workers deserve.
Dasmahapatra of the All India Gig Workers Union says, “What these companies slyly do is label the gig workers as ‘partners’ of the company… Even if a partner puts in more hours than a traditional waged employee would, they are still not considered an employee…The initial excitement of the new partnership quickly faded as the unequal power dynamic between companies and gig workers became more apparent. Due to platforms' poor track records with handling worker complaints, the lack of guaranteed wages or benefits, and, in certain circumstances, increasing surveillance of workers, gig work has a reputation as a precarious way to make a living.”
These workers face a number of challenges beyond their control, such as clients who don't tip or, they suspect, even pay sometimes; building associations that don't let them use elevators; and security concerns. Social media posts report that they are victims of robberies committed at gunpoint. Earlier this year, an Uber driver was attacked with a stone and beer bottle; another driver was robbed and pursued for not shouting "Jai Shree Ram,” a Hindu religious slogan weaponized against minority Muslims in India; and a 23-year-old Swiggy employee died after falling from the third floor after a customer's pet German Shepard pounced at him. Unions play a role in better-equipping workers to protect themselves and advocate for legal action to strengthen their rights.
One primary strategy emerging from trade unions are public interest litigation lawsuits, which push the government to recognize gig workers as wage workers and help raise public awareness. As a primary example, in a public interest litigation case filed in 2021, IFAT asked the Supreme Court to ensure gig workers receive their entitled benefits as "unorganized workers" or "wage workers" under the Unorganized Workers Social Welfare Security Act, 2008.
Another strategy is consciousness raising among gig workers to build a shared understanding of how gig economy apps are exploiting them and how they can start to gain power and push back. For example, many gig workers do not speak English and are less able to understand and push back against the high commission rates that the apps take. IFAT and the All India Gig Workers Union have started raising awareness about these unfair practices through meetings with ride-hailing cab drivers and delivery people. When I went to meet the West Bengal chapter of IFAT, Ola and Uber drivers were attending a conference on how to drive safely during summers when heat waves are on the rise. It goes to show that IFAT is taking measures to protect workers holistically and build community through organizing.
Gig workers and their trade worker unions and organizations are also organizing strikes and protests against these platforms. More than one hundred female beauticians and spa attendants working for Urban Company on the platform went on strike in October 2021 to protest poor pay, hefty commissions, and unsafe conditions at work. The women said that Urban Company did not provide insurance, took up to 30% in commission, and charged them a monthly fee if they completed fewer than 30 jobs. Furthermore, they were required to purchase more expensive beauty products from the company. Urban Company responded to the strike by sending a message threatening legal action against anyone who restricts the ability of other partners to get to work, while addressing some of the strikers’ demands.
Indranil Banerjee, the General Secretary of IFAT and the West Bengal Online Cab Operators Guild, describes the use of gheraos against platform economy apps. A gherao is a kind of protest in which employees refuse to let their managers or superiors leave the workplace until their demands are satisfied. The gherao originated in West Bengal when Subodh Banerjee, who was first labor minister then head of the public works department in the United Front Government of West Bengal in the late 1960s, introduced it as a formal means of protest in the labor sector. The gherao has been deployed time and time again as a tactic to protest against corporations and government actions since then. Indranil Banerjee talked about how IFAT organized gheraos around Ola and Uber offices in Kolkata, because “they failed to meet [their] demands or answer the reason behind the unfair practices built into the app.” The gheraos caught the attention of policemen, who could no longer manage them and therefore asked the employees of Ola and Uber to either meet the demands of the gig workers or shift to another location, according to Indranil Banerjee.
It is not enough for unions to organize gig workers into a collective group through consciousness raising and protests. Media groups have also been investigating these platforms to expose their inner workings and public impact to the wider public and regulatory community. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and The Indian Express teamed together to expose Uber's covert techniques for evading oversight, its manipulation of the lobbying system, and its aggressive pursuit of regulatory loopholes. IFAT has called for action against Uber in the wake of the Uber Files investigation, claiming that the documents show how the company "compromised legal and ethical standards in order to gain market share" and endangered the lives of its drivers and passengers.
Politicians and government groups are beginning to pay attention to gig worker concerns and take action to alleviate them. In a budget that was released in February, Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of Rajasthan, allocated Rs 200 crore (a numerical unit representing ten million), new legislation, and an associated board to ensure gig worker well-being. This paves the way for a more secure future for the estimated 225,000-270,000 gig workers in Rajasthan. With this declaration, Rajasthan became the first state to address some of the demands of gig workers meaningfully. It remains to be seen how this legislation will actually be implemented.
The next stage, according to members of IFAT, would be to make sure the newly created board is able to collect taxes from these gig work platforms in the regions they operate in. This tax would be an extra fee for each journey or delivery that will be allocated to the gig workers. The money would then be used to give gig workers and their families access to health and accident insurance, as well as provident funds, which are government-funded retirement schemes.
Banerjee of IFAT says, “This is a long fight for the recognition of the rights of gig workers. We still have a long way to go.” The gig workers I spoke to are frustrated by the slow pace of their fight against these multinational companies. Many gig workers occupy a relatively precarious and unprotected rung on the Indian social hierarchy due to their caste, class, and citizenship statuses. It is a challenge to build enough concentrated worker power to push politicians and these corporations to take action to improve gig worker lives. Dipak Mondal, a cab driver for both Uber and Ola, says, “If you have an enemy, then buy them a car and license it as a commercial car to be used for Uber and Ola. They will repent their whole life thinking of the cost of maintaining the vehicle. He won’t be able to quit, nor will they drive any revenue from the car.”
Strengthening attempts of collective action and government efforts provide glimmers of hope that this new digitally mediated gig economy will improve soon.