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Between Platform and Pandemic: Migrants in India’s Gig Economy

In response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in India, the central government announced a nationwide lockdown in March 2020. Initially this was organised for three weeks, but it stretched on for over three months. With a mere four hours’ notice before banning all non-‘essential’ economic activities overnight, the Indian government imposed what has been described as one of the most stringent lockdowns worldwide. It shut down the railways, inter-state bus services, and all industrial, commercial, cultural and religious activities, bringing the economy to a standstill. In the weeks that followed this announcement, hundreds of poor migrant workers walked thousands of kilometers from major cities back to their villages, as the lockdown gutted their livelihood without providing any safety nets. Images of migrant workers traveling by foot for days forced the Indian public to acknowledge the existence and struggles of migrant workers. The pandemic has exposed the frailty of their livelihoods and brought their vulnerability into sharp focus.

The ‘gig’ economy in particular shapes the lives and livelihoods of a large migrant workforce. Gig workers working for on-demand platform services have been adversely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Cab-hailing services came to a standstill in several Indian cities as the central government imposed a nationwide lockdown for over two months, restricting people’s movements. Food delivery and home-based services were deemed ‘essential’ services and continued to operate during the lockdown. However, migrant workers received little support from the platform companies as well as the government. Despite the overwhelming presence of migrants in the workforce, discussions of the so-called ‘platform economy’ have rarely focused on their vulnerabilities.

Neither here nor there

In 2000, Omer (all names are pseudonyms) migrated to Hyderabad from a village in the neighbouring Nagarkurnool district. He worked as a cab driver for a travel agency in the city. After working in the city for five years, he brought his wife and children to live with him. When Uber and Ola launched in Hyderabad in 2014, he became a ‘driver partner’ providing on-demand cab services. The nationwide lockdown since March 2020 gutted his livelihood, as movement was severely restricted. The burden of rent and living expenses in the absence of his regular income forced Omer to return to his village in Nagarkurnool district. He weighed his earning potential as a cab driver against the risk of being infected and chose to leave the city.

However, the choice to leave the city did not exist for all. Mani, a cab driver now based in Chennai, had moved to the city 10 years ago from a neighbouring town, Ranipet, to find employment as a driver. Before joining Ola, he worked as a night shift driver for an IT company in the city. In the wake of the pandemic and lockdown, he avoided returning to his hometown fearing the wrath of lenders he owed money to. He had taken out a loan while he could still work over 10 hours a day. Lenders in towns such as Ranipet are known to visit the homes of borrowers and harass them in the presence of family and neighbours. Fearing public humiliation, Mani decided to stay in Chennai. Similarly, Jagan, another driver in Hyderabad, also chose not to return to his village which was just 80kms from the city. He explained that only those who owned land could afford to return to the village. Without any land or house, he had nothing to go back to.

Jagan and Mani were unable to earn their livelihood during the lockdown. Fuel prices were a major concern for workers in cab-hailing services as well as food delivery. Within three months of the lockdown, the price of petrol was increased by about Rs. 14 (approx. $0.19). Far from accounting for this rise in fuel prices, on-demand platforms reduced the per kilometer rates for workers. For instance, Swiggy, a popular on-demand food delivery company, brought down the per-kilometer rate for its delivery executives from Rs. 35 (approx. $0.48) per delivery to Rs.15 (approx. $0.21). Since the lockdown in March, platform workers have staged repeated strikes, protesting against the plummeting rates, suspension of incentives and demanding extension of moratorium on loan repayments.

Those who were unable to return to their hometown or village had to find alternate sources of income to continue to sustain their families’ basic needs. Both Jagan and Mani began working as contract labour in nearby construction sites.

For Omer, who returned to his village, things were not great either. A couple of months after his return, he was still on the lookout for a job while occasionally driving a tractor or lorry. Having lived in the city for close to two decades, returning to his village had not been easy. Besides the struggle to find gainful employment, adjusting to rural life had been a challenge:

I am 40 years old – the chances of me getting a job is negative… my situation has become like ‘Dhobi ka kutta na ghar ka na ghat ka’ [I belong neither here nor there] – Omer

Migrant Workers in a Gig Economy

Even though the above narratives of migrant workers are specific to the challenges presented by COVID-19, the labour and livelihood outcomes are a result of structural conditions long preceding the pandemic’s outbreak.

Reports suggest that a significant proportion of platform workers in Indian cities are migrants who moved there in search of employment. While the exact magnitude of migrants engaged in digital platforms is hard to discern, our interviews with trade union leaders and migrant platform workers indicated that intra-state migrants from neighboring peri-urban and rural districts constitute a large part of the platform workforce. Dharmendra, who heads Indian Delivery Lions—a union of food delivery partners in Jaipur – pointed out that as rural India remains starved of adequate livelihood opportunities, people are pushed to the city in search of greener pastures. Even for those engaged in farm activities, seasonal unemployment is a recurrent phenomenon. This is amplified by the deteriorating climatic conditions, which further pushes seasonal agrarian workers into the urban informal sector. Thus, rural agrarian workers facing seasonal unemployment engage in digital labour markets as a short-term adaptive strategy.

