1. In gig economy, ‘lesser pay is better than no pay’
Blinkit workers who went on strike resume work after holding out for barely a week; for many gig workers, reduced earnings over the years is a lived reality.
Unsure of the weekly payment they might draw after the management rolled out a new earnings system last month, Blinkit workers went on strike in parts of Delhi and the National Capital Region on April 11. But with no earnings, little savings and no alternative options to fall back on, they resumed work after holding out for barely a week.
“One would wonder why we joined back despite this pay cut. The answer is simple: lesser pay is better than no pay,” said Gyani Jailsingh, a 32-year-old Blinkit delivery worker and one of those who spearheaded the protests.
On April 1, the aggregator platform had changed the payment system from ₹32 per order within a 2-km radius to ₹15. “This cut was accompanied by a deduction in the incentives as well, which has left us with barely anything after paying ₹300-₹350 every day for petrol and diesel,” said Mr. Jailsingh. Earlier, an average Blinkit delivery executive, on completing 150 orders a week, would earn ₹6,000; now they earn ₹3,600 for the same target.
Lack of alternatives
While Blinkit did not respond when asked for a comment, the predicament faced by its workers is symptomatic of a larger malaise across the gig economy. Across multiple grocery, food delivery and beauty/wellness platforms, workers are being forced to join back due to the lack of alternatives and politico-legal support, said Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary, Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT).
Bikram Singh, among those who had to troop back to work at Blinkit, said most riders like him joined food and grocery delivery platforms “because they gave us the opportunity to optimise our earnings by working for more number of hours”. For others such as 27-year-old Ram Lal, it was a useful recourse after a DU degree didn’t land him any other job.
But it has been a case of diminishing returns on effort for many. “Instead of promotion, we get demotions,” said Geeta Devi, 27, who works for an in-home services aggregator and used to earn ₹35,000 monthly as a beautician when she first came from U.P. four years ago but struggles to make ₹30,000 a month now.
Mr. Lal’s earnings have dwindled from ₹40,000 a month three years ago to barely ₹30,000.
Mr. Bikram Singh will wait to see what his monthly earnings amount to since he resumed work on April 18; for now, it’s time for the next ride.
2. A good divorce
Irretrievable breakdown of marriage should be a ground for divorce
Not all marriages are happy, and not all divorces are unhappy. For those who want to opt out of a bad marriage, Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on divorce will be seen as a good move. Leaning on the “guiding spirit” of Article 142(1) of the Constitution to do “complete justice” in any “cause or matter”, a Constitution Bench said it could use this extraordinary discretionary power to grant divorce by mutual consent to couples trapped in bitter marriages. It also aims to spare couples the “agony and misery” of waiting six to 18 months for a local court to annul it, as stipulated under Section 13B of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. The Bench, headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, observed that the law of divorce, built predominantly on assigning fault, fails to serve broken marriages. It pointed out that if a marriage is wrecked beyond hope, public interest lies in recognising this fact, not upholding a ‘married’ status regardless. The Court said it could use Article 142 to quash pending criminal or legal proceedings, be it over domestic violence or dowry, against the man or woman. Continuing in this strain, the Bench said the Supreme Court could grant divorce on the grounds of an “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” if the “separation is inevitable and the damage is irreparable”. Under the Hindu Marriage Act, irretrievable breakdown of marriage is not yet a ground for divorce.
In its judgment, there was a word of caution that the grant of divorce would not be a “matter of right, but a discretion which is to be exercised with great care… keeping in mind that ‘complete justice’ is done to both parties.” Several factors would be considered by the Supreme Court before invoking Article 142 in matrimonial cases, including duration of marriage, period of litigation, the time the couple has stayed apart, the nature of pending cases, and attempts at reconciliation. The Court will have to be satisfied that the mutual agreement to divorce was not under coercion. In India, while divorcees have doubled in number over the past two decades, the incidence of divorce is still at 1.1%, with those in urban areas making up the largest proportion. But the divorce numbers do not tell the whole story; there are many women, particularly among the poor, who are abandoned or deserted. Census 2011 revealed that the population which is “separated” is almost triple the divorced number. In a country which is largely poor, where gender discrimination is rife and many women are still not financially independent, the Court’s stress on “care and caution” and not to rush into a quick divorce must be welcomed. After all, marriage equality is not a reality for all.
3. In ‘India as Eden’ offer, the apple of diluted labour laws
Anand P. Krishnan is a Fellow at the Centre for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi National Capital Region, and a Visiting Associate Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi
In addition to being the starting point of the possible onset of another scorching summer, the month of April also witnessed two important happenings that are tied to the country’s avowed economic-industrial transformation, demanding our attention. The first was the passage of a piece of legislation in the Tamil Nadu Assembly that amended the Factory Act of 1948, to extend the number of working hours in a day, from eight hours to 12 hours. A similar piece of legislation was passed in the Karnataka Assembly, a few months ago. However, in his address during May Day celebrations in Chennai, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin, announced the withdrawal of the legislation. This announcement comes on the back of the temporary hold on further action on the Bill by the Tamil Nadu government, after strong opposition; this includes the State government’s alliance partners and trade unions.
