‘It’s our time to demand change for gig workers’ | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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‘It’s our time to demand change for gig workers’

By, Gurugram
May 08, 2024 06:28 AM IST

Gurugram's gig worker Mohammad Rizwan battles heat, long hours, and disrespect. As a first-time voter, he demands fair wages, healthcare, and respect.

The afternoon sun is beating down on Gurugram, its searing rays bouncing off the blocks of steel-and-glass that are showpieces of India’s turbo-charged economy. On the tarred road that is baked by this blaze, Mohammad Rizwan cuts a lonely figure, swerving his motorbike deftly on a wide avenue. Behind him, attached to the seat is a lime-green box brimming with packets to be delivered. He has been out since 7am, but there are seven hours left till he can get home. Taking a break is out of question, each packet comes with a 30-minute deadline and the penalty of missing the mark comes out of his meagre paycheck.

Mohammad Rizwan is a 19-year-old gig worker in Gurugram. (HT Photo)
Mohammad Rizwan is a 19-year-old gig worker in Gurugram. (HT Photo)

It is 11pm before the 19-year-old gets back to his cramped one-room house in Nathupur slum in Gurugram. By then, he had delivered 10 orders and driven 220km for 10 hours across Delhi and Gurugram, all on a day where the temperature remained above 40°C. For his family of eight, his earnings of 15,500 a month are a lifeline. The only other earning member is his 59-year-old mother, who stitches clothes for a living to provide for his alcoholic father and five siblings.

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Crushing poverty forced Rizwan to abandon his education after graduating from a government school in Shastri Nagar in Delhi. When he was 14, Rizwan’s family made the decision to relocate to Nathupur slum in DLF Phase 3, buoyed by the promise of jobs in a city where major corporations and start-ups are headquartered.

But organised sector jobs were out of the reach for Rizwan and his siblings, none of whom graduated college. Only one other sister found a temporary position in a beauty parlour. “There were times when they had to sleep on empty stomachs after my father was bedridden for three years and the entire burden was on my mother,” he said.

For Rizwan, the choice was clear — sit at home in the diminishing hope for a formal job, or hitch his bandwagon to the gig economy and stabilise family finances. He chose the latter but it has not been easy.

“In my line of work, every day is a battle… from dodging reckless drivers to meeting unrealistic delivery deadlines,” said Rizwan, his voice tinged with bitterness.

Rizwan is part of the millions-strong cohort of gig workers across India, their numbers having exploded over the last decade with the entry of platforms that operate on an asset- and employee-light model, taking on board service providers as contractors rather than employees, thereby keeping fixed costs low, transacting in commissions and avoiding paying for employee benefits altogether.

In recent years, platform workers have protested about payment terms, hazardous working conditions, and callousness and neglect.

These frictions will only rise, with Niti Aayog estimating that platforms will employ 23.5 million people by 2030, a majority of them in medium and high-skilled jobs. Economic trends already suggest that a large chunk of organised sector jobs created in the next decade will be with platforms, and attract young people.

Rizwan is also part of an 18-million-strong group of young voters who will exercise their franchise for the first time in the ongoing general elections, their aspirations and concerns shaping the battle for the 18th Lok Sabha. “This is our time to speak up for all gig workers, and demand change,” he said.

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Rizwan’s everyday challenges are manifold — navigating the maze of traffic and chaos, the sweltering heat, and angry customers. But there is one thing in particular that gnaws at his spirit — the humiliation meted out to gig workers such as him, both by customers and platforms.

On April 27, Rizwan stopped at a residential complex to drop off a parcel. It was a hot day, and he requested a glass of water. He was met with disdain. “Buy a bottle,” they told him. Then again on May 2, after delivering a packet, Rizwan received a call from the police, asking him questions about a theft that had occurred at the same apartment. It emerged that a resident had expressed suspicion about his presence. Experiences such as these are depressingly common.

“Many times people ask us to wait for a long time and are rude. Every time they complain that we are late, I want to say that I drive a motorbike, not an aeroplane,” he said. “It is as if our humanity is stripped away the moment we don our delivery uniforms.”

His other complaints revolve around the long hours, the non-existent health benefits, the indifferent pay linked to ever-shifting targets, and the complete lack of job security. He spends whatever free time he gets on other odd jobs to fulfil his dream. “I want to save money and pay the down payment for a car, which I will give on rent so that a fixed income can support my sister’s wedding,” he said.

While Rizwan typically avoids political discussions with his friends, this year is different. As he eagerly anticipates the opportunity to cast his first vote, he finds himself drawn into conversations about the issues that matter most to him and his fellow gig workers.

“This election, I am calling for basic facilities like water coolers in societies, so that we no longer have to beg for a drink of water on hot summer days. I want to demand respect for our work, recognition of our contributions, and warmth from the staff of the societies we serve,” he said.

Citing the lack of job security and the absence of basic protections, Rizwan outlined his expectations from the government. “We need policies that recognise the unique challenges faced by gig workers and provide us with fair wages, access to healthcare and social security benefits.”

As a resident of Gurugram, he is also aware of the socio-economic disparities that exist within the city, with marginalised communities such as his bearing the brunt of systemic injustice. He, therefore, wants better access to education and health care.

The new labour codes, which are yet to be implemented, represent a significant step towards extending legal recognition and social security benefits to gig workers, but experts say there are crucial gaps. “One major issue is the ongoing legal battles in the judiciary, where the status and rights of gig workers are being contested. While trade unions play a vital role in advocating for the rights of these workers, the lack of clarity on the contribution of workers or platform operators towards social security schemes remains a concern,” said professor KR Shyam Sundar,labour economist at MDI Gurugram.

The current situation can be likened to a half-baked approach as gig workers are not fully integrated into the formal employment structure, he added. “Although some progress has been made with the initiation of legal battles and acknowledgment of gig workers’ rights by the judiciary, the road to full-fledged social security remains uncertain. Until these issues are addressed through robust legislative frameworks and effective implementation mechanisms, gig workers may continue to face precarious working conditions and limited access to essential benefits.”

As Rizwan prepares to cast his vote, he is acutely aware of the generational divide that often shapes electoral choices in his community. “My parents voted based on the advice of elders and villagers. But I want to change this,” he said. “The pain of gig workers must be understood and acknowledged.”

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