Field Guide to the Future of Work - A view from India

How will technology impact the future of work in India? I write for new RSA new volume on the Future of Work.

Most conversations about the impact of emerging technologies on the future of work are dominated by the encounters, trajectories and needs of industrialised economies. But, in many parts of the world, earlier industrial revolutions are still unfolding, millions of people continue to lack access to basic services, and regular formal employment remains aspirational for most. Technology is also a social product meaning its impact will differ across social contexts and groups. Global narratives thus need to be localised and re-examined, otherwise there is a risk that dominant techno-imaginaries will remain misaligned with the needs of a bulk of the world’s population.

Here I want to talk about what the future of work will look like in India. With over 7 million young people entering the workforce every year, and over 80 percent of the population engaged in the informal economy, securing decent work is an urgent and pressing priority, even without factoring in the impact of technological disruption.

The future world of work in India is likely to be characterised by three features:

First, the number of good jobs are likely to decrease, restricting socio-economic mobility. Despite high rates of GDP growth, bad jobs continue to outnumber good jobs. The bulk of India’s labor force is engaged in the informal economy, where jobs are characterised by low wages, little security, poor employment conditions, and devoid of formal social protections. Many work as daily-wage, manual labor in the agriculture and construction sectors. For many of these workers, a ‘desk-job’ or a ‘white-collar’ job in the formal or organised sectors of the economy represents a way out of poverty and insecurity. Such jobs are already very few – some studies estimate that less than two million were created in the previous year. As businesses adapt to new technological possibilities, many of these jobs will further disappear. This is already observable across numerous sectors – from chat bots in the financial sector to automation of basic data entry jobs. At Bangalore airport, one of India’s fanciest and busiest airports, self check-in kiosks were introduced a year ago, and last month the baggage drop-off desk was also replaced by a smart machine.

The automation of entry-level positions, typically those involving routine and repetitive tasks, are likely to restrict opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility for many millions of Indians, restricting opportunities to transcend ssures of formal-informal, urban-rural and caste and class. Moreover, the manufacturing route to prosperity may no longer be available to India as the availability of advanced automation technologies ushers in a process of premature de-industrialisation. Giving a leg up to India’s unskilled or low-skilled labour will thus become even more difficult.

Second, informality will be an enduring, if not accelerating, condition of Indian labor markets. The growth of the platform economy in India is likely to create new micro-entrepreneurial opportunities for workers. Yet, gig work is not new in India; most workers already work multiple jobs, with multiple employers, on a piece- rate basis, and without access to formal social protection mechanisms. Digital platforms are shifting many types of informal work – from plumbers and drivers– to the formal sectors of the economy. But for workers, the formalisation is only partial; income insecurity persists and the social security benefits associated with formal employment remain a distant dream. The platform economy is thus likely to reproduce if not expand informal and precarious conditions of work in India.

Workers are not without agency. In Bangalore, many drivers have left Uber to join a WhatsApp group that directly connects them with customers and other drivers. Drivers have also created a common chit-fund – a kind of credit association – among themselves as a means of safeguarding against unplanned shocks. But membership to this group is restricted to drivers that already know each other. Migrant workers that have recently moved to Bangalore, lured by the promise of high earnings on cab-hailing services, have limited access to such informal avenues for social protection. Not all workers will have the social capital necessary to weather uncertainty.

To remain nimble in the face of technological change, the organised economy is also increasingly shifting to contract and temporary work. The manufacturing sector, for example, is witnessing a growth in employment, but the largest share of this is contract work, not permanent employment. Digital platforms and new communication and data sharing solutions are making it easier to break down work into smaller tasks and then outsource it to the most cost-effective bidder across multiple geographies. Indian workers have so far benefited from this shift. We are the largest supplier of labor on global freelancing platforms, with many Indians providing software and technology-related services to wealthy clients in Western economies. However, a large number of platform workers are engaged in more menial tasks such as data annotation and categorisation. In both cases, an over-supply of labor has meant a race to the bottoms in terms of wages and exploitative terms of engagement.

Third, socio-economic inequality is likely to deepen. India is already one of the most unequal countries in the world and labor’s share of national income is in decline. Only those with the requisite skills will be able to leverage new opportunities – and these are in the minority. For women, and other marginalised social groups, low levels of education and skilling combined with prevailing socio-cultural norms and practices are likely to limit their opportunities. In India, less than 30 percent of internet users are women, while many drop out of the labor force and secondary education respectively due to family reasons and responsibilities in the home. Women are also more likely to occupy the low- medium skill level jobs that are most vulnerable to the effects of automation.The platform economy could give women greater access to flexible work, but this will also reproduce the gendered division of labor.

Predictive analytics and artificial intelligence technologies are also changing hiring and ring practices. The use of AI to hire staff and measure their performance could in theory root out the bias that is inherent in every workplace – a pressing problem in India due to its caste, class and religious divisions. Yet emerging evidence suggests that automated systems tend to reproduce these biases, either because of programmer bias or because of unrepresentative data sets. Workplace surveillance, too, could be a serious problem in India, particularly where job competition is high, labor rights are poorly understood, and conversations about data privacy are at a nascent stage.

Of course, the future world of work need not be so bleak, and certainly not for everyone. Technological innovation will bring tremendous productivity gains to certain sectors of the economy and specific social groups. India boasts numerous success stories – of entrepreneurs, start-ups, and industries that are globally competitive. Economic growth in India, however, is decoupled from employment growth; the Information and Technology sector, for example, contributes over 12 percent of Indian GDP but employs less than 2 percent of the labor force. To ensure prosperity isn’t confined to the lucky few, India will need to ramp up investment in infrastructure, education, healthcare, access to justice, and gender justice. We will also require new forms of social protection that specifically address the perils of informal work, as well as other labor protection and re-distributive strategies.

Further, technology trajectories can, and should, be shaped to align with broader societal goals. Certain technological choices might be more suited to a labor surplus economy like India, while others may be more appropriate from an equity perspective. Automating manual scavenging for example is preferable to the roll-out of driver-less cars. We need to shift from the current framing of innovation possibilities in terms of sectoral advances, to a socio-technical view of innovation that considers not only expected productivity and efficiency gains, but also the distribution of these gains across society. At stake are the livelihoods of 1.3 billion people.

Essay from RSA volume Field Guide to the Future of Work, December 2018. Based on research at Tandem's Future of Work & Learning initiative.


Urvashi Aneja

Urvashi Aneja is Founding Director of Tandem Research. She works on the governance and sociology of emerging technology; southern partnerships for humanitarian and development assistance; and the power and politics of global civil society. Urvashi is also Associate Fellow at Chatham House and a columnist for the Indian Express. She has a PhD from the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Oxford. Previously, she was Associate Professor of International Relations at the OP Jindal Global University and Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.