In terms of demographic profiles, recent migrants to the city, especially those hailing from a different state, and younger migrants typically opt to work in the food delivery sectorSuch financial constraints also impact migrant workers engaged with ride-hailing apps, as they are less likely to own a car. Owning a bike (for food delivery) is far less expensive than owning a car (for transportation services), which incurs more expenses and leads to a higher debt burden and longer repayment commitments. Instead, they usually drive leased cars from the on-demand service companies, or are employed at a fixed wage by car-owners who have attached themselves to Ola or Uber. In both these arrangements, migrant gig workers are under pressure to pay a fixed daily fee (for the lease) or meet the car-owners’ targets. Hence, they do not enjoy much, if any, agency over their time or work.

Migrant workers who are already in cities tend to transition to on-demand gig work. For migrant workers like Mani and Omer, on-demand work with its lucrative incentives and promise of flexibility presented an appealing alternative to their under-paying jobs that hardly met their needs. Migrant workers are economically more vulnerable; most of their earnings go into paying rent and repaying debt while barely managing their living expenses or sending remittances back home. Vinay Sarathy, the President of Food Delivery Partners Struggle Committee, pointed out that “many migrant bachelors live together cramped up in a single room, to save on rent and send more remittance to cope with financial hardship back home.” Such struggles, unique to migrants, often remain invisible.

“Landlords are not accommodative, security is an issue. Everything is so much more expensive. Schooling, for instance, is costly. In the village, Rs. 3000 ($41 approx) is sufficient for school fees, but in the city, it is not less than Rs. 8000 ($109 approx). Rent is a major concern too. 80% of income goes on rent and school fees. Only the remaining can be for daily expenditure”.    – Omer, a gig worker in the transportation sector

The lack of social institutions to support migrant gig workers in the city and the government’s failure to provide long-due welfare measures frequently leave them on the city’s fringes.

Against such a backdrop, the platforms’ lucrative income stream fulfilled migrant workers’ basic desire to secure a stable livelihood. So much so that even migrant workers like Mani and Jagan, who were previously engaged in salaried driving jobs, switched to platforms, tempted by the prospect of improved earnings. The chance to be a ‘partner’ with the ‘flexibility’ to decide one’s work timings made platforms an appealing alternative to low-waged precarious work in the unorganised sector, where migrant workers are generally employed.

While the initial motivation to join platforms resulted from the expectation of better income, improved working conditions, and the perceived social standing of being attached to a company, these aspirations remain unfulfilled. Inadvertently, migrant workers’ movement towards on-demand work ensured a steady supply of gig workers for on-demand service companies, which consolidated their presence in the service sector. After successfully capturing the market, companies started slashing incentives for all workers. Such impunity and indifference wielded by platforms, in large part, can be attributed to the guaranteed supply of migrant workers. The acute vulnerability of being unemployed compels distressed rural migrants from nearby districts and suburbs to take up any job, regardless of how exploitative it may be. This latent supply of migrant workers gives platform companies the leverage to arbitrarily depress incentives, extract larger commissions, and even dismiss workers. Migrant workers thus become the de-facto “reserve army of labour” for on-demand companies.

Comply or quit?

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown, migrant gig worker’s livelihoods have been reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence, foregrounding the fatal overlap between the two axes of vulnerability: migration and gig work.

Historically, migrant workers have been concentrated in occupations characterised by precarity and informal work arrangements without fixed-pay or binding contracts. Workers who transitioned to on-demand platforms were motivated by the promise of better conditions of work and pay. The initial appeal led them to view platforms as a dignified alternative to their profession. Many were also lured by the notion of independence and flexibility afforded by the platform. To be one’s boss and not be answerable to anyone was unheard of and a welcome change to the subservience that most workers had grudgingly internalized as a professional prerequisite. However, contrary to the big claims and initial promises, platforms began to  replicate work arrangements in the informal sector. The result is that workers are rarely provided fair wages, social security, or paid leave. There is no meaningful choice for them to exercise, as they are effectively left with two alternatives—comply or quit.

Trapped between exploitative working conditions and being unemployed, workers lack any real negotiating power. Even as gig workers across the country continue to protest for better work conditions, platforms remain indifferent, assured of the guaranteed labour supply. As summarized by Dharmendra, “the agenda of the platforms presently is to recruit new workers – they have already begun advertising for jobs even amidst the pandemic, as incidents of protests keep rising! We’re expecting that they’ll fire old workers (engaged in protests) and recruit those who are presently unemployed”.

Kaarika Das is Research Scholar at NIEPA and Srravya C is researcher in the Humanizing Automation project at IIIT Bangalore. This work was produced as a part of their research with the Centre for Internet and Society, India.

We would like to thank Ambika Tandon, Aayush Rathi and Kaveri Medappa for their inputs and feedback at various stages of this research. We are grateful for the support from the Internet Society Foundation to the Centre for Internet and Society, India (CIS), which made this research possible. A full report on migration and the gig economy in India is forthcoming on CIS’s website. 

Image credit: Firos nv on Unsplash