Covid-19: What about gig workers?

This blog charts the impact of Covid-19 on this group of gig workers before and after the 21-day janata lockdown announced by the prime minister, before making recommendations about how they should be supported moving forward.

During the chaotic fallout of the coronavirus response, being an on-demand delivery or ride-share worker in India has been particularly tumultuous. This blog charts the impact of Covid-19 on this group of gig workers before and after the 21-day janata lockdown announced by the prime minister, before making recommendations about how they should be supported moving forward.

In early March, as white collar workers were told to work from home and educational institutions were shutting down, there was increasing demand for delivery services across both food delivery and e-commerce. This meant that gig workers delivering for companies such as Swiggy, Zomato and Amazon were in high demand. During this time, Swiggy and Zomato were quick to reassure customers, announcing ‘hands-free’’ delivery options to limit human contact, but had few rewards or incentives for their delivery workers who were putting their health at risk by ensuring the continuity of delivery services.

As the response to the virus ramped up, with the ‘pilot’ curfew on the 22nd of March, residents were told to show their gratitude for essential workers, including gig workers, by beating drums and utensils. However, not everyone showed their appreciation; confusion around who was allowed out of their house to perform their work meant that delivery drivers for online grocery providers (such as BigBasket, SuprDaily and Grofers) were being stopped and beaten by police. During a time when delivery services were continuing to avoid citizens panic buying in local shops, gig workers in India were being aggressively punished by the police force for providing essential public services in the wake of the pandemic.

However, this all changed on the 24th of March when the prime minister announced the 21-day lockdown. Many platform companies announced sweeping closures across India: Uber and Swiggy suspended all services, whilst Ola is running a skeleton service intended for emergency use only. Others such as BigBasket and Flipkart also suspended services, citing the police blocking and assaulting their delivery drivers as a key issue. While customers may be panicking about where they will source essential items, gig workers who have been part of the infrastructure of the pandemic response are left in an increasingly precarious situation. After placing themselves on the frontline of vital delivery services, it is now unclear as to whether their financial and physical wellbeing will be secured over the coming months.

While some companies have announced measures to support those who work through their platforms, it is unclear how or when this will be available. Ola has gone the furthest, stating that they will be providing up to Rs. 30,000 for their drivers, if they or their partner contract the virus, with Rs.1,000 being released for 21 days following a positive test result. Additionally, they have waived the rental costs for their drivers who have leased vehicles from their subsidiary ‘Ola Fleet Technologies’. These may initially appear to be positive actions. However - the financial support is only available to workers with proof of a positive test result, and it is widely known that getting a test for the virus is not easy in India, with limited tests currently reserved for those who have returned from traveling to a highly affected country. Moreover, for drivers who have not rented vehicles through Ola Fleet, there is no announcement of financial support to cover loans, fuel or insurance costs. The Zomato CEO, Deepinder Goyal, announced on Twitter that Zomato were starting a fund to cover the lost earnings for their delivery drivers, and were hoping the government would support them with that.

But this announcement reveals the gig economy’s elephant in the room: Just who is responsible for supporting gig workers? Is it the platforms that are reliant on them for revenue? Or the government, who should be ensuring social protection for all citizens?

Gig workers face an uncertain financial future, and they are in danger of falling through the cracks of responsibility, due to their position as ‘temporary contractors’. Although there had been some progress made, with a draft code on social security stating that gig workers should be entitled to schemes such as health benefits, this has yet to be introduced as legislation.

Currently, they are not entitled to any financial support from the state. As Aditi Surie writes, “delivery workers, similar to health workers, are the new front-line force keeping citizens’ lives running”. These vital service providers, who were catapulted into one of the most important frontline roles during the initial reaction to the pandemic, now find themselves in an increasingly precarious and stressful situation with few or no proposed protections despite their willingness to put their own health and wellbeing at risk to allow society to continue functioning in these bizarre and unprecedented times.

The crux of the issue for gig workers remains their lack of inclusion in social protection measures. Although this has been an ongoing battle, gig workers’ central role in ensuring the continuity of flows of resources during the lockdown is an opportunity for renewed calls for their immediate access to social protection measures. Governments must step in to ensure platforms are providing financial and social security for gig workers through inclusive and far-reaching policies that mandate safety nets for gig workers.

Some of our previous work on worker wellbeing on the platform economy sought to create a framework to identify platform responsibilities depending on the degree of control platforms exert over worker behaviour. Platforms can be classified as having varying degrees of control—

from low to high—and responsibilities assigned accordingly. By this measure, accidental and occupational insurance would certainly be the obligation of a number of platforms to workers in urban India. Further exploration is needed into such frameworks that identify platform responsibilities towards gig workers. The current crisis makes this blatantly clear and should be seen as an urgent call to action.


Iona Eckstein

Iona Eckstein works on the Future of Work & Learning initiative at Tandem. Her work mainly focuses on the intersection between technology and labour, specifically; the evolution of the platform economy, digital labour, workplace surveillance, and more recently, the impact of Covid-19 on workers. She is also passionate about feminist perspectives on the future of work, and how women and other marginalised groups can benefit from technological advances. She has conducted fieldwork in India, Nepal, Tanzania and Denmark, and has a B.Sc in Sociology from the University of Bristol and an M.Sc in Global Development from the University of Copenhagen.