Worker well-being: An overlooked dimension in the digital platform economy

How do we bring to the forefront the question of worker well-being in the digital platform economy? We start field work in Delhi for Tandem's new project on worker wellbeing in India's platform economy.

There is no dearth of praise for digital platforms. After all, it has been revolutionary for consumers – with just a few taps on an app, essential and localized services are provided at highly competitive costs. To say that digital platforms have changed the workplace would be an understatement. The emergence of the digital platform has transformed the very nature of work and workplace relations, and in particular, that of the employee and the employer.

Ola calls its drivers "empowered entrepreneurs" and "driver-partners". What do we envision when we hear these words? One is expected to picture an independent, self-respecting driver who impresses us by being in sync with technological advancement, someone who has left behind orthodoxy in order to secure a better future for themselves. In a larger sense, we are supposed to be comforted by a sense of equality and social mobility that is enabled by technology.

Similar terminology such as “self-employed”, “freelancers”, “contractors”, or “gig-workers” are commonplace in the digital platform rhetoric. It is used to describe the peculiar position that workers in the platform economy occupy, by choosing to highlight the independence of these workers and the potential for flexibility in such a platform. Yet, this is hardly the case. What such terms conveniently obfuscate is the dependence that workers have on the digital platform, and the lack of any kind of employee entitlements or provisions, as the platform absolves itself of responsibility.

There is an urgent need to increase the accountability of platform corporations towards its so-called “empowered freelancers”. Whether this is done by making labour laws flexible enough to include these workers under their purview, or whether this is achieved through business solutions alone, remains up for question. However, most importantly, it is crucial to bring the worker back into the conversation. We hope to address this through some of the research questions for our upcoming project.

What such terms conveniently obfuscate is the dependence that workers have on the digital platform, and the lack of any kind of employee entitlements or provisions, as the platform absolves itself of responsibility.

To begin with, we need to place the transition to work in the platform economy in a temporal context for the sake of comparison. We wish to highlight the differences in experiences of working outside the platform economy and inside it, the merits and demerits experienced as a result of this transition, as well as the lifestyle changes it entails.

We also need to understand the personal perception of well-being workers have, and the sense of entitlement they feel to labour law provisions. We wish to see how far their own needs and anxieties align with labour regulations and international definitions of worker well-being. We want to assess their capability for savings, managing finances, and any debts and risks they might have incurred as a result of this transition. We want to understand the extent of job security and income security they experience. We also want to assess their workplace and employment conditions – an important dimension in order to make clear that accountability is an issue that needs to be acknowledged. We want to explore the redressal mechanisms available to those working in the platform economy and the gaps in the same.

We also need to explore changes in social standing that they may experience. Does working in the platform economy afford more respectability as compared to the alternative? Understanding the narratives of women workers in the platform economy is also of major concern to us. The intersection of gender with labour in the digital platform economy is an important avenue that needs further exploration.

Digital platform economies have emerged as the latest trend in work and workplace relations. The discourse surrounding digital platform economies has largely been consumer and corporation oriented. However, this neglects the needs of those that keep the wheels turning, so to speak. It is hoped that these questions will give the worker priority in the conversations around policy making and legal regulation.

Authors

Aishwarya Shridhar

Aishwarya Shridhar is a Research Fellow at Tandem Research. Her current work is focused on the narratives of workers in India’s digital platform economy. Aishwarya is interested in the intersection of social identities with experiences of work. Her Master’s thesis is centred on perspectives of labour and community among sex workers in Mumbai. She also leads Tandem's Research Learning & Development team. She has a MA in Social Work (Community Organisation and Development Practice) from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and a BA in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi.

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