Changes in laws, no social dialogue
The eight-hour working day, adopted by the International Labour Organization in 1919, is a hard won right by workers and trade unions, who have had to struggle over the years to keep capricious policy changes at bay. While appreciating the action initiated by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, the passage, in the first place, of these pieces of legislation (which has justifiably led to anger and outcry among trade unions and labour support groups) clearly signals the intent of governments to house investments by transnational corporations (through their supply chains), by ramping up capacities and provisioning incentives. As a matter of fact, these legislative changes could trace their legacy to the four labour codes passed by the central government in 2019-20, which, in turn, have weakened the labour protection architecture, lowered thresholds and squeezed collective bargaining, thereby effectively curtailing their actual operability.
The key missing component in all these changes in the labour ecosystem is social dialogue. Not only are sustained processes of consultations with workers being short-circuited or ignored altogether, but these are also being considered anathema by almost all ruling dispensations irrespective of political persuasions. Remaining deterministic and sound proofed to entertaining contrarian views and differences of opinion, the top-down approach of governance often puts the cart before the horse. In doing so, it prioritises a favourable investment climate over the well-being of workers.
The second development in April that was widely publicised with much fanfare, was of Apple’s opening of its first two retail stores in India, in Mumbai and then Delhi in the presence of the Apple CEO who was in India for the events. This follows his statement last year, expressing bullishness about the brand’s business prospects in India, which was lapped up and trumpeted as a sign of India being well and truly in the race to run parallel with China, if not completely eclipse it in the long run. However, cutting through the hype, what is left unsaid is how Apple, and by extension, other transnational corporations too, thrives by tantalising a race between India and China. Through its suppliers, it incentivises this artificial competition, even while retaining the flexibility to operate across contending geographies and feeding on consumers’ tastes, who view the possession of its devices as a status symbol.
Mainland China as template
The two happenings in April may seem separate, but from a labour-centric perspective, it is only rational to spot the connection. Already, under its ‘Make in India initiative’ and later with the Production Linked Incentives scheme, the central government aims to turn the country into a manufacturing hub, like China. In this larger design, the electronics industry has received top priority and, within it, Apple (entwined with Foxconn as the main supplier) has come to be considered, the gold standard. In line with this, the central government has been working in close coordination with various State governments, including Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, to work out common strategies to capitalise on the company’s diversification plans away from China. For years, Foxconn has had a stable base in Tamil Nadu (encouraging other Taiwanese companies in other sectors as well). As a part of its corporate social responsibility obligations, it has even reciprocated by making massive financial contributions to the State government’s educational initiatives. Such coordination and a mobilising of efforts by governments resembles the symbiotic relationship between Apple-Foxconn and the Chinese Communist Party-state.
The growing indivisibility of time (with reference to the economist Guy Standing), as marked by these legislative changes, is also illustrative of the ubiquitous nature of the production-management systems and labour regime implemented in Apple-Foxconn across geographies. The dormitory labour regime as practised in Mainland China (which in effect looks to be recreated in India) blurs the socio-spatial boundaries between work and life. In such a highly regimented, constantly disciplining, just-in-time production system that demands orderliness and standardisation from workers, the human costs of the squeeze are not only physical but also mental and emotional. Ultimately, viewed from a labour-centric perspective, in the ambition to overtake China, we end up, more or less, as being another China.
In the prioritisation of a favourable investment climate to compete with China, there are clear signs of a scant regard for the well-being and the rights of India’s workers
4. Why are Blinkit workers protesting?
At risk: A Blinket delivery agent on his way to deliver groceries in New Delhi in 2022. File Photo
How did the strikes start? What is ‘platform work’? Do the new Labour Codes protect the rights of gig workers? Does the Code on Social Security, 2020 differentiate between employee and gig worker? Have there been petitions in courts to legally recognise gig work and workers?
The story so far:
The recent strike by Zomato-owned Blinkit delivery agents has once again brought to the forefront issues plaguing the gig economy in the country. The strikes began when Blinkit rolled out its new payout structure for delivery executives, under which the minimum payout per delivery was slashed to ₹15 from ₹25. As a result, Blinkit delivery executives are now set to earn ₹600-700 a day as opposed to ₹1,200 before.
Who is a ‘gig worker’?
Gig workers refer to workers outside of the traditional employer-employee relationship. There are two groups of gig workers — platform workers, and non-platform workers. When gig workers use online algorithmic matching platforms or apps to connect with customers, they are called platform workers. Those who work outside of these platforms are non-platform workers, including construction workers and non-technology-based temporary workers.
Whether gig workers should be categorised as ‘employees’ or as ‘independent contractors’ has been a heated debate. In India, employees are entitled to a host of benefits under statutes such as the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, Employees’ Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 (EPFA), and the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965. Similarly, contract labourers are governed under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 and are also entitled to benefits such as provident funds. However, given the unique nature of gig work, gig workers display characteristics of both employees and independent contractors and thus do not squarely fit into any rigid categorisation. As a result, gig workers have limited recognition under current employment laws and thus fall outside the ambit of statutory benefits.
What is the proposed law?
The Ministry of Labour and Employment introduced the Code on Social Security, 2020 which brings gig workers within the ambit of labour laws for the first time.
Under section 2(35) of the Code, a ‘gig worker’ is defined as ‘a person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of a traditional employer-employee relationship’. The Code defines platform work as ‘a work arrangement outside of a traditional employer-employee relationship in which organisations or individuals use an online platform to access other organisations or individuals to solve specific problems or to provide specific services” in exchange for payment. Although the Code recognises ‘gig workers’, it distinguishes between such workers and employees. While employees have benefits such as gratuity, employee compensation, insurance, provident fund, and maternity benefits, the Code stipulates that Central and State governments must frame suitable social security schemes for gig workers on matters relating to health and maternity benefits, provident funds and accident benefits among others.
The Code also mandates the compulsory registration of all gig workers and platform workers to avail of the benefits under these schemes.
What are some of the concerns?
Out of the four new labour codes proposed, gig work finds reference only in the Code on Social Security. As a result, gig workers remain excluded from vital benefits and protections offered by other Codes such as minimum wage, occupational safety etc. They also cannot create legally recognised unions. Moreover, they remain excluded from accessing the specialised redressal mechanism under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, denying them an effective remedy for grievances against their employers. Considering the non-traditional nature of their work, gig workers also do not have the right to collective bargaining — a fundamental principle of modern labour law crucial to safeguard the rights of workers.
A 2022 report by Fairwork India, an international research project, highlighted the deplorable working conditions of the employees of digital labour platforms in India and the need for statutory affirmation of the rights of gig workers. Despite receiving the assent of the President, the Labour Codes are still awaiting implementation three years on. The Centre has said that this is due to the delay in framing of rules by the States.
Have the courts intervened?
On September 20, 2021, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT) filed a public interest litigation on behalf of gig workers before the Supreme Court. The petition demanded that gig workers or platform workers be declared as ‘unorganised workers’ so that they can come under the purview of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 (UWSS Act) and be provided with statutory protection in the form of social security benefits. It has been contended that the exclusion of gig workers from the category of ‘unorganised workers’ or ‘wage workers’ under Sections 2(m) and 2(n) of the UWSS Act is violating their fundamental rights under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. Further, it has been argued that such denial of social benefits amounts to exploitation through forced labour, within the meaning of Article 23.
Although the Supreme Court sought the Centre’s response to this petition back in December 2021, the Centre has not yet responded.
The Blinkit strikes began when the company rolled out its new payout structure for delivery executives, under which the minimum payout per delivery was slashed to ₹15 from ₹25.
Gig workers refer to workers outside of the traditional employer-employee relationship. Whether gig workers should be categorised as ‘employees’ or as ‘independent contractors’ has been a heated debate.
A 2022 report by Fairwork India, an international research project, highlighted the deplorable working conditions of the employees of digital labour platforms in India and the need for statutory affirmation of the rights of gig workers.
5. Nine years after ban, coal mining to resume in Meghalaya, says CM Sangma
Coal mining in Meghalaya, banned since April 2014, is likely to be resumed legally by July. At an election rally on May 1, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma said the Centre had approved mining leases for four persons, thus paving the way for scientific mining in the State.
An April 24 letter from the Ministry of Coal to the Secretary of Meghalaya’s Mining and Geology department said mining leases had been approved for Nehlang Lyngdoh, Maksing Sibren Nongbri, Thomas Nongtdu, and Wenni Diengngan in the Khliehriat, Kalagaw, Byndihati and Nongstoin coal blocks.
“The National People’s Party-led government has been working tirelessly to open up mining in our State. We filed a case in 2019 after which the Supreme Court lifted the ban on mining by the National Green Tribunal (NGT),” Mr. Sangma said during his party’s rally in the State’s Sohiong constituency.
The election to the Sohiong Assembly seat was postponed after the death of the United Democratic Party candidate H.D.R. Lyngdoh ahead of the February 27 poll.
Six candidates, including the NPP’s Samlin Malngiang, are in the fray for the election on May 10.
“Our government is now processing the papers for scientific mining to start within 60 days,” the Chief Minister said.
Ban on mining
Despite the ban on rat-hole coal mining, the fossil fuel has been extracted and transported illegally for years in Meghalaya.
More than a fortnight ago, the High Court of Meghalaya had declined to exonerate the State government from complicity in the export of illegally mined coal to Bangladesh.